God Helps Those Who Are Helpless

Luke 18:9-17

The Reverend Bryn MacPhail / March 13, 2005


Most of you have heard the saying, ‘God helps those who help themselves’. Some people think that saying is born out of a biblical reference. It is not. The Bible actually teaches us a contrary principle; the Bible teaches us that God helps those who are helpless.


We see this in Psalm 50, verse 15, where the Lord says, “Call upon Me in the day of trouble; I shall rescue you, and you will honour Me.” In other words, 'Call upon Me when you are helpless and I will help you'.


The idea that God helps those who are helpless is also evident in our passage in Luke where two men go up to the temple to pray. Luke tells us that Jesus “told this parable to certain ones who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and viewed others with contempt”(18:9). Jesus directed this parable at people who were ignorant of their helplessness; these people thought they had it altogether.


The parable begins, “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee, and the other a tax-collector” (18:10). You would be hard-pressed to find a pair more different than a Pharisee and a tax-collector. One was a religious figure within the Jewish community; the other a secular figure employed by the Roman authorities. One was respected by the Jews; the other despised.


The Pharisees were well-known for their meticulous observance to the Mosaic Law, while tax-collectors were best known for their unscrupulous taxation tactics.


As you might expect, these two men approached God quite differently. Jesus tells us that “The Pharisee stood and was praying thus to himself, 'God, I thank Thee that I am not like other people: swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax-collector. I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all that I get' But the tax-collector, standing some distance away, was even unwilling to lift up his eyes to heaven, but was beating his breast, saying, 'God, be merciful to me, the sinner!'” (18:11-13).


Allow me to frame this another way: Two men were in church on Sunday. One man, a lifetime member of the church, a frequent attendee at church functions, and a member of the Board. This man prayed, 'God, I thank you that I am not like the non-Christian, and that my parents brought me to church as a youth. I give a generous portion of my income to the church, I serve on two committees, and I volunteer each month at the local nursing home.'


The other man, seated near the rear of the church, simply muttered, 'God, have mercy on me, a sinner.' That's all he could say. He had another sleepless night. He was pondering the failure of his marriage; he was worrying about his upcoming court appearance; he was worrying about his need to go looking for a job on Monday. But the man still came to church. He had nowhere else to turn.


These two men had very different experiences that Sunday morning. Frankly, the longtime church member didn't get much out of the service. Nothing in the service touched his heart. The service went over time, the music was played too slowly, and the preacher had missed the point of the passage.


The other man stayed seated in his pew long after the benediction—he didn't want everyone to see the tears streaming down his face. He could not explain what exactly had happened to him during the service, but he felt much better. For the first time in a long time, he felt as if someone loved him; he felt as if God loved him.


Two men went to the temple to pray, but only one man went home justified. Why did God justify one man and not the other? The Pharisee was morally upright; he was a responsible citizen. We are told that he donated a tenth of his income. He fasted twice a week. This Pharisee, by external standards at least, was more faithful than the average Presbyterian. So why did he not go away justified?


We are told the answer before Jesus even begins the parable. Jesus tells us about those “who trusted in themselves that they were righteous” (18:9). The Pharisee thought he was good enough for God. This is a dangerous position to take. The Bible is clear on this point: Until Christ redeems us, no one is good enough for God (Rom. 3:10-12). No amount of religious activity, no amount of charitable donations, and no amount of community service can change the fact that, apart from Christ, we are not good enough for God.


            Thankfully, God is in the habit of helping those who are not good enough. Jesus says, “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance” (Lk. 5:32). He says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Mt. 5:3).


The tax-collector was well aware of his shortcomings, “be merciful to me, the sinner!” was his prayer. The tax-collector was contrite—Jesus says that he was “unwilling to lift up his eyes to heaven”. The tax-collector was also sincere—Jesus explains that he “was beating his breast.” The tax-collector cried out for help, and how did God respond? Jesus says, “I tell you, this man went down to his house justified” (18:14).


