The Good of "My Bad"

Joel 2: 23-32     Rev. Dr. Galen E. Russell III

Luke 18: 9-14   October 23, 2016

But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, “God be merciful to me, a sinner!

Prayer:  Holy One, please search us and know our hearts; please see us for who we really are. Let your Spirit come upon us so that we may know we live in your grace.  Amen.

 The phrase “My bad,” most likely started with NBA basketball star Manute Bol in the mid-80’s.  Manute was a Sudanese-born, 7 foot 7 inch player whose English wasn’t all that good.  When he made a mistake, like threw a bad pass or something, instead of saying, “My fault,” he said, “My bad.”  At first it cracked his teammates up, but then started to say it.  And after that, it caught on, and in today’s terms, it ‘went viral.’  Whenever anyone in sports says, “My bad,” it means, ‘My fault,’ or ‘I made a mistake,’ or, ‘I’m to blame.’  In baseball,  it’s even considered a kind of watered down apology—something happened; I confess, I did it; circumstances were affected, but there’s not much I can do about it now, so let’s move on.  My bad.

The parable Jesus tells features two religious men coming to the temple to pray.  One says basically “My good.” The other says “my bad.” One’s a religious legal eagle, a Jewish Pharisee devoted to following religious law and prides himself in doing that.

The other is a Jewish tax collector, employed by the Roman government, hired to levy heavy, oppressive taxes on his own already oppressed people.  He is seen as complicit with the Roman government, causing economic hardship to the Jewish people and is despised by the general population because of it.

Both men come to the temple to pray, and they both stand separately—the Pharisee because he wants to be pure and clean, not near anyone, like the tax collector, who may contaminate his purity.  He thinks that’s good religious practice.

The tax collector stands far off, too, though, not for purity reasons, but because he knew he wasn’t even worthy to look up to heaven, let alone stand close to God in the Temple, which is where it was thought one was closest to God.

Now let’s take a look at their prayers for a minute. The Pharisee’s prayer thanks God that he’s not like other sinful, impure people.  His prayer shows that he adheres to the insider/outsider type of religion—he’s on the inside, and anyone who doesn’t live up to the standards that he thinks are right; anyone who doesn’t follow the dominate laws of the day is on the outside.  His prayer actually alienates others who don’t measure up, which is all of us some of the time, right?  All people fall short of the glory of God.

The Pharisee’s prayer also shows that he thinks he has the right viewpoint on what God values and loves.  Surely God can’t love a thief, a rogue, an adulterer, even a tax collector.  He likes to think that his perceptions are the correct ones, that he is completely in God’s will, and he especially loves to think that God is on his side.

But, no one has the corner on the market of what it means to be completely capable in God’s will. No one knows completely whose side God is on, if God even picks sides.   We’d like to think that God is on our side, but I think of the famous quote by Abraham Lincoln when he said, “Sir, my concern is not whether God is on our side; my greatest concern is to be on God’s side, for God is always right”, retrieved October 21, 2016).

Last, the Phariseehypes up all the good he’s done in terms of keeping religious practices.  He basically prays “My good” when he highlights his accomplished faithfulness to religious law.  No need to ask for God’s mercy, he’s trusting that he’s already earned it, he thinks.  He lifts himself up.  He does everything right, according to the standards of the day, obeying all the religious rules.  In terms of keeping God’s commandments, he is way above average.

 The tax collector’s prayer basically says, “My bad,” to God.  “Please be merciful to me, a sinner!”  Only his ‘My bad’ is not some watered down apology.  It’s a sincere, humility-filled confession, complete with the beating of his chest.  Because he knows he hasn’t lived up to God’s

expectations.  He’s in cahoots with the Roman government after all! Heknows he’s not living, as best as he could, the kind of life God that God urges him and all of us to live… a life filled with God’s transformative Spirit, a life that doesn’t oppress others, a life that calls upon God’s name and recognizes with humility that God does the saving work, not us.

The prophet Joel says that everyone who calls on the name of God shall be saved.  In other words, it’s God’s power that saves.  It’s God who makes us righteous.  Not us.  It’s God who sanctifies us.  We can’t do that.  It’s God who justifies us and declares us worthy to receive grace.  Not us.

It takes humility to know that… to know we can’t earn God’s grace by following religious laws, by doing the right things.  Those don’t make God love us.  God already does.  When we don’t live in that love, when we don’t let that life-changing grace change us, that’s where we miss.

I’ve lamented lately that many people everywhere in our society have not lived lives reflecting God’s saving grace already offered and given to all of us.  It doesn’t take much searching through the news stories to see this.  It appears that for many, there’s a growing willingness to let the unscrupulous, ruthless, prejudicial side of our human nature take over instead of the grace-filled, blessed, love-enriched, Spirit-filled side of our human nature.  That’s where many miss the mark.

But, that’s exactly where the good of saying, “My bad” comes into play.  Saying “My bad” with humility and sincerity to God puts us on the bar of  God’s justice and grace, forgiveness and mercy knowing that God is the one who gives these gifts.

When that tax collector stands in God’s presence and offers a prayer of humility saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner,” Jesus says God takes notice.  The tax collector’s relationship with God is restored by God as he offers his prayer for mercy.

This isn’t what the hearers of the parable expect.  They’ve been taught that good behavior draws you closer to God, while bad behavior drives you away.  But, Jesus teaches something different—that God justifies, or in other words, God makes right, a relationship with a person who prays with humility. 

It is said that God hears our humble prayers, and as such we can experience much more powerfully the good and wonderful gift God has given- a restored relationship with God in our hearts and lives, God’s gifts of love, grace, mercy and forgiveness as well.  This is the good of saying ‘my bad.’

In a few moments, as we begin our prayer time, I will be teaching you a song called “Humble Thyself” by Bob Hudson.  The song is a simple call and response song.  Its words are an invitation to each of us to humble ourselves in the sight of the Lord during our prayer time.  It also sings of the hope we have when we are sincerely humble before God—God will lift us up, higher and higher.  When, we say ‘my bad’ before God with humility, God will lift us up relationship restored.  “For all who humble themselves will be exalted,” says Jesus.  It’s the good of ‘My bad.’  Amen.