If you have seen the news in the last couple of weeks, you may have seen a story about one of the most fundamental human desires. That desire is acceptance. The story involves very wealthy parents paying vast sums of money to use fraudulent means to get their children accepted to prestigious colleges and universities. In some cases, the scheme involved having other people take their children’s college entrance examinations. In other cases, the scheme involved pretending their child was an extraordinary athlete. We might think to ourselves, “Well the parents just wanted the best possible education for their children. That is a noble goal, they just went about it the wrong way.” That may be true but closer examination of several cases is revealing because the children, once accepted, did not pursue the academic challenges, they only wanted to be admitted and eventually receive a diploma. Why? Because there was a desire to be accepted into that group, that college, or that university believing that in doing so, they would reap the benefits accorded to that group. The parents and children wanted acceptance and wanted to avoid rejection.
This parental drive to ensure acceptance and avoid rejection for their children has gathering a title. Such parents are called, “Bulldozer or Snowplow Parents.” Such parents engage in clearing the road ahead of their children to assure acceptance at every turn and reassurance that rejection is not an option. There are certainly noble thoughts behind the actions of the parents, but we know the real world is a continuing series of human interactions of acceptance and rejection. And we know that rejection can be a very painful experience. Many of you know well the pain of rejection. When I was a kid in Massachusetts, a popular expression of torment to another kid was to say to them, “You’re a reject.” The first major assignment I had in the Federal government was to investigate the circumstances of the suicide of a security officer at a nuclear facility. Why did he take his own life? Because he had been rejected by his co-workers, supervisors, and managers. He was being fired from his job and could not bear to go home and tell his mother that he had been rejected.
Acceptance and rejection are found throughout human experience. We find this dynamic in the earliest part of the human story. The Bible says, “Now Abel kept flocks, and Cain worked the soil. In the course of time Cain brought some of the fruits of the soil as an offering to the Lord. And Abel also brought an offering—fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock. The Lord looked with favor on Abel and his offering (acceptance), but on Cain and his offering he did not look with favor (rejection). So Cain was very angry, and his face was downcast. Then the Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted?” (Genesis 4:2-6). We know Cain rejected God’s counsel and killed his brother Abel. Acceptance and rejection are present in human life.
The prophet Isaiah spoke God’s words saying that God would send a savior into the world and yet, “He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain” (Is. 53:3). This savior came into the world through a young woman named Mary. When Mary told her husband Joseph that she was pregnant by the Holy Spirit, Joseph’s first response was to reject Mary. When the child was born, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem to honor this new born king. The earthly king, Herod, rejected the idea of a child born a king and killed all the male children in and around Bethlehem in the hopes of destroying this new born king. The Gospel writer John said when this savior came into the world, “He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him [they rejected this savior]” (Jn 1:11). John said this savior had a name. His name was Jesus and he came that all who would believe in Jesus would be saved, that is, they would be accepted by God.
This savior told a story of acceptance and rejection. A man named Luke, wrote down that story for those who would read his work and come to know this savior. We have the privilege to read that story. I invite you to turn to the Gospel of Luke, Chapter 18, beginning at verse 9.
Luke says in verse 9, that Jesus was telling this parable, or story, to some folks who were confident that their behavior was superior to others and that God was impressed by such behavior. These folks thought they were not only better off than others around them, they also thought they were, in fact, better than others around them. So, Luke wrote, “9 To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: 10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.” We need to pause here for a moment and make sure we are on the same page as Luke’s readers. The temple to which Jesus referred was the temple of Jerusalem which Jesus would later describe as his Father’s house and a place of prayer. In this story, two men go to that temple at the same time to pray to God. One is a Pharisee. He was Jewish. He was a religious leader who worked hard to uphold all the laws and decrees of God. The Pharisees were respected and admired by the people of Israel. As a result, the Pharisee considered himself an accepted person. The other man was a tax collector. He was Jewish. He took money from the people of Israel in the form of taxes and gave the money to the Romans so that the Romans could continue to rule over Israel. Tax collector were despised by the people of Israel and seen as traitors. The tax collector was a rejected person. In this story, the Pharisee and tax collector share one very important thing. They have chosen not to be anonymous about their respective lives. As we will see, both were open with how they saw themselves before others and before God. Their openness stands in contrast to our growing desire for privacy and anonymity.
