In Need of Mercy

Then it happened that as Jesus was reclining at the table in the house, behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and were dining with Jesus and His disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to His disciples, “Why is your Teacher eating with the tax collectors and sinners?” But when Jesus heard this, He said, “It is not those who are healthy who need a physician, but those who are sick. “But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice,’ for I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” Matt. 9:10-13

Have you ever thought about how the Pharisees of Jesus’ day became the way they were? Do you ever think there was a time when faith in God was more than just a religious code that they set out to perfect? I’ve thought about that this week because I don’t want to ever allow myself to go there. It’s clear that these Pharisees thought it was ridiculous that Jesus spent time with these known sinners, yet spent little time with them, the creme de la creme of the religious world. If Jesus came to your town, would you expect him to stop at the biggest church first or perhaps the church that saw itself as the most spiritual? Who exactly do we think we are?

This attitude is what Jesus was trying to warn these Pharisees about in this passage. The Pharisees had made a science of righteousness, ceremonial and legalistic righteousness, that is. As Jesus told them at another time, you legalistically tithe on even the spices and herbs from your garden, but you neglect justice and loving God. How can this be? So, Jesus tells them to look into something God said through  the prophet Hosea, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.”

I’m certain this was not a pleasant thing for these Pharisees to hear, though it was very needful. These tax collectors and sinners knew that they were in need of the mercy of God. The Pharisees believed themselves to be deserving of the attention of God. Can you see the extreme danger that is found in this attitude? And can you, like me, see the need to continually crucify in ourselves this attitude of self-righteousness?

God’s desire is to grant mercy. Those who recognize their desperate need for God are the ones in whom God will do His work. (By the way, ALL of us fit into this category, but we don’t all recognize it) God isn’t interested in our “sacrifice,” or our religious offerings. God isn’t interested in how well we can perform rites and rituals. God isn’t interested in how well we can keep the rules. I’m certain He desires obedience from His children, but obedience is not the entrance into His Kingdom. Only through God’s mercy can we enter the Kingdom.

Jesus made it even clearer when He said that He did not come to call the righteous, but sinners. So, was He saying that the Pharisees were righteous already? Not at all. He meant that He had not come to call those who were righteous in their own opinion or in the opinion of the public. This is what Jesus was teaching about in Matthew 6 when he encouraged private devotion rather than public and condemned hypocrisy. Instead of coming to call those who already think themselves righteous, Jesus came to call those who think of themselves as sinners. It reminds me of the parable Jesus told in Luke 18 where the man who was justified prayed, “Have mercy on me, the sinner.” This is the contrite and repentant attitude of a person whom Jesus will call to Himself. May God keep us from ever thinking ourselves deserving attention more than needing mercy.

D. Courtney Hill

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Private Prayer

“But you, when you pray, go into your inner room, close your door and pray to your Father who is in secret…” Matthew 6:6

I’ve been thinking and meditating on this thought this week and I’ve come to the conclusion that times of private prayer are vital to a Christian’s life and work. I realize that perhaps I just made the most obvious statement of all, but I would ask you to bear with me for a moment in thinking about this…

I’ve read where Jonathan Edwards was trained as a young boy to spend time in prayer and to do it according to a rigid schedule. There is even a certain amount of pleasure that can be derived from being able to keep a religious code or schedule, and he shares in his writings that he felt this way. But I’ve also read where Edwards later realized that his time of genuine, private prayer decreased over time until it had become almost nonexistent. The conclusion that he reached is that genuine prayer is driven by an authentic love for God, to know Him and draw near to Him, and not merely as a means to feel better about myself, to ask for needs to be met, or even to find answers to questions to share with other believers as a teaching, like in preparation for a sermon or a lesson. God is not a means to an end, but He is the ultimate goal.

So, what if my time of private prayer diminishes to almost nothing? I would say that this is a dangerous sign and should be taken very seriously. Saying public prayers or publicly participating in prayer is not the same as private prayer. Jesus pointed out in Matthew 6 above that public prayers, while good and valuable, do not necessarily reflect the inward spiritual condition of a person. People may offer many grand prayers filled with colorful words and phrases and continue on and on, sounding beautifully, but their hearts may be far from the Lord. Public prayers, therefore, are no true barometer for a person’s spiritual well-being. As Jesus pointed out through the first 18 verses of Matt. 6, hypocrisy is a very real problem among religious people, and God hates it. But if a person is praying privately, who is their audience? Hypocrites don’t pray privately because they have no person to impress standing nearby.

