Finding Mercy (Luke 18:9-14)

Where does your confidence lie? In the government, family, friends or yourself? In this parable that Jesus tells, it is the one who puts their confidence in God rather than themselves who find true mercy!

Sermon as preached at St. Luke’s on the same day

Where do we put our confidence? I wonder particularly in the past few weeks whether we have questioned where our confidence is placed? Who or what do we trust in? With the crisis of living and the uncertainties that it feels like we face on a weekly basis in the leadership of our country, having lived through an uncertain pandemic, there are many of us that are feeling the pressures of life and might be feeling burdened and prevented from living a full life. We might even be questioning how can we thrive in this life? If we’re truthful isn’t that what we all want? To thrive not just survive?

That might seem like a bleak beginning to what I want to share with you today but bear with me, it isn’t bleak at all because the parable from Luke’s gospel  reminds us of where our confidence should be placed and how that impacts transforms and changes our lives and the lives of others. The message in this parable from Luke’s gospel is about the confidence we can have in Jesus to help us navigate life and death and life for all eternity.

It’s a really apt parable for today actually as we have welcomed Aiofe into our church family on this day of her baptism. These baptismal promises that have been taken for her are about seeking after a life where Aiofe can flourish, where sin and rebellion against God is turned away from, and a choice is made to submit to Jesus, following His way, acknowledging him as the way, the truth and the life, and living a life of faith and obedience that helps Aoife to flourish.

In John’s gospel 10:10 Jesus spoke these words – I have come to give life, and life  in all its fullness – in all its abundance. That’s what we want for Aoife, that’s what we want for each other. Jesus wants us to thrive.

My question for myself and for all of us this morning therefore is this – Where does your confidence come from in order to thrive? What do we put our trust in and how does that manifest itself in how we live, in what we might say and do.

We would like to think in an ideal world that our systems and structures, with assistance from those with expertise, can enable us to thrive. that systems are in place to allow all to be treated fairly – have the same access to healthcare, hygiene, shelter, heat and food. This can be a challenge. Particularly in current times. It is good to be reminded that No one on this earth is perfect. Leaders can come and go. They are only human. But we would like to think in an ideal world that our systems and structures, with assistance from those with expertise, can enable us to thrive. But what happens when that doesn’t happen?

Where can we put our confidence?

If we can’t always be confident in the authorities and structures that surround us, surely we can be confident in ourselves? In our own skills, our own ability to be a good person, the ability to manage our finances, to manage family life, to get an income, to be successful in our work, in volunteering and serving. These things give us joy and purpose. So Sometimes our confidence in living a full life is because of what we do. But What happens when we don’t feel successful, when we compare ourselves to others, when maybe we become ill and are no longer able to Do things we previously could. What gives us confidence then?

Structures and authorities and even our own abilities can be good things. Please don’t think that I’m saying that they are not. Not every structure is bad. In the Old Testament God put structures in place that were to help his people thrive and be right with him. And God has given each of us amazing personalities and skills unique to each of us. But what I am saying is that these things are temporary and can be far from what God intended because of the sin and brokenness of this world. That is why our confidence for a full life needs to be about who God is. And what he has done for us. 

That is the message within this parable that Jesus told.

He told this parable because there were some around him who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else (NIV), the NRSV says Jesus told it to those who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt. 

And it’s into this context Jesus tells this parable.

For some it’s a fairly well known parable – Jesus has two characters one a Pharisee

The other a tax collector.

Luke often uses a caricature image of Pharisees as a villain type – but on the whole the Pharisees genuinely wanted to live well for God. The Pharisees were a Jewish movement that emphasized the importance of obedience to the law of Moses. Living in accordance with torah was a way of making God’s benefits visible and accessible in all aspects of life for all who were Jewish. You could say it helped them thrive.

Jesus here uses The Pharisee to portray the caricature of someone who appears fairly confident in themself and disparaging of others, meaning being unkind, thinking others aren’t as worthy, showing them contempt.

You can just hear it – ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ (NIV  ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’). 

His prayer is a not so humble brag – there is no acknowledgment of his own standing before God, or that he needs anything from God. It’s a list of how great He is, what He has done – he feels comparably better off, compared to the tax collector and is praising himself rather than God.