With that bit of understanding, we come back to the story. “10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’” So ends the prayer of the Pharisee.
With some drama and some sarcastic humor, Jesus portrayed the Pharisee in this story as very confident that he was better than other people and therefore, better off with God. Putting down others was, in part, a way for the Pharisee to raise himself up. In part, the Pharisee believed, in order to ensure God’s blessing, he and others like him must exclude and call out those people who might corrupt the nation. The righteous of Israel must reject the robbers, evildoers, and the adulterers so that Israel would be protected. Sinners, “rejects,” must not become part of the fabric of Israel. We see tension from the Pharisees toward Jesus on this point throughout the Gospels. Repeatedly the Pharisees questioned why Jesus sat, ate, and stayed with sinners and tax collectors. Such people were not to be part of the nation being blessed by God. So, the Pharisee revealed through his public prayer that he believed he was justified before God because of his standing in the community and felt right to reject some people.
The story continued. Jesus said, 13 “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’” So ends the prayer of the tax collector.
Again, with some drama, Jesus portrayed the tax collector in this story as broken individual. The tax collector recognized that he was thoroughly rejected by his fellow citizens but that was not the focus of his concern. The tax collector was concerned that he stood rejected by God. The tax collector showed no regard for how others saw him; his concern was with his relationship with God. He was repenting of his sin and knew he could only be accepted by God if God showed him mercy. The tax collector’s prayer showed the delicate and powerful nature of human action, repentance, coupled with the divine action, mercy.
What does it mean to show or be shown mercy? Mercy is action or withholding of an act that is essential to the recipient. Mercy is something that resolves for the recipient a life-threatening situation that they cannot remedy on their own. Mercy is never random and is not anonymous. There must be some form of relationship between the giver and the receiver of mercy. So when the tax collector asked for mercy, he was saying a lot with one word. Using just the word mercy, the tax collector was asking God to act, to resolve a situation for the tax collector that he could not fix on his own. Using just the word mercy, the tax collector was asking the God he knew, a God with whom he had a relationship with, to accept him, even though he was sinner. Mercy clears the pathway for us to move from being rejected of God to being accepted by God. Mercy is the power to reverse the past and grant a future.
With the prayers of both men now completed, Jesus completed the story. 14 “I tell you that this man [the tax collector], rather than the other [the Pharisee], went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” The tax collector, the sinner, humbled by his sin, openly confessing of his sin, was justified before God, meaning he was made right with God. In God's eyes, persons are considered righteous when they recognize their sinfulness and repent of it. The tax collector was thus accepted.
Jesus’ short story is a powerful reminder that we have a need for acceptance. The Pharisee desired and received acceptance from people. The tax collector desired and received acceptance from God through mercy. So, what is the enduring message of this story for us? There are two things I would like to end with.
First, acceptance and rejection are part of the human experience. The important thing for us to keep in mind that human acceptance and human rejection is temporary, but God’s acceptance or rejection is forever. If our life pursuit is to believe we must always be accepted by other people, then we will spend our days as a “people pleaser” ultimately moving from one disappointing relationship to another. However, if we pursue acceptance by God, then we will spend our time now and forever satisfied that we are right with God. The 23rd Psalm is an example of someone living their life accepted by God. “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. 2 He makes me to lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside the still waters. 3 He restores my soul; He leads me in the paths of righteousness For His name’s sake. 4 Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; For You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me. 5 You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; You anoint my head with oil; My cup runs over. 6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life; And I will dwell in the house of the Lord Forever.”
Second, acceptance by God comes through mercy. In God’s wisdom, he made mercy into a person, his Son, Jesus. In the New Testament Book of Titus, we read, “3 At one time we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures. We lived in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another. 4 But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, 5 he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. (Titus 3:3-5). We are accepted by God when we accept Jesus as Savior.
Do you ever wonder whether you are accepted by God? That seems like a big question to leave in doubt. If you want to know if you’re accepted, the Bible tells us repeatedly what to do. Repent (turn to God), believe in Jesus as your savior, and be baptized. If you have not taken all those steps for yourself, then now is the time to speak to God, seek his mercy through Jesus, and share your story of new life with others. For in Jesus, we do not need to wonder if we are accepted. Amen and Amen.