Pleading for Mercy
October 27, 2013
While Carol and I were in Ohio for our vacation, I heard about a case that drew quite a bit of attention. A 22 year-old man posted a video on YouTube in which he confessed that he was the driver of a car that was involved in an accident that killed a man. The video begins with the young man staring into the camera. He says “My name is Matthew Cordle, and on June 22nd, 2013, I hit and killed Vincent Canzani. This video will act as my confession.” Cordle then goes on to describe the events that led to the accident in which Cordle’s truck struck the car being driven by Mr. Canzani. The video impressed a number of viewers as a sincere effort by Mr. Cordle to get the matter off his chest. Mr. Cordle may, in fact, have been feeling genuine remorse, but in the skeptical part of my mind, I saw it as a more sophisticated attempt to plead for mercy. The video looked a bit staged, with some ominous music playing in the background. It was filmed in stark black and white. It begins with Mr. Cordle’s face blurred, and then the picture becomes sharp and focused when Mr. Cordle confesses to his crime. The video cuts away to show Mr. Cordle sitting, looking dejected. He looked remorseful enough; but there also was an angle that led me to think that he was hoping for mercy.
During my first two years as a lawyer, from time to time I would represent indigent defendants—people who had no resources available to hire a lawyer. The law had caught up with them, and they had been arrested for one crime or another. This was an eye opening experience for me. I guess I had lived a pretty sheltered life. I was amazed at how my clients could so persuasively claim their innocence to me. Very seldom did I hear my clients tell me that they were guilty. The police may have been after them, or their best friend had turned against them, or their mother hadn’t taken good care of them. But they were innocent. I learned quickly that in the plea bargaining stage of things, it wasn’t my job to pass judgment on my clients. My job was to represent them.
Sadly, in many cases it meant, after investigating what evidence the prosecutor was likely to present in court, that I would have a difficult conversation with the clients. I would tell them what witnesses the prosecutor was likely to present and what those witnesses were likely to say. I would tell them what eye witness evidence they had collected, what fingerprints they had found. I would point out the relative strength or weakness of what we had to offer in rebuttal. I would assure them that I was willing to go to the mat for them and give it my best shot in trial. But if I didn’t think they had a convincing case, I would be candid to tell them. I then would point out that the prosecutor had made an offer: if the client would agree to plead guilty, the prosecutor would recommend to the judge that he be given a lighter sentence. The client might argue with the facts a bit, but most of the time, the client was quicker than I was to recognize the reality of the situation. I would see this remarkable change come over the client—the client would switch from pleading his or her innocence to pleading for mercy. That same young man or young woman who, moments before, had me convinced that they were just once step away from sainthood before the world conspired against them now changed gears and pleaded that they really didn’t mean to do any harm and they promised to change their ways if only the Court would show leniency. They were pleading for mercy.
The judge had heard this before, as well. The judge would hear usually hear them out, but then the judge cut through all the excuses that he had heard and pronounce judgment—which usually meant that the judge followed the terms of the plea bargain. We might complain about judges, but they have a tough job. They have spent years seeing and hearing from the tough side of humanity.
By the way, the judge in the Matthew Cordle case had a tough side to his sentencing. The judge sentenced Cordle to 6 ½ years in prison for his actions. Fancy videos and confessions couldn’t bring back the life of Vincent Canzani.
Jesus had a tough side to his preaching. We like to remember Jesus as the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for His sheep—and that certainly is true. We like to remember the Jesus who said “Love one another, as I have loved you” (John 13:34)—and the Bible clearly presents that side of Jesus. But Jesus also had this unnerving way of seeing through the pretenses of the people who followed Him. He had this way of penetrating directly to the human heart. We see this a little bit of this tough side of Jesus in our Gospel Lesson this morning.
Let’s set the scene. Jesus is traveling from Galilee to Jerusalem, where Jesus knows he will face suffering and death. He knows that among those traveling with him are certain people who are looking for a way to build a case against him. One of those people asks him a trick question, “when is the Kingdom of God coming?” (See Luke 17:20). Jesus answers, surprisingly, that the Kingdom already is among them—it already is in their midst (Luke 17:21). He tells them of the need to be ready, to be prepared. He then tells them a few parables about the need for persistence and preparation. That is when Jesus tells this story.
