Asking for Forgiveness

Rebecca Sheridan
Sunday, October 23, 2022
Luke 18:9-14

    So, who would you rather be, the Pharisee or the tax collector in this story Jesus tells us today?  Do you really want to be like the tax collector?  First of all, if we start out by saying, “God, I thank you that I am not like the Pharisee in that story…” well, we’ve placed ourselves right back in the Pharisee’s shoes, haven’t we?  Jesus is a good story teller like that; he convicts us with this parable!  In addition, tax collectors in Jesus’ time were considered traitors – collaborators with the Roman government, the enemy.  They took advantage of already economically stressed-out folks, overcharging them for their own advantage, betraying their own people.  It was truly a miserable job, worse than working for the IRS today by far!  The tax collector has good reason to be sorry before God and ask for mercy.  In any other situation other than this short parable Jesus tells here, you would NOT want to be a tax collector.
    The Pharisees in Jesus’ stories often get a bad rap, but they were not bad people!  It’s not bad to fast or to give ten percent of your income charitably; we’d encourage it, in fact.  It’s not wrong to try to be a good, moral person and follow the commandments.  The apostle Paul was a Pharisee, in fact.  This particular Pharisee’s misstep is thinking that prayer is about showing off to others or even to God; that striving to live faithfully is about getting something out of God in return so that God ought to be indebted to him, the Pharisee, rather than the other way around.  Our relationship with God is not transactional!  Faith is not some kind of spiritual competition where we are comparing ourselves to others to win some limited prize reserved for some – the Pharisee doesn’t seem to understand this.  His prayer is shallow and dishonest.
    Jesus tells this parable to help us trust God rather than ourselves and to regard others with compassion and love, not with contempt, Luke tells us.  Probably, if we think about who we’re more like, the Pharisee or the tax collector in this story, we discover that we’re a mix of both.  Sometimes we get a little too prideful in what a great job we’re doing, satisfied with our goodness as upstanding citizens in our community to the point of comparing ourselves to others, saying privately, “Thank GOD I’m not like that guy over there!”  And sometimes, we have a hard time seeing any good within ourselves – we are humbled and brought to our knees, maybe even ashamed, to ask God for mercy and others for help.  We get down on ourselves and forget that we are children of God, that Christ lives in us!
     I hear Jesus asking us to be real today about who we are; a mishmash of both saint and sinner as Lutherans like to describe humanity.  The Pharisee in his prayer is not being real with God.  He hides any faults he has and only wants to talk about how great he is.  And I wonder what the tax collector does next when he goes home?  Can he receive the forgiveness Jesus has assured him of?  Does he keep on with his job as a tax collector? What difference does this prayer encounter with God in the temple make for both the Pharisee and the tax collector? What difference does prayer make for us?
    Prayer is real conversation with God where we can be completely honest with God, and God in turn reminds us of who we are, helping us become more like who God created us to be!  We are on a journey, none of us have “arrived” as the Pharisee thinks.  So far as we’ve been thinking about different aspects of prayer this month, we’ve remembered to pray for others, to ask for healing, to give thanks, and to pray regularly.  Prayer can be as simple as “help, thanks, wow!” as author Anne Lamott reminded us.  Today, we’re focusing on the “help” part of prayer.  The tax collector encourages us to be OK with asking for God’s help; with asking for forgiveness.  The way the church has traditionally talked about this type of prayer that the tax collector demonstrates for us is “repentance.”  Repentance simply means turning back to God and going a different direction; turning toward God and away from things that do not encourage and enhance our faith.  Repentance is asking for God’s help to make things right in our lives in a way that only God can.
    The prayer that the tax collector prays may seem familiar by now if you’ve been paying attention to Luke’s gospel, because others in Luke’s gospel pray something similar:  parents of children who are demon-possessed or have epilepsy.  Blind beggars on the road.  The rich man in Hades.  The ten lepers who ask Jesus for healing.  The criminal on the cross next to Jesus when they are crucified.  “God, be merciful to me, a sinner,” they say, or something to that effect.  These are people who know they need Jesus.  They turn back to Christ to seek his help, his healing, and his salvation.  But for the rich man in Hades in Luke 16, Jesus assures them of God’s mercy and salvation.
Christians have a long tradition of praying what is called the Jesus prayer from these verses in the gospel.  Since the desert monastics in the 300s, this prayer has been used as a breath prayer or contemplative, meditative prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”  The idea is that you pray this sentence over and over for ten minutes to as long as half an hour, saying it out loud or silently, breathing in and out, to calm the mind and focus on Christ and God’s will.  It’s a different way of praying than many of us are used to.  The sentence reminds us of our need for God, rather than starting with a laundry list of requests or worse, like the Pharisee in this example, a list of our accolades and accomplishments for which God ought to be grateful.  The Jesus Prayer is easy to remember. It uses words we can say when we’re not sure what to say to God in prayer.  They are words of repentance.  The next step, after this Jesus prayer, after asking Jesus for mercy, is to receive and know God’s forgiveness and mercy.  We cannot forgive others if we can’t forgive ourselves.  God is able to heal us powerfully through the message of forgiveness.  This is why Jesus came in the first place – to show us God’s mercy and forgiveness through his death and resurrection, saying even in his final moments, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”
“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”  Whether we’re feeling more like the tax collector or the Pharisee that Jesus describes here, we can pray this prayer to get back into a right relationship with God.  In a spirit of humility with this prayer, we humble ourselves to remember all God has done for us and not the other way around!  Then let’s be strengthened by Christ’s forgiveness of our sins so that we can go and serve others, sharing God’s love in Christ.  Thanks be to God!  Amen.