The Mercy We Need

By Kayla Peterson

I’m falling more and more in love with the Gospels. They are the account of our God walking the earth, living out His radical love for us. He showed it in small moments when He healed lepers and welcomed children; He showed it in big moments like Calvary, and He showed it in every moment in between.

Yes, the purpose of Jesus coming to the Earth was to die for our sins. But the purpose of Jesus dying for our sins was to bring us into unmerited fellowship with the Father. So as we read the Gospels, we read the story of God’s radical pursuit of sinners through His Son. As we study the life Jesus lived here on Earth, we see the character of God displayed in the daily actions of our Savior. When we see these things for ourselves, we can say along with John, “we have seen His glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.” We can look at Jesus in awe, seeing and savoring our Savior, and say, “behold, this is our God!”

The parable Jesus tells in Luke 18 is a beautiful depiction of the truth of God’s heart for sinners. When I read Jesus’ words here, my eyes are opened to the beauty of His heart for me; His unconditional love for the undeserving.

Luke tells us in verse nine that Jesus was telling this parable “to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt.” So Jesus’ immediate, intended audience here are the self-righteous Pharisees listening to His teaching. The scope of this message, however, broadens out to anyone who is trusting in their own works to justify them before God.

Two men are depicted in this parable: A Pharisee and a tax collector, both going to the temple to pray (see verse 10).

Both of these men apparently went to pray, but the motives of their heart could not be more opposed to each other.

The Pharisee goes and stands “by himself”; the insinuation here is that he wanted to stand out and be seen. His prayer went like this:

“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.” (v. 11-12)

I think we could all agree that this prayer wasn’t really prayed to God as much as it was broadcasted for men. In addition, I doubt this Pharisee’s heart was one of true thankfulness to God for justification. True thankfulness to God is produced after true righteousness is imputed to the sinner. And righteousness cannot be imputed to a prideful heart who denies his own sin.

If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”

-1 John 1:8-9

Self-righteousness is always a form of deception from the enemy; just another one of his tactics to keep us from knowing the true heart of God. But this self-focused form of religion is the most humiliating kind of lie, because it causes us to base our worthiness to stand before God on a foundation of pride—which God hates more than any other sin. Proverbs warns us that “everyone who is arrogant in heart is an abomination to the Lord…” (Pr. 16:5). James echos this truth by saying that “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6).

In stark contrast to the prideful Pharisee, a repentant tax collector stands a little farther away from the temple, not daring to get too close because of his keen awareness of his own sin. We know how this man saw himself—he wasn’t blinded to his sin like the Pharisee, but instead “would not even lift his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner’” (v. 13).

This is the process of God drawing sinners to Himself. His holiness reveals the ugliness of sin to the sinner, but His mercy meets them in their sin and reveals the beauty of grace to those who will receive it.

God’s mercy reached out from the innermost parts of the Temple and touched the heart of the sinner standing afar off—passing over the self-righteous Pharisee who stood much closer in physical proximity—but who, in his pride, could not have been farther from the heart of God. Luke tells us that the tax collector “went down to his house justified, rather than the other.”

Jesus makes his point in the following statement: “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted” (v. 14).

When we read this passage, we should ask ourselves, where is the center of my Christianity? Is it reliant on my own faltering works, which are filthy rags before God, or is it resting in the perfectly sufficient work of Christ on our behalf?

The second question that needs to be asked is, what is our heart towards fellow sinners? Do we love to show mercy as our God does? Or do we cast judgement, echoing the words of the Pharisee, “thank God I’m not like that person.” 

My personal prayer after reading this passage is that the Lord would make me more and more aware of my need for mercy—but also more and more aware of His readiness to give it.

A line from my favorite hymn comes to mind:

“Streams of mercy, never failing, call for songs of loudest praise…”


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