God, be merciful to me, a sinner!

Meditation on Luke 18:9-14

First Presbyterian Church of Smithtown, NY

Pastor Karen Crawford

Oct. 23, 2022

We gathered to celebrate the life of Pat Sartain yesterday and bear witness to our faith in a Risen Savior and the promise of resurrection to eternal life.

It was quite a crowd of people! And a beautiful service, filled with music, tears, and laughter, and the sharing of personal stories. We had some members and longtime friends who traveled a long distance to honor Pat and offer words of comfort to her family.

A little girl sitting in the front pew between her parents caught my attention. She is Pat’s granddaughter. She wore a wonderful yellow dress made from Grandma Pat’s plaid sash. And she was well behaved and patient, for a little girl of maybe 3 years old, who couldn’t possibly understand what most of the service was all about. And it was a long service—more than 90 minutes!

She was a little fidgety—so I gave her some chocolate, and it probably made her fidget more. One of the chocolates I gave her had a nut filling inside. She made a face and took it out of her mouth, announced that she didn’t like it, and gave it to her daddy. I couldn’t help but smile to myself.

I kept thinking of what Jesus would do. I know he would smile, too.

I remembered the time that he grew angry with the disciples for sternly ordering away the people bringing their babies to him, that he might touch them.

This story of Jesus blessing the children immediately follows today’s reading In Luke, the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. Jesus actually calls for them to come back, saying, “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.”

In our modern translations, a subheading separates the “Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector” with “Jesus Blesses Little Children,” but I am sure that Luke didn’t mean for there to be a separation. None of this was in the original Greek manuscripts. Nor was there punctuation or chapters and verses. Those divisions are all modern editorial decisions. And it’s only because of the way the lectionary divides these passages that we read them on different Sundays, as if they are not related or connected to each other.

If we read the two passages together, we would go from the lesson of the parable: “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted” to “People were bringing even infants to him that he might touch them…”

The model example of holiness for Jesus is “even infants,” who have no idea what the faith and the practice of the faith is all about; they don’t know anything about the rules or expectations. And yet, God loves them, and the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.

Jesus takes it one step further—and he’s trying to teach his faithful disciples—that unless they “receive the kingdom of God as a little child (they) will not enter it.”

What he’s talking about, if you connect the two passages, is their own arrogance, maybe not so unlike the Pharisee in the parable—keeping the children away from Jesus, as if they are not good enough or worthy enough for his time, touch, and blessing. Connecting the two passages, Christ may be saying that the children would never trust in their own efforts at righteousness. They can’t help but come just as they are to Jesus, without worry about their good works and worthiness. They would trust in God’s love and mercy for them.

Dear friends, this is the challenge of today’s reading. Our justification—our salvation—is not obtained by doing things!  And this is hard for us to accept because we are constantly focused on the things we are doing and planning our lists of things we are going to do. Some of us may be making mental lists right now of things you need to do today—and you can’t help it! This is what you and I have been taught. We are a society that values doers; people who do things and get stuff done!

Let me say it another way. Our justification—our salvation—is not achieved at all—at least not by us. Justification comes through God’s reaching out in mercy to helpless sinners like us, redeeming us through God’s own work, the sacrifice of the Son. It is a free and gracious gift to be received with joy and gratitude because we know we have done nothing to deserve it.  Just as the tax collector cries out, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ 

But the opposite can happen if we lose the proper focus for the work of ministry. We can lose our gratitude and start feeling resentful if we are pouring ourselves into the work of the church. I have seen this happen to good people, and it makes me sad. It’s hard not to look around and compare ourselves to others who might not seem to be working as much or giving of themselves at the same level we are giving. In that way, we may be tempted to be judgmental like the Pharisee in the parable.

If we begin to feel this way, there are questions we can ask ourselves to keep us on the right step in our faith journeys, such as, “Who are we doing the work for?” And, “Why are we doing it?” And, “Is it the work God is calling us to do at this time?” Because there are many good things we can be doing for God, but we cannot do every good thing. And God doesn’t want us to do every good thing we can think of doing.

We can, in our own enthusiasm to serve the Lord and the Church we love, take on too much and become overwhelmed and unhappy. The work God is calling us to do usually leads to peace, even if it makes us tired and takes us out of our comfort zone, every now and then. Does the work of ministry we are doing lead us to act in more loving and generous ways to others? Does the work we do for God lead us to feel nearer to the heart of God? Are we growing in our prayer life? Are we growing in faith?

And the comparisons can go wrong the other way, too. We might be in a season of our lives where we can’t get around as easily as we used to. We aren’t able to do the volunteering we used to do. We might not be able to get to worship every Sunday because of our health struggles—or because we are no longer driving and have to rely on others for transportation.  We might feel bad about ourselves, comparing ourselves to others – or to the level of giving and participation we used to be able to do.

This isn’t God’s will for us. For our God doesn’t condemn us for what we do or fail to do.

The Lord wants to be in loving relationship with us—and for us to love one another, too.

So, come to the Lord with a humble heart, like the tax collector. Seek God’s mercy, without looking around or comparing yourself or your life to another.

Come as you are, today, trusting not in your own righteousness, not in anything you have  done or what you plan to do, but in the righteousness that is a free gift to the humble and merciful from a gracious and loving Lord.

For you and for me and for everyone who believes.

Come like a child, knowing that Christ welcomes you into his embrace and will never shoo you away. For it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs!

Let us pray.

Holy One, thank you for all you have done for us and especially for the free gift of salvation by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. We forget sometimes that the good works we do are done with and for you and for the sake of growing your kingdom. Forgive us when we become so focused on what we are doing that we begin to rely on our own righteousness and lose our sense of gratitude for all you have done and for your love. Keep us from feelings of resentment or comparisons to others, unless we are seeking to be more like Jesus. Help us to remember your grace and mercy for sinners—and your desire to be in loving relationship with us, most of all. Teach us to humbly pray, to come to you with the trust of children, for to such as these your kingdom belongs. In Christ we pray. Amen.

Published by karenpts

I am the pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Smithtown, New York on Long Island. Come and visit! We want to share God’s love and grace with you and encourage you on your journey of faith. I have served Presbyterian congregations in Minnesota, Florida and Ohio since my ordination in 2011. I am a 2010 graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary and am working on a doctor of ministry degree with Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary. I am married to Jim and we have 5 grown children and two grandchildren in our blended family. We are parents to fur babies, Liam, an orange tabby cat, and Minnie, a toy poodle.

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