This parable, told by Jesus, provides you and I with an example of how we are to approach God.  Be merciful to me, the sinner!” must be our cry. The testimony of Scripture is that when we come to God in desperation, He is eager to help us. “Call upon Me in the day of trouble and I will rescue you, and you will honour Me” (Ps. 50:15), He says.


Friends, I reckon that this is the best kind of news. Many of you have known what it is like to be desperate. I certainly have. I know what it is like to feel helpless, and to imagine that nothing in the world can remedy my predicament. And yet, Jesus says that my desperation uniquely qualifies me for God’s help. My inability to help myself positions me to receive God’s mercy.


It is no coincidence that our parable is immediately followed by the account of Jesus welcoming the young children. Luke reports that people “were bringing even their babies to (Jesus) so that He might touch them, but when the disciples saw it, they began rebuking them. But Jesus call for them, saying, 'Permit the children to come to Me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Truly I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it'” (18:15-17).


What do young children have to offer that positions them for entry into God's kingdom? Absolutely nothing. And that is precisely the point. Two year-olds do not tithe from their income; seven year-olds do not fast; five year-olds do not serve on church committees—but that’s ok. God's kingdom belongs to those who have nothing to offer.


God’s kingdom belongs to the sinner who recognizes his spiritual bankruptcy and cries, "be merciful to me, the sinner!" God’s kingdom belongs to the one who approaches God like an utterly dependent child.


Between the tax-collector and the young child, we learn how we must approach God. Like the contrite tax-collector, our approach must be marked by genuine humility. And like a young child, our position is one of utter dependence. That is, we must come to God empty-handed.


            When we come to God empty-handed, the Bible tells us that God begins a radical change within us. Our hands become filled with Divine resources (Eph. 1:3; 2Pet. 1:3). The result is that we begin to produce spiritual fruit; we begin to act in ways that please the Lord.


            In other words, though our journey towards God begins with empty hands, our hands should not remain empty. When we are redeemed by Christ, we soon find that there are many things required of us. We must study and obey the Scriptures, we must serve Christ's Church, and we must seek God’s glory at all times.


We do these things, not because salvation is to be earned, but rather, we do these things in gratitude for the free gift of salvation already bestowed.


And what if we neglect the commandments of God? What if we are not supporting the work of Christ’s Church? What if we are not pursuing God’s purposes?


If we are not doing these things we should be greatly concerned about our standing before God. While gaining entry into heaven does not depend upon our diligence, we should be nonetheless alarmed by our negligence. If we are not engaging the Lord in the Scriptures, if we are not attentive to the needs of Christ’s Church, if we are not pursuing, above all else, God’s glory, we show ourselves to be in one of two conditions.


The first condition is that of the unredeemed. The unredeemed has no interest in the Scriptures and no interest in glorifying God because he has no interest in Christ. To the unredeemed, Christ is merely a historical figure. To the unredeemed, the notion that Christ will come again as Judge is mere fiction.


The unredeemed may serve the local church because of the social advantages that it affords him, but he will not persevere in his work under this motivation. Because the unredeemed does not serve from a position of heartfelt thanksgiving to God, he quickly falls away from the work when it is underappreciated by the people served by it.


The second condition, or explanation, for those who neglect the commandments of God is a believer who has been incapacitated by the devil’s attacks. The apostle Paul warns the Christians in Ephesus, “Put on the full armour of God so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes” (Eph. 6:11). Implied in that imperative is the likelihood of being toppled by our spiritual enemy if we are not putting on the armour of God. Paul goes on to explain that, in order to stand firm, we need to be appropriating Scripture and we need to be praying “in the Spirit” (Eph. 6:14-18).


The common thread to these two conditions is that there is a desperate need for God’s help. Before we are redeemed we are helpless—totally dependent upon God for salvation. And, even after we are redeemed, even though we are no longer helpless, we remain vulnerable—we remain vulnerable to sin and spiritual attack.


For this reason, both, the unredeemed person, and the redeemed person, requires God’s help.


So how do we get this? How do we enlist God’s help?


What remains for you and I is to PRAY. Friends, call upon God, pray to the Lord, in the day of trouble, and He will rescue you, and you will honour Him. Amen.