Hungry for mercy: thoughts on comparison, prayer, and Luke 18

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Fear settled in like the rain clouds this week. Not a torrential downpour, but a misty trickle that has me wanting to pull blankets over my head and hide. Like a scared dog, I want to tuck my tail and slink under the couch waiting for the threat of thunder to pass.

I want to hunker down and armor up, praying God will somehow vindicate me. I play the me vs the world game.

It’s bananas. It’s unhealthy. I know it.

And it still took me about twenty-four hours to find a bigger perspective while my feelings roamed all over the place and the lies weighed in heavier and heavier.

I consulted Jesus. What I wanted was vindication.

What I needed was grace.

When we’re hurt, we self-protect — our methods often varying from person to person. I mentally fight, but physically flee and hunker down to nurse my wounds.

I use prayer as a sort of weapon when I get hurt. I don’t have to speak with people, and I draw God into me vs. the world shenanigans.

This week God spoke words I didn’t particularly want to hear.

“Let it go.”

“Focus your eyes on Jesus instead.”

Anyone else been there?

A Tale of Two Prayer Parables

Luke 18 sandwiches together two parables about prayer. First, a widow pesters a judge until he relents and grants her request. And the punch line about this whole story is this, “Will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? … And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

Widows back in this era found themselves vulnerable and out at the margins of society. And yet this nervy woman has the audacity to keep showing up before a judge who fears neither God nor human. A person who fears neither God nor people is free to care little for justice and to act out all sorts of evil. And yet, the widow, though vulnerable and weak herself, came relentlessly expecting justice. Luke doesn’t give the specifics of her request, merely her cry for justice and that she received what she requested. She, with all signs to the contrary, persisted in faith.

Jesus invites us to model her faith, trusting that if even the wicked judge could offer the woman justice, how much greater will God act on behalf of those who faithfully seek Him?

I like hanging out here with my prayer for vindication. I know better than self-righteousness, but oh, the urge to feel powerful and “better-than” sings. I want to cast myself as the widow and demand justice.

Meanwhile, Luke offers a quick follow-up to that first teaching on prayer.

For those quick to identify themselves as the poor trampled widow when they pray, “those who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt,” Jesus offered rapid correction in the form of a story. Notice here Jesus didn’t single out the Pharisees by name; the correction comes for all who would place their confidence in their own holy efforts while looking down their noses upon others. It’s a warning to both the antagonizer and the Jesus-follower.

The Pharisee, prayed and patted himself on the back. “Thank you God, I don’t steal or cheat on my spouse. Thank you God that I’m not like that tax collector standing over there. Thank you, God that I fast and tithe and follow the rules.”

The Pharisee, pleased with his own efforts and placement above the tax collector, asks for nothing and received nothing.

The other, the tax collector, couldn’t bring himself to lift his eyes, and instead found himself pleading for mercy.

Being a tax collector, a representative of the tyranny of the Roman empire, invited contempt from others, in addition to the accusations of cheating and embezzling.  We don’t actually know if this particular tax collector cheated or swindled — no details about what makes him a sinner are listed. Who knows if the tax collector heard the Pharisees words, and felt the bitter sting in his heart? Rather than verbally comparing himself to anyone else or noting his accomplishments, he fixes his attention on God and begs for mercy.

And he received it. The guy looked down upon by the “holy” and “good” Pharisee is the hero. The one described as righteous by Jesus is the tax collector, not the Pharisee. We know next to nothing about the tax collector; all we see is faith and humble recognition of himself as a sinner. He saw himself as he was and brought that self to God, regardless of what anyone else in the temple might have said about him or his “right” to be there.

The tax collector, not the Pharisee, went home justified. Instead of comparing and patting himself on the back, the tax collector saw his own brokenness. His request was for mercy, which he believed he didn’t deserve, but he had enough faith to ask anyway.

Turning Our Eyes Toward Jesus

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I want to be the tax collector and the widow. I want to be persistent in coming before God, and I want to do it with my humble gaze planted on Jesus, instead of upon the distractions which threaten to entangle.

Regardless of the noise in the courtyards beyond me, I want my eyes fixated on Jesus, instead of giving the people around me the side-eye. I hunger for more of Jesus in my life.

I want my time spent here instead of the crazy-making self-defense. I want to keep my eyes on Jesus and his mercies, instead of preoccupation with what others say about me or whether I’m better than or less than what public opinion about me says.

Life has a funny way ripping that gut knowledge of love away, and there’s always a need to rest in it over finding my identity in the stuff that make me better (or worse) than somebody else.

We find we belong only after we cease trying so hard. When we have to prove or earn it, we prevent ourselves from resting in what already is. And there’s always going to be folks who think we’re not their cups of tea; we can’t make people love or like us.

What I (and you) can do is be like the tax collector: turning our eyes humbly toward the One who offers mercy instead of turning our noses up in contempt at those who looked down their noses at us.

I hunger for mercy and grace, and it will be enough for me to hear the warm words from God, “You are still my Beloved.”

I may not feel it today. But, I feel the hope that it will be enough. That’s the breadcrumb confidence I need to carry me through today.

I don’t have to be better than to be enough.

And you don’t either, friend. Lay those burdens down with me.

It’s okay that we’re just us, that our Instagrams aren’t the artful perfections others portray, that we don’t have kids (yet), or that our kids have their own challenges which make us question our sanity and whether we’re cut out for this parenting business, that we stand (or sit) where we are in our journeys. We don’t have to have it all together to find mercy.

Today is an opportunity to cry out in faith with the tax collector and the widow, “God, have mercy.”

It’s also an opportunity to receive mercy, too. Whatever else is going on in your life, whatever struggles you’re facing, you’re not alone. You’re still loved. You still have stories and songs left to write and sing. Jesus still loves you, still has plans for you, and nobody can take that from you.

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