+ ‘God be merciful to me a sinner’
‘Jesus told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: two men went up to the temple to pray…’ It’s a simple story, the Pharisee and the tax collector, but it tells a great truth. Humility. Who you are is reflected in how you pray. It is reflected in how you act. It is also reflected in how you die.
Liz Truss said last week when under pressure in the Commons at Prime Minister’s Questions, ‘I’m a fighter, not a quitter’. We know what happened next but it reminded me of today’s epistle where Paul, as he prepared to die, wrote to his young disciple Timothy ‘I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith’. In politics similar phrases to ‘I’m a fighter, not a quitter’ have been used just before their departure from office by Richard Nixon, Iain Duncan Smith, Theresa May and David Cameron. It was also used by Peter Mandelson when he was re-elected as an MP in 2001 seeing off a challenge by Arthur Scargill. Paul, however, was not at the end or middle of his political life but at the end of his bodily life, ‘I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith’.
Death reveals the person, it is the fire that reveals the nature of the metal. I have seen this recently. Death comes in different ways and good people sometimes die terrible deaths. Saints can suffer anguish. But, even when facing a public judicial execution like Paul, some can still look back and say ‘I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith’. But that is not enough. Humility is truth. It literally means being close to the soil, to the humus, to reality. Paul is not like the Pharisee in Jesus’ parable, recalling all his good deeds and comparing himself favourably to others, ‘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.’
If you read Paul’s letters you see an impetuous, emotional man who overcame his passions in the midst of an active life. He wrote ‘three times I was beaten with rods. Once I received a stoning. Three times I was shipwrecked; for a night and a day I was adrift at sea’, but in the midst of this his letters show a strong sense of sin, of awareness of his limitations. In a previous letter to Timothy he says he is the ‘chief of sinners’. Paul, in reality, prayed with the tax collector ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner’. Awareness of sin is not about saying you are rubbish, it is about recognising your dependence on God. Humility is truth, it literally means being close to the soil, close to reality.
Now, how do you do this, how do you do what Jesus tells to do in this parable? How do you make humility your inward reality which is reflected in your outward reality? Notice what the tax collector does with his body, he stands far off, doesn’t even look up to heaven, and beating his breast. His body expresses his heart, and what you do with your body can actually educate your heart. That is why in Church we kneel, stand, cross ourselves, sit to listen, and put our hands out for the sacrament. This is our Anglican tradition, mixed with a very Anglican sense that you don’t have to make these bodily gestures, but it is basically Christian. Some Christians makes the sign of the cross, some raise their hands in praise (this service has opportunities for both of those), some do both but in all cases we are commanded to glorify God in your body because Jesus loved our bodies so much as to live and die in one.
The body is important but it is our outwardness. How do you do what Jesus tells to do in this parable on the inside, in your heart? These are difficult times. British politics are in crisis, we are closer to nuclear war than any time since the Cuban missile crisis, a dictator is firing cruise missiles against civilians, malign autocracies control much of the globe, we are speeding towards a climate disaster that is already increasing floods and famine, in our own society, after the pandemic we are heading towards a winter when many can’t afford food and fuel. The four horsemen of the Apocalypse have been set loose upon the land.
As Christians what do we do? There are direct responses of love and resistance but the most powerful weapon in our armoury is prayer. Prayer is not just asking for things. At a deeper level it is uniting your heart with the love of God that you may cooperate with God’s mercy towards this world as it heads towards the pit of destruction. Stephen’s just saying pious words. No, it’s practical. Imitate the tax collector. Just go to a quiet place and say ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner’. Use any similar words, like the famous Jesus prayer ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner’. You might just say ‘Lord have mercy on us’. If you do this, just for a few minutes a day, you will be transformed and the world around you will be transformed.
Who you are is reflected in how you pray. How you pray is reflected in how you act. It is also reflected in how you die. Give it a go, it is the best way to serve the world, the best way to prepare for death, and the best support for the trials of life. Try it now, ‘Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner’.