Agents of Selfishness, Agents of Mercy

What do you do when you’ve hurt someone, and there’s nothing you can do about it? When there’s no way to make it right, or even to apologize? What do you do when there’s just your selfishness and your sin, sitting there on your record like a huge damning mark against you, for God and everyone to see?

It’s frustrating-there are those sins we flatter ourselves into believing are private, affecting no one but ourselves. As misguided as that conception may be, at least we can hold on to the illusion that no one else is harmed by our actions. But what about when we’ve straight up hurt someone else, with no chance of atoning for it, of fixing it? When everything in us cries out for a chance to fix the past and heal the wounds we’ve caused, and we simply can’t do it?

There is hope for us in the words of Jesus:

“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’

“But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’

A friend of mine points out that the Greek term translated “have mercy” here literally means “Lord, atone.” Webster’s defines atonement as “reparation for an offense or injury, satisfaction.” This tax collector wasn’t asking for some generic benevolence, or even simple forgiveness. He was asking for atonement. Not just that God would forgive his sin, but that God would pay for it. He was asking God to make right what he had made wrong.

A chapter later, Jesus would forgive another tax collector, and he would go on to repay all the money he had taken. There is no mention of that in this story. This makes me wonder if the reason he was asking God to pay for it was because he couldn’t. Perhaps all the money he had stolen was already gone. There were no practical steps to take here to heal those he had hurt: he was repentant, but had no recourse for restitution. Perhaps he, as we so often do, had found himself in a place of having committed an offense he could not make up for. This left him in a place where all he could do was cry out for God’s mercy.

It is to this kind of sinner that Jesus proclaims justification:

“I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

The tax collector was not justified because he was good-that ship had long since sailed. He wasn’t justified because he was getting better, even. He was justified because he asked God for mercy-and because God is merciful.

There is good news for us: when we have sinned, and we haven’t a prayer of making things right, we can trust in Jesus who took our sins on Himself. He was punished as if He had done what we did, and therefore we will not be punished. And He is sovereign; we can ask Him to heal wounds that are beyond us in real hope that He can and will. We can pray for those we’ve hurt, that one day their eyes will be among those that He wipes every tear away from. And in the truth of the Gospel, we can go on to be agents of God’s mercy, rather than agents of our own selfishness. Jesus can do this. Our part is to trust Him, the God who justifies the ungodly.

-Scripture taken from Luke 18, New International Version

  1. February 8th, 2010

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