Coming to Terms

“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people — 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.’

“I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Luke 18:10-14)

I’ve had the honor of working with the homeless, in some capacity, for the last decade. Very often, homeless men want to pray.

When we lived in Knoxville, Rachel and I befriended a homeless man who always insisted that we pray together. He made us all hold hands as he asked God to bless us.

Recently, I’ve noticed something a little strange.

The homeless men I talk to tell me how much they hate their lives and how they want to stop drinking and put the pieces back together. But they just can’t make it happen, no matter how hard they try.

I tell them only Jesus can give them the grace and strength they need to live a life of righteousness.

I implore them to cry out to Jesus for help.

And they say, “No, I’m not going to do that.”

I ask, “Why not?”

They explain, “I only pray for other people. For women and children. I don’t pray for myself, that’s selfish.”

So I dig a little deeper and discover the truth.

These men won’t pray for themselves because they think God won’t listen to them.

Because they are worthless drunks.

Because they are sinners.

Because they’re ashamed.

I try to talk them into praying for themselves, but they refuse.

They have no problem thanking God for allowing them to wake up each morning.

But they won’t ask him for help.

Finally, I started pulling these men into my office, one at a time, and having them repeat the sinner’s prayer out loud with me. “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

It took some convincing, but they said the prayer.

Which is good, right?

I mean, according to Jesus, this sincere prayer brings justification between man and God.

The man in the passage above was a tax collector, it was his job. He didn’t come to God and say, “Father forgive me, I collected taxes today. I promise I won’t do it again.”

No, he recognized his miserable state and begged God for mercy. Then he went to work, collecting taxes and ripping people off.

One thing I’ve learned while working with the poor is this:

I’ve got to come to terms with the fact that I’m a person who sins.

No matter how much I try to convince myself otherwise, the fact remains, I’m going to sin.

Once we come to terms with this reality, we start to see people differently, especially the poor.

Our judgment turns to solidarity and compassion.

Instead of looking down on homeless alcoholics or jobless drug addicts, we stand beside them, as people who are in equal need of the gospel of grace.

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