Is Mercy the Same As Justification?
By Jonathan Mitchell
The Parable of the Pharisee and the Publican
In Luke 18, Jesus gave a parable about folks who trust in their own righteousness, and despise others (vs. 9).
10. "Two men walked up into the Temple courts to think or speak goodness (or: to pray). The one [was] a Pharisee, and the different (or: other), a tax collector (or: a tribute or customs contractor).
11. "The Pharisee, while standing, began praying these things to himself: 'O God, I continue giving thanks to You that I am not even as the rest of mankind – extortionists, unjust folks, adulterers – or even as this tax collector!
12. "'I habitually fast twice a week; I continually tithe (give the tenth of) everything – as much as I continue acquiring.'
13. "But the tax collector (or: tribute contractor), standing far off (= remaining at a distance, in the background), continued unwilling even to lift up his eyes to heaven (or: unto the atmosphere or sky) – and in contrast kept on beating (striking) his chest, repeatedly saying, 'O God, at your mercy seat let me, the failure (the one who has missed the goal; the sinner; the outcast), be sheltered in propitiation, and may You be favorably inclined to me!'
14. "I am now saying to you folks, this man walked down into his home being one having been rightwised (placed in right relationship within the Way pointed out), rather than that one, because everyone [who is] constantly lifting himself up (exalting himself) will be brought low and humbled. Yet the person habitually humbling himself and placing himself in a low position will be lifted up and exalted."
I took my subtitle from the KJV which terms the tax collector/contractor a "publican." In this story, we have a comparison to two types of people, both of whom come to speak of their own perception of goodness, in praying to God. Both come to the right place, the holiest place of their shared religion – the temple courts. Both pray to the same God. But the contents and the results of their prayers are quite different.
The Pharisee typifies the outwardly religious person. The tax collector (a despised position in that time and culture; a social outcast) represents the person who humbly sees himself as he is and asks for mercy from God. He recognizes his low position as a social/religious outcast and asks for God's favor and shelter over his sinful condition and outcast occupation.
Now the religious person is full of thanksgiving that he is not like other folks. But this displays his "us” and “them" attitude which has no place for solidarity with sinners and outcasts. We are told in vs. 9 that he despised such folks. He saw himself as part of the "elect," the "chosen" who were above the masses. He was faithful in his religious works – he would have made a good church member. Jesus classes such folks as those who exalt themselves.
The publican (also seen as a traitor, for he worked for the occupying country – Rome) had no good works and did not even seek to change his condition or occupation. He simply asked for mercy, and went home. His beating of his chest showed the emotion and sincerity of a contrite heart. He came as close as he could to God's mercy seat (the cover of the ark, in the holy of holies – also God's throne among His people), and sought shelter and mercy from God. He humbled himself and assumed a low position by standing in the background. His whole attention was on his relationship with God.
Jesus said that the tax collector received his petition for mercy: He went home rightwised (turned in the right direction) and place in the Way pointed out – what the KJV calls "justified." So my question is, does mercy (the publican's request) equate to "justification" (being rightwised and placed in the Way)? When God justifies us does this mean that He affirms solidarity with us through His mercy, by placing us in the Way (Jesus said, "I am the Way") and turning us into the path of Life? I think that the answer is "Yes." There were no claims put upon this man, and he returned to his way of life. All he did was ask for mercy and shelter from God. God considered him to be free from guilt, fair, equitable and in right relationship with Him, and with others (other aspects of "justification"). It was his attitude of heart and humility.
Jesus further equates being "justified" as being "lifted up and exalted." All this from a request for mercy. What a picture of our Father! We are not told anything about the results from the Pharisee's prayer, except that there awaited a time of humbling for him. That "us” and “them" dichotomy must be taken away. That religious superiority must be erased. The religious person must come to see his solidarity with all of humanity, for the work of the cross of Christ made "one new humanity" (Eph. 2:15).
Mercy/Justification are God's gift through grace, the recognition of His solidarity with the tragic situation of estranged mankind. He came and entered into our situation, taking the form of a servant, in order to lift us up and give His mercy and love to us.
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