So, for this reason, Jesus points to private prayer. Now, as I stated above, Edwards was taught to engage in private prayer and he did it methodically and meticulously. Though he found great pleasure in his religious conquests, he later found private prayers diminishing and he even realized at some time later that he never truly knew the Lord to begin with, though he found God to be inescapable. If you study his life, you’ll see that he didn’t believe himself to be truly regenerated until after he was pastor of his first church, which ended after a short tenure. It was at this point that he began to spend time in private prayer purely for the purpose of communing with God. This is what I believe Jesus is referring to throughout the early part of the sermon on the mount. He wants authenticity in us. Private prayers are more likely to be authentic, which is why Jesus tells to go alone into our inner room.

If you look at Matthew 6:1-18, you’ll see Jesus addressing this same thought and desiring to help people distinguish between empty religious practice and genuine, God-inspired actions. Whether doing good deeds, giving money to the poor, saying prayers, or even fasting, the main idea is presented up in verse 1: Beware of practicing your righteousness before men to be noticed by them; otherwise you have no reward with your Father who is in heaven.”

So, this is the question: do you ever go to the Father with no agenda other than simply seeking His face and enjoying His presence? Do you ever just go to Him to be with Him? The Westminster Shorter Catechism is a tool that many Puritans used with their children to teach and train. The first question and answer in that catechism says, “What is the chief end of man?” The answer to be given is this: “The chief end of man is to glorify God and to enjoy Him for eternity.” Do you enjoy God as you commune with God in prayer? That is the key that I’m speaking about here, and it is at the heart of what I think Jesus is teaching in that text. So, what are the benefits of spending time in this kind of prayer?

1. Communion with God- there is nothing better. You want and need time with the Father for YOU. If you grew up in a large family, there may not have always been time for every child to be one on one with the Father, but that is not so in God’s family. I think the only reason why any genuine believer thinks they don’t need this is because they’ve not really experienced it. Why do you want to go to heaven? To be with the Lord. Who is our greatest prize? He is our prize. Heaven is a bonus. Eternal life is a bonus. No sin, sickness, pain, and death is a fringe benefit. He IS OUR TREASURE! So, let’s spend time treasuring Him!

2. You need for God to work on YOU before you can work on others. (I’m guilty of this my friends, I have to confess) What do we have to offer to others in our own strength and wisdom? Nothing. Even if we have some great teaching that is very scriptural, if we don’t have God’s timing, God’s power, or God’s working in us and through us, nothing will be accomplished.

Along this line, I’ve come to realize this more and more as I get older and as I grow in faith (I’m sure many here already know this), we are sufficient in Christ for every good work- whatever He may want of us and require of us, we can do it. But apart from Him we can do nothing. (Jesus told us this) I see this every time I open the Scriptures and begin to share with people. If God doesn’t cause that word or that teaching to come alive within these people, I can do nothing. What amazes me at times is that God will have me teach something, from a particular verse, about a particular idea, and everyone may look at me like I’m nuts, but one comes up afterward and says, “Thanks, that’s exactly what I needed to hear.” Sometimes you don’t get that kind of confirmation (most of the time you don’t, actually) but believe this- when you’re being obedient in what you share, God’s Word will not return to Him void.

3. The power to live, the power to obey, the power to resist temptation, the discernment of the Spirit, the wisdom to speak the right words or do the right thing, these all come from God. Can we expect to be found faithful if we haven’t spent time with the Father? (by the way, we’re spending time with God, praying to the Father in the power of the Spirit in the authority of the Son.)

I’ve recently had a bit of a struggle of my own in this area. It has been a cause of concern for me in my own walk with the Lord, but I’ve been inspired by the Lord to come to Him seeking only Him and I’ve found a greater sense of peace with God than I’ve had before. It’s this idea of treasuring the Lord, praying for no other purpose than to commune with the Lord, and reading the Word only to know Him more. That may seem an easy thing to you, and I truly hope it is, but for me it’s not always easy. I hope these words encourage you today.

D. Courtney Hill