Many of us look back and feel guilty about something we said or did in the past. If only we could undo the cruel deed, we would un-say the harsh words. But, unfortunately, that is often not possible. What are we to do? Jesus tells us a story about how one man dealt with his sense of shame. He went to the temple and stood in some dark corner with his head down and said, “O God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”
Another man was in the temple that day. He seemed to be totally different; his prayer was a litany of praise. Not to God, but to himself. Had he never done or said anything of which he was ashamed? If he had, he certainly managed to keep it hidden. That is another way of dealing with shame. We can bury it so deeply that no eyes can see it, not even our own.
If you have a sense of shame, be glad of it. It is one sure sign of your humanity, animals do not have this. We have what is called “conscience” it speaks to us about the things we say or do. Sometimes it blames us, sometimes it affirms us. When our conscience says, shame on you, pay attention it may be an opportunity to become a better person.
This sense of shame is something we should be glad for. If we never feel it, chances are that we are excusing ourselves for some things that are inexcusable. I think that was what the Pharisee in our story was doing; he was not a monster, at least not the kind who committed crimes that would land him in jail. But he was a phony; he pretended goodness and separated himself from the human family.
And what was worse, it also separated him from God. When we are honest and admit our faults and failures, then we are getting real. It puts us on good terms with God; He cannot forgive what we refuse to admit. Listen to what Jesus says about the sinner. This man went home from the temple justified. The barriers had been swept away; he and God were right with one another.
God had accepted him just the way He was. Have you ever tried to have a close relationship with someone who lies? You never will, because you never get a straight look at the real person. They are always hiding behind a mask. You cannot get close to a person like that. Nor can God, because they never get honest, never get real. The tax collector did that, he was ashamed of himself and dared to say so right in the presence of God.
The Pharisee was not willing to do that; his pride would not allow it. So he put on his good-boy mask and kept on pretending. The result was that one went home from the temple justified and the other man just went home. He did not realize that. Prayer is not so much about trying to change God’s mind or heart. It is all about changing us and that is why the Pharisee’s prayer is so meaningless.
There is nothing in his life to change. No room for the concerns of others, there are no empty places to be filled up. The tax collector, sinful man that he was, had no illusion about himself. He recognized his failures and prayed for forgiveness. In his truthful, humble, God-centered and life-changing manner of praying. The tax collector continues to be our teacher and our guide.
A young Indian boy, nicknamed Ike, was small for his age. Shy and overlooked by the other boys in the day to day life of the tribe. Here was one way to gain respect from the other boys. And that was to stand up to the great bear. The bear lived deep in the forest and was rarely seen. But often heard, huge food prints. It was said that if you stood close to the great bear, you would become brave, become a man. So little Ike took his gun and his compass into the forest.
He is frightened and fascinated at the prospect of facing the great bear. He stayed in the forest days at a time following the bear’s tracks; but never finding the bear. Then one day after spending nights in the forest, he woke and stood up and stretched. Then he felt it, first the forest was silent, no bird or animal sounds, no wind; only silence, he stood still. He knew that the bear was close by; he knew that the bear was looking at him.
He had no idea if he was in front of him or behind, or how close he was. So he just stands still, the useless gun at his side and the taste of fear in his mouth. Then, abruptly, it is over with a roar and the crashing of bushes. He heard the bear leave and the boy turns to leave the forest disappointed. He was so close; the bear did not want to show himself, he would never be a man.
Back at the village, Ike sat with the wise man and told him his story. And the wise man told him, “Go back to the forest, but leave your gun and your compass. Leave behind all instruments of direction.” The next day Ike set off and went further into the forest than ever before. On the second day, while he was eating he looked up and saw the bear. It just appeared simply out of nowhere.
It was huge, strangely, little Ike was not afraid. He stood up and stretched out his arms showing the great creature that he had no gun. The bear stood on his hind legs and let out a great roar. Then fell on all fours and turned passing into the forest. As he left, he turned and gave one last look at Ike. Ike stood there for a while unable to move for he had been changed by the encounter.
He turned to return home excited and confident. He knew he would never be the same again. Two men went up to the temple to pray, they both sought God who had already seen them. One man had a compass and his gun. In other words, his ego and his pride the other man left it all behind. One man encountered God, the other did not. When you come to the temple to pray, do not bring your ego or pride in the presence of Christ. You do not need them. It is in Christ that we can become whole, become complete. Once in a while you may want to whisper, Lord be merciful to me a sinner.