When I hear the word, Mercy, it seems to take me back to when I was a kid and arm wrestling. As we arm wrestled, we would try and twist and turn until the other person would yell out Mercy, or sometimes it was: Uncle. Which ever word we used, the object of the game was, basically, to cause enough pain to the other person that they had to admit defeat, surrender, or give up so that you would stop hurting them. I don’t think I ever volunteered to play this game, I think it fell into the whole sibling rivalry thing, but I do remember always being the one that had to cry out – Mercy.
Mercy: is it a word of defeat? Is it a word of surrender? Is it a word of giving up, allowing the other to be the winner? Yes and No. In the childhood game of arm wrestling, to call out mercy is to say, I give up, but it is also to say, you win and please stop hurting me. Please stop doing what you are doing. Please stop having power over me. Please stop being the dominate one. From Wikipedia, the definition is: compassion or forgiveness shown toward someone whom it is within one's power to punish or harm. So in arm wrestling, the stronger person is in a position of power over the other and can cause harm, but is willing to have compassion on the other when he/she admits defeat.
So, when we think of the word, there are at least two opposing sides: one has power and the other does not. One can punish or cause harm, the other will receive the punishment or harm. Mercy can be asked for by the weaker or it can be given by the stronger. Please have mercy upon me, or with compassion he had mercy on the other.
Parents have to pick and choose when to punish children and when it is a time to show mercy. There does need to be consequences for behaviors and punishment can help teach a child how to make better choices in the future. If we lean on the side of mercy all the time, our children might learn that they can always get away with bad behavior and then we will really have our hands full as they get older. Reading through the variety of definitions for mercy, it does involve taking a lenient form of punishment rather than a harsher form of punishment.
What does mercy mean to you? Often, in church, we seem to use mercy, grace, forgiveness, and compassion as synonyms. I will often begin a prayer especially the prayer of confession with Merciful God. Merciful God: in these two words, we are naming God as having power over us and we are asking for compassionate treatment or forgiveness over us. Another definition I saw mentions not just having power over the other but being in the position of care over the other. When we think of God and mercy, we could be saying that God has power over us, but we could also be saying, God, we are under your care.
So, turning to our scripture passage today, I was originally going to focus on the ways in which we can pray since this is a parable of two people praying. But the question formed for me – what is the tax collector praying for? He is asking for one thing. His prayer is calling out to God asking for mercy, asking the one that has power and care over him to be compassionate and forgiving with him.
This past Monday night, one of our small groups met and the discussion question was: What do you long for in your life, what do you long God will do for you in your life? Have there been things that you long for? Things that you have turned to God in prayer and asked for? We can long for marriage, or children, or grandchildren, or getting into our top choice college, or getting a job, we can long for getting the lead role in the play, or our sports team to win the top level of play, or making the Olympics. Oh, I longed for this for so many years of my life. We can long for things, goals, achievements, relationships, healing, and we can pray to God to make these things a reality.
In this parable there are two people praying, but only one is naming something that he longs for in his life, he longs for God to show him mercy. The other man is praying, but he seems to long for nothing. He names all of his accomplishments, all the things he has done right, he is good at following the rules, but there is an absence of longing, an absence of asking God to do something in his life. This absence is magnified when he points out the faults found in others and is grateful that he is not like them.
What do you long for God to do in your life? Do you long for God’s mercy? Do you long to be shown compassion and forgiveness by God? Do you think of yourself as someone needing forgiveness? The tax collector was in deep pain, he felt wounded at the very core of his being, and he cried out to God for help, for healing and wholeness. What burden do we carry? Perhaps it is shame, or guilt, or a form of addiction, or greed. Perhaps we have a short temper or find ourselves closed minded or unable to adapt to the changing world. Could these be places that cause spiritual pain within our beings? Could these be issues or concerns that we could turn to God in prayer, seeking guidance, help, comfort, seeking healing and wholeness, could we ask God to continue to shape us into the people that we know we can be?
The tax collector did not feel fulfilled. He had a great job but something was not complete and so he turned to God, naming what he felt he needed spiritually, he needed God’s mercy. He needed God’s care over him. He was acknowledging that he was a child of God and as God’s child, he needed the parent, the creator, the mentor, the one that had power over him, to be involved in his life. There is a song called: Humble thyself in the sight of the Lord. As I worked through this text, this song come to mind over and over. Humbly thyself in the sight of the Lord, and he, and he, will lift you up, higher and higher, and he and he will lift you up.