Steve Peterson, Saulk Rapids, MN

Warm-up Question

Has there been a time in your life when you longed for someone, or God, to have a little mercy on you?  

Lord Have Mercy

Sometimes we experience a tension in life.  We want to see ourselves in a position of superiority, thinking of ourselves as better than “other kinds of people”.  But we also feel a pull toward humility and a stance of shared humanity with all people.  Resentment may come into play.  We are tempted to dehumanize those we resent, maybe even punish them. We think ourselves justified in considering them “less than.” We want to punish them because of behavior we see as unacceptable.  Perhaps we simply put “bad people” out of our consciousness, relegating them to permanent insignificance and inferiority.  We do this as individuals and as a society.

For example, in a September 27 article in Scientific American  Sara Novak writes that 

dementia in prison is turning into an epidemic.  The number of older inmates has increased 200% in the last 20 years and will make up a third of the prison population in a decade.  Many of these older inmates will develop dementia, which makes them difficult to care for and more vulnerable to victimization in a number of ways.   

Prison staff often are ill-trained and equipped, or simply not inclined, to provide humane and appropriate care.  Only a small number of prisons are experimenting with humane and caring ways to address this need.  One way to address this growing crisis is compassionate release, sometimes called “geriatric parole” but this option is very much underutilized.    

Prison is a place where human beings live, yet it may be hard for us to look at a prison and the people who live there in that way.  Mass incarceration in the United States seems to indicate we want to lock up the people we consider bad and forget about them.  Even when some are released, we may permanently label theless than human beings who deserve to be given every opportunity to thrive.  Maybe we as a society could be a little more just and merciful in our approach to incarceration, rehabilitation, and end of life compassion for those in prison.

Discussion Questions

  • We all have a tendency to think of  certain persons or kinds of people as less than fully human.   Are there people or groups of people whom you see being treated this way?
  • What can you and people you know do to humanize people relegated to a lesser status and treated as less than God’s precious children?

Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost

Jeremiah 14:7-10, 19-22

2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18

Luke 18:9-14

(Text links are to Oremus Bible Browser. Oremus Bible Browser is not affiliated with or supported by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. You can find the calendar of readings for Year C at Lectionary Readings.)

For lectionary humor and insight, check the weekly comic Agnus Day.

Gospel Reflection

What I like about Jesus’ story of the Pharisee and the tax collector is that it gives me the chance to feel superior.   I may not be the best God follower, but at least I am a much better prayer than the Pharisee!  I am much better in my humility than he is. Or, at least now that I know that is what Jesus wants, I can try to be better than the Pharisee, so Jesus will approve of me more.  You see what I am doing here, right?  This story so easily becomes a trap for us.  

In feeling superior to the Pharisee who feels superior, we ourselves are like him..  We miss what Jesus really wants us to get out of this story, that God loves everyone. Everyone.  And that love is never dependent on how good we manage to be.  We share a common humanity; each of us is a treasure of God’s creation, even as we struggle to live as God intends,  in ways that are most life-giving for ourselves and others.   God loves us all, all the time, even when our behavior is less than we or God would wish.  God is full of grace and mercy and wants us to know the joy of being bathed in God’s love, no matter what.

Americana singer-songwriter Mary Gauthier in her book, Saved By A Song, The Art and Healing of Songwriting, writes about the process she went through in writing “A Little Mercy Now.”  It started out as a song about her father, as he lay fragile at the end of his troubled life, and ended up also being a song about her troubled brother and all people and a whole world in need of mercy.  A few lines from Mary Gauthier’s song “A Little Mercy Now”:

My father could use a little mercy now
The fruits of his labor fall and rot slowly on the ground
His work is almost over it won’t be long, he won’t be around
I love my father, he could use some mercy now

My brother could use a little mercy now
He’s a stranger to freedom, he’s shackled to his fear and his doubt
The pain that he lives in it’s almost more than living will allow
I love my brother, he could use a little mercy now

My church and my country could use a little mercy now…
Every living thing could use a little mercy now…
Yeah, we all could use a little mercy now
I know we don’t deserve it but we need it anyhow

And every single one of us could use a little mercy now…

In writing about how this song came to be created, Gauthier remembers an encounter with her AA sponsor.  She describes sharing with him her anger in response to a record label that was not treating her in a way she felt like she deserved to be treated.  Her sponsor’s response was to laugh and say with a smile in his voice, “Given some of the behaviors you’ve exhibited in your life, you should thank God each and every day for NOT getting what you truly deserve.”

That is true for us all.  It’s Jesus’s point in this story about the Pharisee and the tax collector.  What good news!  God’s mercy is big enough for us all.  May we embrace that relief and joy for ourselves and for all of humanity!

Discussion Questions

  • Do you ever feel superior to others?  Do you every feel like you are at least not as bad as that person, those kinds of people?  Do you every thank God for that?  If so, how do you feel about that in light of this story about the Pharisee and the tax collector?
  • Are there times you would like to put limits on God’s mercy?  What would those limits be?
  • How does it make you feel to know that God looks upon you and all people with grace and mercy?  That God places no limits on God’s grace and mercy?

Activity Suggestions

  • Make a list of people or situations in need of God’s mercy, trying to be as broad and deep in your list as you think God might be in light of this story told by Jesus.  Talk about this list with someone else.   Pray this list, imagining each of these people and situations bathed in the light and warmth of God’s mercy, God’s unbounded love.
  • Now make a list of all the ways you are unworthy of God’s love.  Pray this prayer, “Jesus Christ, have mercy on me”.  Prayer it over and over with your breathing.  Feel God’s merciful response of mercy and love deep in your bones.

Closing Prayer

Gracious God, we thank you for your love and mercy for each one of us, for all of us.   Please give us the humility and courage to see ourselves and others honestly, warts and all, and then to see ourselves and others as you see us, with spectacular and unlimited favor and delight.  Help us to trust that this is true and to live humbly and boldly in your love.    Amen.