Friday, October 17, 2014

God Be Merciful to Me a Sinner

Life of Christ 137

          Jesus and His Apostles are traveling through the remote region along the Samaria Galilee border. In just a few short days He will head east, across the Jordan River, and join the caravans of pilgrims traveling south from Galilee toward Jerusalem for the Passover.
          Our story today (Luke 18.9-14) flows out of the parable He has just told in relation to prayer. I speak of here of yesterday's story regarding the widow woman's importunate pleas to the unjust judge. Prayer, in order to be genuine prayer, must flow from a heart humbled and right before the Lord. On the other hand, prayer, or what sounds like and looks like prayer, that flows from a proud heart is not really prayer at all.
          To illustrate this, Jesus tells a story that contrasts two men who are both praying. Only one, though, is actually heard by God while the other is ignored by Him. Along the way, Christ teaches us not only this truth about prayer, but the key human lesson of the entire Bible.
          A proud Pharisee wanders into the Temple. Shepard well says in his book on the life of Christ that what he offers the Lord is not a prayer, but a soliloquy of self-congratulation. 'God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican' (Luke 18.11). This Pharisee boasts that his dedication is proven by the fact that he fasts twice a week. Fasting was only commanded on one day of the year in the Old Testament, but by Jesus' day it had become a weekly tradition. In the pharisaic mind, if once was good, then twice was better, and so it was with this particular Pharisee.
The Pharisee and the Tax Collector,
Gustave Dore, 1880
          The publican could not be contrasted in any greater way with this Pharisee. Publicans were the dregs of the Jewish world. Their honesty was so suspect that they were not allowed to testify in a court of law. They were viewed as just one small step above the unclean, the Gentiles. Such a man, constantly reminded by society on a daily basis of his own ill repute, was clearly convinced of his own sinful condition. He indicated it by his distance, his demeanor, his actions, and his words of humility. 'God, be merciful to me a sinner' (Luke 18.13).
          Clearly, God hears the humble man and not the proud one, regardless of the current condition of their life in relation to the Law. But along with this tremendous lesson Jesus makes a crystal clear statement. 'I tell you, this man went down to his house justified' (Luke 18.14). To be justified is to be legally declared innocent. It is not the same as being pardoned; it is better.
          The great question that has occupied spiritually minded for thousands of years was well voiced by Job in 2000 BC: 'How then can a man be justified with God? Or how can he be clean that is born of a woman?' (Job 25.4).
          Martin Luther, who birthed the Protestant Reformation (or, as my staunch Catholic neighbor calls it, the Protestant Revolution), and changed the course of history occupied himself with that question for years.
His initial attempt, entered into after lightning struck a tree near him, was to enter a monastery and become a monk. He found, though, once this was finally accomplished, that he still had no peace of mind in relation to his soul.
          He next attempted to become a really good monk. He succeeded, but he still had no peace for his soul.
          He was taught that if he viewed enough relics he could shave years of time off his sentence in purgatory. Robert Bainton, in his book on Luther, Here I Stand, tells us that the prince in Wittenburg took this seriously, and traveled all over Europe buying up relics. His collection was second only to what could be found in Rome.

This collection included one tooth of St. Jerome, of St. Chrysostam four pieces, of St. Bernard six, and of St. Augustine four; or Our Lady four hairs, three pieces of her cloak, four from her girdle, and seven from the veil sprinkled with the blood of Christ. The relics of Christ included one piece from his swaddling clothes, thirteen from his crib, one wisp of straw, one piece of gold brought by the Wise Men and three of the myrrh, one strand of Jesus’ beard, one of the nails driven into his hands, one piece of bread eaten at the Last Supper, one piece of the stone on which Jesus stood to ascend into heaven, and one twig of Moses’ burning bush. …calculated to reduce purgatory by 1443 years.
-Robert Bainton

          Luther taught in the seminary at Wittenburg, and viewed those relics up close and personal, yet he found no peace for his soul.
          He was told that if he traveled to Rome he would find the answers he so sorely sought. He did, and instead found only the grossest immorality and wickedness instead, and no peace for his soul.
          Finally, as a professor, he was assigned to teach the books of Romans and Galatians. As a good lifelong Catholic he, of course, had very little acquaintance with the actual Word of God. As he dug into those books he discovered a wonderful truth – that justification is by faith, not by works, or relics, or indulgences. Finally, he wrote sola, the Latin word for 'alone', in the margin of his Bible next to Romans 1.17, 'the just shall live by faith.' How does justification come? How is a man justified? How does a man live before God? By faith.
          Paul makes that painfully obvious in Romans 3. When a man finally humbles himself, and becomes overwhelmed with his own sinful condition (Romans 3.10-20) he realizes he can do nothing to obtain justification on his own, or anyone else's merits. The proper payment, 'propitiation', is the blood of Christ, and it is only through faith in the merits of Christ that justification comes. 'Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law' (Romans 3.28).
          Those silly theologians and scholars who assert that Jesus preached one gospel, of works, and that Paul preached another, of grace, have holes in their head big enough through which to drive a Mack truck.

          'God, be merciful to me a sinner.'

          'This man went down to his house justified.'

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