Live by mercy
by Isaac S. Villegas
October 27, 2013
The Pharisee stands by himself, it says, and prays; he offers words of gratitude, of thanksgiving. He’s grateful for his luck, his good fortune that he has not become a thief or villain, an adulterer or tax collector — he’s grateful that he isn’t among the scum of the earth — the wretched, social filth. He’s been taught obedience; he’s been taught how to keep himself pure, without spot or wrinkle — by his parents, by his community, by his social class. His desires are under control. He’s pure and undefiled, upright and uncontaminated by sin. He knows where he belongs and where he doesn’t. He knows where to stand, who to sit by. He’s been told, as we have, that “Bad company corrupts good character.”
So the Pharisee prays alone, it says. He stands alone, far away from the tax collector with unclean hands, defiled by handling pagan money, polluted by working for the Roman oppressors. The Pharisee stands a safe distance away from him, thanking God for the good fortune, the luck (call it grace, call it providence) that he hasn’t been led into temptation, that he has been delivered from evil, thanking God that he is not like the tax collector. “There, but by the grace of God, go I,” he says — or at least that’s how we would put it.
When we read about Pharisees, we tend to think of them as obsessed with all the wrong things — obsessed with the law, with rules and regulations. We dismiss them as legalistic — too focused on works to notice grace.
But, we’re more like him than the tax collector. I know I am, and I imagine you want me to be more like the Pharisee than the sinners he compares himself to. He prays words that you would want to be true for yourself, and for me: “God, I thank you that I am not a thief, a rogue, or an adulterer.”
You don’t want a pastor who is a thief, stealing from you, swindling you, spending church money on so-called pastor’s conferences on one of the Virgin Islands or the Bahamas. And you don’t want me to be committing adultery; that would be bad. Nor do you want me to be a rogue, a scoundrel, a villain — someone you wouldn’t want to invite over for dinner: think of Bane in Batman, Javier Bardem’s character in No Country for Old Men, Cruella de Vil from 101 Dalmatians. You wouldn’t want those people as a pastor, or as friends, as late night company, playing board games at your kitchen table, or as Sunday school teachers, playing with your kids.
You see, we think like the Pharisee. We structure our lives like the Pharisee does. We keep our social security numbers and bank account information away from thieves. We don’t trust the care of our children to scoundrels. And we guard ourselves from relationships, from desires, that would lead to adultery.
None of this is bad. It’s good.
The Pharisee is a good person, the sort of person we want around, the kind of person who makes us feel safe in our goodness, comfortable with our pious lives; he’s a safe person to invite into our lives, into our family life and the life of our community.
We like people who are models of faithfulness, who fast and pray, who practice righteous economics, who offer their money to God. They get speaking gigs at church conferences; they write books for us, edifying books, encouraging our spiritual growth.
None of this is bad. It’s good.
The Pharisee doesn’t even take credit for his goodness. Instead, he offers a prayer of thanksgiving, of gratitude: “God, I thank you that I am not like the thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.” He’s grateful for God’s gift of grace, that he’s been lucky enough to not get caught up in sin, that he’s been fortunate enough to stay on the narrow path.
He prays, like all of us, that God would “lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” And he thanks God for listening to his request, for keeping him from temptations, from evil, from the kind of life that the tax collector is stuck in. No Jew would want that job. No one would want that kind of life. Not even the tax collector wants to be a tax collector.
That’s why he stands far away from the Pharisee, at the edge of the Temple’s holy ground — that’s why he stands in the shadows, where he belongs, among the unclean, the sinners, and he beats his chest, begging for mercy. His body bends toward the ground, humbled and humiliated — that’s why he doesn’t look up. “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” That’s all he can say; that’s all he can do. He speaks the truth: that he is a sinner, and in need of mercy. Nothing else will save him. Nothing else will set him free.
This is a parable about faithfulness, about how we think of faith. That’s how the reading from Luke’s Gospel ended last week, and that’s how Meghan ended her sermon, with this verse: “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”
The parable about the Pharisee and the tax collector is an answer to that question; the parable we just heard leads us into the world of faith, of what faith looks like, and we learn that it looks like someone in need of mercy, not someone who has mastered the spiritual disciplines, not someone who fasts once a month, or once a week, not even twice a week like the Pharisee in our story. But someone who lives by mercy, who has been rejected, who stands alone, scorned because of what he’s done, because of who she’s become.
To live by mercy, that what faith is all about: to speak the truth and receive God’s mercy, to come to know yourself as forgiven, to know God as overflowing with mercy, for us, yes, and for them, for those other people, for the ones who we’ve shunned, the ones from whom we separate ourselves — the unclean, the dirty, the sinners, people who disgust us, who we wouldn’t trust with our children, who we wouldn’t trust in our homes, at our tables.
To live by mercy: to show mercy, to let it flow through you — forgiveness and grace to one another, to loved ones, our friends and enemies, even mercy for the Pharisees among us, as we look down on others, as we celebrate our goodness, our generosity and piety, and separate ourselves from the thieves and the adulterers, from the unjust who maintain our systems of oppression, of destruction.
To live by mercy: to let God’s mercy find you, as you confess, as you whisper to God unspeakable truths about yourself, and to let God’s mercy find you, and overwhelm you.
We live by mercy, because there’s a presence of forgiveness at work in us, a power of grace surrounding us, washing over us — a presence deeper in us than all that corrupts our lives, more basic to who we are than all that hurts us, more fundamental than all that tears us apart, a presence closer to us than anything else: God.