Jesus didn’t use the parable to villify all Pharisees but to make the point that our confidence is not in what we do but in what God has done.

The bible tells us that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23) – same brush for all. Yet the Pharisee doesn’t acknowledge his sin at all. He appears only confident in his ability to go above and beyond what is normally required of a Jew in terms of fasting and tithing. Jews are required to fast only on the Day of Atonement, and here he is fasting twice a week. Jews are required to tithe only the production of their fields. But here he tithes everything. It’s As if that is how he is saved, how he can have a relationship with God, have an abundant life. By trusting in himself.

Where is the Pharisee’s confidence, his trust? It doesn’t appear to be in God’s love and forgiveness. He thinks it’s in what he can do, he thinks he is so much better than the tax collector – his prayer focuses on himself. And because he’s focussed on himself it affects his attitude towards others. Causing him to disparage them, show them contempt.

The Pharisee had confidence in his own ability to be a good person, a good believer but the tax collector has confidence in Gods mercy, it is the tax collector who acknowledges his own sin and his need for God. And it was this tax collector that Jesus says is the one made right with God

This might well have shocked Jesus’ audience – that the holy Pharisee is seen as a villain type and the tax collector who was seen as a bad egg – working in cahoots with the Romans, is the one seen as ‘right with God’

The parable is showing us, to use the words of one commentator that: ‘All kinds of people—whether publicans, Pharisees, pastors, parishioners, politicians, or perpetrators—are capable of repentance and all kinds of people – whether publicans, Pharisees, pastors, parishioners, politicians, or perpetrators – are capable of thinking less of others, showing others contempt. Those attitudes express themselves in how we view our neighbours and in whether we rely upon God to guide our daily lives.’

This parable isn’t about whether you’re a Pharisee or a tax collector. Not all Pharisees are self-righteous and looking down on others, and not all followers of Jesus are humble servants. In the bible James and John, friends of Jesus, for instance, try to guarantee themselves top billing in the kingdom – their Mum asks Jesus if they can sit in the ruling party in heaven (Matthew 20:20-28; Mark 10:35-45). 

What this parable is teaching us is that Pride and self-confidence is a trap any of us can fall into and one we should want to avoid because it can lead to having contempt for others, just as the pharisee showed contempt for the tax collector – thinking he was better.

The Message version of the bible translates Jesus’s summing up of the parable in this way – If you walk around with your nose in the air, you’re going to end up flat on your face, but if you’re content to be simply yourself, you will become more than yourself.” (Message)

When we acknowledge our need for Jesus and repent of our sin it is then that we become fully ourselves, fully who we’ve been created to be, living life in all its fullness, in all its abundance. We become more than ourselves because our confidence is not in ourselves, in our ability to be a good Christian, it is in what Jesus has done for us, and because of what he has done we can become part of his family, living under Gods rule in Gods kingdom.

The Pharisee was confident in himself, the tax collector was confident in who God is.

If we say we’re confident in who Jesus is, that we trust in him, how does that impact our every day life? And How does that help in a crisis of living? When work is scarce and financial worries are pressing?

The journey to a life of thriving can begin with that simple prayer ‘Have mercy on me a sinner’ – when we are right with God we begin the journey in a life where we can truly thrive.

Being confident in what Jesus has done for us can, should and does transform how we view the problems of this world.

Being confident in God Shifts focus off of ourselves and on to others, not showing contempt but showing love. and if they’re playing their part too it means we have others looking out for us also 

But saying Put your confidence in God can seem on the surface a really twee thing to say when bills are piling up or health is deteriorating

I have a fair few examples of how in my life having put my confidence in God – praying the prayer have mercy on me a sinner, from my baptism until now, has helped in these situations 

I remember the loan of a car, money for a holiday, exciting food parcels, the support given by our church family in many ways through my mums terminal illness, the generosity of others when I was really Ill with covid in providing meals. Yet through all of it I was confident in Gods love and mercy, having prayed have mercy on me. Knowing where I stand before God.

So even in the uncertainties of life today we can be confident in Gods mercy and forgiveness – it is not a twee answer – we can be confident of Gods goodness. Being part of Gods kingdom, his family, helps us to thrive as we are part of something bigger than ourselves and all play our part which began when we said Lord have mercy on me.

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