Oh my sins! Have you ever felt a sentiment like this? Such a consciousness of your inadequacy before God that not just the words out of your mouth, but even–at long last–the justifications coming out of it are stopped? I hope so, because that’s the only way to be made right through Christ–by coming to a point in our self-awareness that we correctly see our spiritual insufficiency.
“The tax collector stood off at a distance and did not think he was good enough even to look up toward heaven. He was so sorry for what he had done that he pounded his chest and prayed, ‘God, have pity on me! I am such a sinner.'” (Luke 18:13 CEV)
Being an IRS agent is a perfectly acceptable career in our culture, but first century Jewish tax collectors were collaborators with the occupying Roman government and extortionists–the epitome of a sinner; that’s why Jesus chose one for His parable. Yet the irony is that we don’t have to have done anything “bad” to recognize our true condition. We might have; it might be a particularly onerous transgression that scares us into our senses and finally humbles us–but it doesn’t have to be. The point is that we desperately need to come to a recognition of who we really are before God–and it isn’t pretty.
You see, the human condition is one of pride; we naturally think highly of ourselves. Even those of us who are more balanced in our self-evaluation tend to become defensive about the value of our accomplishments and contributions, and can get quite bent out of shape when others don’t recognize them.
But that’s just it. Those things you’re so proud of–the ones you feel define you and make you particularly valuable as a human being–they can never make you holy. It isn’t that we can’t ever do anything that’s good–we can and do. Human beings can do amazing things! It’s just that from the perspective of who God is–from the vantage point of pure and unapproachable holiness–what is any of that?!
Listen to St. Paul’s own admission:
He goes through a litany of his human lineage and accomplishments, then says, “But Christ has shown me that what I once thought was valuable is worthless. Nothing is as wonderful as knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. I have given up everything else and count it all as garbage. All I want is Christ and to know that I belong to him. I could not make myself acceptable to God by obeying the Law of Moses [by doing something about it myself]. God accepted me simply because of my faith in Christ. All I want is to know Christ and the power that raised him to life. I want to suffer and die as he did, so that somehow I also may be raised to life.” (Philippians 3:7-11 CEV)
What we feel defines us and gives us value as people is absolutely useless and ineffective in its capacity to justify us before God–to undo the effect of the unholiness and sin we live and breath before Him each day. Older translations call it filthy rags; it’s garbage, ashes, filth, that which is completely dirty, valueless and meaningless–they are not sufficient credentials to allow us access to the unapproachable holiness of God.
So, how can we approach God? And why is it so important to feel our spiritual impoverishment before Him so acutely? It is so vitally important that we recognize our true standing before God apart from what Jesus Christ did for us on the cross because–as today’s verse shows–God forgives and accepts us through Him when we acknowledge our true condition–when we stop trying to get Him to accept us on our own merit.
Look at the contrasting prayer from the religious man, the Pharisee:
“The Pharisee stood over by himself and prayed, “God, I thank you that I am not greedy, dishonest, and unfaithful in marriage like other people. And I am really glad that I am not like that tax collector over there. I go without eating for two days a week, and I give you one tenth of all I earn.”” (Luke 18:11-12 CEV)
Maybe this man really was what he said he was–maybe he tried his best to not be greedy or dishonest, maybe he remained faithful to his wife; maybe he gave every bit of what the Old Testament Law mandated as an offering. That’s not the point; the point is that he thought doing these things made him acceptable to God–he failed to recognize his spiritually impoverished condition. And the point Jesus was making is that no matter how great your guilt, God can and does forgive when you acknowledge it–rather than deny or try to hide it–and humble yourself before Him.
So, how big are your sins? No matter how little or few, without the perfect holiness of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, attributed to us through faith, they are enough to separate you eternally from Him! But–“How great is God’s love for all who worship him? Greater than the distance between heaven and earth! How far has the Lord taken our sins from us? Farther than the distance from east to west!” (Psalms 103:11-12 CEV)
Dear Lord God,
Have pity on me, not because of anything I am or have done, but because of Jesus Christ. Thank You for Him! Amen.