Jesus tells of two men, standing in the Temple courts, praying. Both stood off, by themselves. The first man is a Pharisee. Luke makes it clear that this Pharisee stood aloof, to show that he was not like the others who were present. In his prayer, the Pharisee told God how good he was. We have no reason to doubt the Pharisee’s words. He pointed out to God (as if God needed to be told) that the Pharisee was not a thief, a rogue an adulterer. He wasn’t like the tax collector! He fasted twice a week—far beyond the requirements of the law. He tithed all of his income. He was a good man, and he knew it.
The tax collector also stood far off—not to show that he was better than the others; but because he knew that he wasn’t. He couldn’t even raise his eyes to heaven—the standard posture for prayer at the time. He simply stood off to the side, head bowed, beating his breast and kept saying, over and over, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” (Luke 18:13). He made no pretense to claim his innocence. He pleaded for mercy. And just in case the meaning of the story isn’t painfully obvious already, Jesus then emphasizes that the tax collector went home “justified.” “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Luke 18:14).
Do you think Jesus was too tough on the Pharisee? We have been conditioned to hear the word “Pharisee” and pronounce judgment against him without hearing all the evidence. We are pretty quick to see that he was proud, he was haughty, and his attitude convicted him. Yet, the trap is there for those of us who are the “religious” types. It is so easy for us to be thankful that we do things rightly, and we should be saved.
Do you think that Jesus was too easy on the tax collector? Did Jesus let him off the hook too easily for his crimes? Keep in mind that this was a parable, told to illustrate one particular point. I don’t think we can read into this story a message of “cheap grace,” in which we can say the right words, cry the appropriate tears, and get out of jail free. I don’t think that Jesus was overlooking the need for true repentance. In fact, we will look next week at the story of Zacchaeus and the repentance that Zacchaeus offered.
Jesus told this story to teach about humility, to be sure. But there is something more that I hope we don’t miss. Both the Pharisee and the tax collector needed forgiveness. I believe that Jesus had compassion for both of them. But only the tax collector saw his own need for forgiveness and transformation. Forgiveness is not the same thing as pretending something never happened. Jesus still expects changed lives and behavior, and transformation still begins with recognizing our need to be transformed. As long as we are focused on defending our behavior, or explaining why we don’t deserve to be punished, we miss the point. Our salvation, our reconciliation with God, and our healing from our brokenness do not come not because we deserve it, but because God loves us.
In our legalistic world, we forget that mercy stems not from pity or sympathy but from compassion. We look to the love of God, revealed in Jesus Christ, as the source of our healing and forgiveness. Love that gave, and gave, and gave, even to the point of death. Love that ultimately prevailed over death. Love that still beckons to us today.
Yet even such wondrous love has to be accepted. It is not to be purchased or bargained for. We only receive such healing when we let go of our excuses, of our pride, of our defenses and come to God empty handed. In words from an old hymn, “Nothing in my hand I bring, simply to the cross I cling…”
Did Matthew Cordle receive justice or mercy? We don’t know the human heart, and it is not our place to judge. The same God who loved Vincent Canzani also loves Matthew Cordle and this same God also loves you and me. He extends his compassion, his mercy, to us when we come empty-handed to the cross. What are you carrying this morning? Are you willing to put it down so you can receive Christ’s mercy?
Copyright © 2013 by Thomas E. Frost. All rights reserved.
 Preached at Cunningham United Methodist Church in Palmyra, Virginia.
 “Driver who confessed to DUI killing in YouTube video gets 6 years, 6 months in jail” viewed on the internet on October 27, 2013 at http://usnews.nbcnews.com/_news/2013/10/23/21096393-driver-who-confessed-to-dui-killing-in-youtube-video-gets-6-years-6-months-in-jail?lite.
 Augustus M. Toplady, “Rock of Ages,” in The United Methodist Hymnal (Nashville: The United Methodist Publishing House, 1989), 361.