(un)worthy chapter three: have mercy on me, a sinner

Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.

Luke 18:14

Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.

Luke 18:10-14

In the Gospel of Luke, this parable of Jesus is recorded about a Pharisee and a Tax Collector. The story is focused on the difference between the prayer of the Pharisee and the prayer of the Tax Collector. The Pharisee’s prayer is one of gratitude, which is normally a good thing. But in this particular prayer, the Pharisee is thankful that he is not a sinner like everyone else. He is not guilty of cheating, or committing adultery. He thanks God for not being like the tax collector!

The Tax Collector’s prayer is different. The Tax Collector, filled with sorrow, begs God for mercy. He prays for God’s forgiveness because he knows he is a sinner. His prayer flows from a heart that is humble. The prayer of the Pharisee is filled with pride and self-righteousness. The Tax Collector’s prayer demonstrates that he considers himself unworthy of God’s acceptance. He acknowledges his need for God’s mercy.

Jesus approved of one prayer and not the other. He approved of the prayers of those who humbled themselves before God. He said that those, like the Pharisee, who claim to have no sin, are not justified before God. They are not approved. They are rejected.

Note that the approval of Jesus is not dependant on the deeds of either person. He refers to one person as a Pharisee to show that his deeds are quite righteous. Pharisees were blameless according to the standards of Mosaic laws. They practiced religion better than anyone. But the things they lacked were humility and a desire for mercy. They wanted to earn their way into the kingdom of God.

He refers to the other person as a Tax Collector. Tax Collectors were known to be corrupt and unlawful. They stole, they were dishonest, and they were corrupt. They were considered impure based on their vocation alone, and the expectation was that none of them could be trusted.

The judgment of Jesus in this parable did not depend on the actions of the men, but on their own view of themselves and of God. One was proud, and one was humble. One wanted the mercy of God, and one thought he didn’t need it. One knew he was a sinner, and the other thanked God that he wasn’t a sinner.

The impact of faith in Jesus is that we will begin to see our own need for the mercy of God. We will daily thank God for His goodness to us. True humility and gratitude will follow and lead to a life filled with compassion and mercy towards others.

Imagine which of the two men in the parable you would be able to depend on when you are in need. When you are at your lowest point, which of the two would you want to comfort you—a proud and self-righteous Pharisee or a humble and repentant Tax Collector? There is another, very familiar parable, told by Jesus about a man left to die on the side of the road.

A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion. He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him. (Luke 10:30–34)

The one who would end up helping this man was one who did not consider himself “too righteous” to help. He was a Samaritan, viewed by Jews as impure. The ones who passed by without helping were the ones who could not imagine defiling themselves by touching someone so close to death. They viewed themselves as pure, and they didn’t want to compromise their own holiness.

If you have a proud heart and live a life of legalistic obedience, you are not living in obedience to Jesus. If you have a humble heart and understand that none of your actions can make you righteous, you have begun to understand what it means to obey Jesus. The life of obedience to Jesus is a life of daily dependence on Him for your righteousness; a continuous gratitude for the mercy of God. Out of a humble and repentant heart will flow actions of mercy and selflessness. But, out of a proud and self-righteous heart will flow actions of impatience and selfishness.

The previous chapter was about how John the Baptist considered himself unworthy to be the slave of Jesus. His faith was approved by Jesus. John the Baptist had a right view of himself. He viewed himself as unable to bring up the scale.
The Tax Collector in this parable had the same view. But in that passage, we saw that his view of himself, a sinner, prompted him to ask for mercy. Our view of ourselves as worthless does not end there—it leads to a humble request for mercy. And when we ask, it will be given. The parable ends with Jesus explaining that the one who humbled himself was exalted. The one who considered himself a sinner was justified.

Faith in Jesus not only means having a healthy view of our need for mercy. It also means receiving from God a new identity and a new standard of value. We are not worthless. In God’s eyes, we are worth saving. We have value because God says we have value.

To be considered worthy of Jesus is to be aware of our unworthiness of God’s mercy. But it is also recognizing that God gives his mercy freely to those who depend on Jesus. It is seeing the beauty of His mercy and living a life that shows how much we treasure His mercy. It is living with a new identity in Christ, and an identity that cannot be tarnished.
Knowing and receiving God’s mercy is the first step towards living a life worthy of the Gospel. Out of the free gift of righteousness given to us by God, we have a new reason for living. We live to demonstrate the infinite value of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

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