Topical Scripture: Luke 18:9-14
This is my tenth anniversary Sunday, I’m told. I didn’t keep track, but our deacon leaders have told me that Janet and I began with you on June 21, 1998. It’s been a wonderful ten years for us; we are so grateful to God for the privilege of serving him with you and raising our sons with you. You have been and continue to be God’s gift to us.
Since I’ve been with you ten years, it seems that full disclosure is now in order. There are some things about my past which I didn’t feel comfortable sharing ten years ago, as they would have seemed like bragging.
But now I think I can tell you the full story: When I was in college, I made the intramural softball all-star team. I know that’s a stupendous achievement, and I didn’t want to brag about it earlier. I was quite a hitter in those days. Or at least I thought I was, until some friends and I went to one of those batting cages where you put in quarters and the machine throws balls for you to hit. I went immediately to the major league level and deposited my dollar. I watched the arm come up, and then heard the ball hit the screen behind me. I never saw it, or the 20 which followed it. I was a good baseball player until I compared myself to real ones.
I used to be a good tennis player as well; I played all through junior high, high school and college, won lots of matches, and was quite confident in my abilities. Then we moved to Midland, where a man in the church who had heard of my prowess asked me to help him with his game.
He had been a professional tennis player years earlier, ranked in the low 100s, and had even played Jimmy Conners twice. But he hadn’t played in a long time and was just starting back. He wondered if I would help him with his game, so I graciously consented to play. He beat me 6-0, 6-0. I was a good tennis player until I played one.
I used to be a good golfer as well, breaking 80 twice and feeling pretty confident in my game. Then I went to the Masters for the first time and watched Tiger Woods hit sand wedge into the green for his second shot on par 5s, all day long. I was a good golfer until I watched one.
The same is true spiritually. We can feel confident in our relationship with God so long as we compare ourselves with each other. But if we’ll compare ourselves with God, we’ll then arrive at the kind of humility which is essential to an intimate relationship with him. Jesus will make that crucial point today much better than I can, in one of the most shocking stories in all of literature.
Who they were
Jesus was concerned about “some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else” (v. 9). If you think that your relationship with God is satisfactory and certainly better than some people you know, this parable is for you.
His story begins: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector” (v. 10).
The Jews prayed three times a day, at 9 a.m., noon, and 3 p.m. They had a set of prescribed prayers called the Shemoneh Esre (“Eighteen Benedictions”), which they said every day in full. They were something like the Book of Common Prayer for Episcopaleans or creeds and liturgy for Catholics and most denominations.
The first one will give you a feel for the rest: “Blessed are you, Oh Lord our God and God of our fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob, the great, mighty and revered God, the Most High God who bestows loving kindnesses, the creator of all things, who remembers the good deeds of the patriarchs and in love will bring a redeemer to their children’s children for his name’s sake. Oh king, helper, savior and shield. Blessed are you, Oh Lord, the shield of Abraham.”
They thought that these prayers offered within the Temple area were more effective, so they went there to pray whenever they could. What Jesus described was a standard fact of daily life for his hearers.
One of the men who went to the Temple on this occasion to recite these prayers was a Pharisee; the other was a tax collector. They lived at the extreme ends of their society.
We know the Pharisees for their rejection of Jesus and persecution of his disciples. But in their day, these were the holiest men on earth. They had saved the Jewish religion during its decades of slavery in Babylon, when the priests couldn’t offer sacrifices and the rabbis couldn’t teach. These lay leaders rose to the occasion, preserving the Law and obeying its every detail.
There were never more than 6,000 of them in the entire nation. They were respected and even revered by others for their dedication to the law, something like priests or nuns in the Catholic or Orthodox traditions today.
By contrast, the “tax collector” was the worst man in his society.
When the Romans conquered a nation they usually hired people from the society to collect taxes for them. They would allow this turncoat to take as much money as he liked, so long as he paid them their share. Imagine that al Qaeda conquering us, and then someone took our money, bankrupted us, and paid it to the terrorists and to himself. They were the traitors, the despised.
In the ancient world, this profession was considered the most profane and immoral work a man could do. Lucian listed among those destined for hell the adulterers and tax-collectors.
And the Jews despised tax-collectors even more than the rest of ancient society. Tax-collectors could not testify in court as a witness, for they were assumed to be liars. They could not attend worship in the Temple or synagogue, for they were unclean.
How they prayed
It is very interesting that the tax collector in Jesus’ story came to the Temple to pray, as such men were not allowed near the Temple. Of course Jesus’ story could be fiction, as if I were to speak of Osama bin Laden coming to church this morning. If he did, he would be arrested before he was allowed to sit on a pew. Maybe Jesus meant the figure simply to represent the worst part of society.
But if so, this is the only parable he taught which was not true to life. All the others use events and people exactly as they were–a sower planting his seeds, a mustard seed growing, a man robbed on the way to Jericho. It seems more likely that this was one of the very rare tax collectors who paid the price necessary to be restored to his community and culture. Even if he did not exist in reality, he must have paid such a price to be realistic in Jesus’ story.
We think of Zacchaeus, the tax collector who paid back all he had stolen with an additional gift of repentance. We know that Matthew left his booth and profession, and that he was eventually permitted into the Temple precincts as a result. This man would have done the same thing to be in the Temple.
He would have left his booth, abandoning his trade. He would thus have forsaken the protection of the Roman soldiers, exposing himself to abuse or worse. He would have encountered great difficulty securing another job. He would have paid back what he had taken, impoverishing himself. He would have done all the things required by his society to return to good standing; thus he was able to come into the Temple to pray. That fact will be important to us in a moment.
The two men prayed exactly as their society would have expected them to.
The Pharisee “prayed about himself,” not about God. Note all the “I”s which follow. Some of the Pharisees really prayed like this. We have several of their recorded prayers, in which they thank God that they are not women, slaves, Gentiles, or tax-collectors. Jesus is quoting a prayer his audience all heard prayed.
Though the Law required fasting only on the Day of Atonement, he fasts twice a week. Their tradition was to fast on Monday and Thursday, as these were market days in the city and more people would see them fasting.
And he “gave a tenth of all I get.” The Law required the tithe only of produce from the land or vocation, but he tithed on all he bought or received from others as well. Jesus described the Pharisees as tithing even the spices they put on their food (Matthew 23:23).
If you were a Pharisee, you would set aside a tenth of the salt you put on your lunch today so you could donate it to the church later, or a tenth of the gas you put in your car tomorrow (a valuable commodity). If I were a Pharisee, I would give the church a tenth of our house (you can have the garage–it will never be finished). A more specific, zealous, sacrificially religious man you will never meet.
By contrast, “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'” (v. 13).
Prayers were offered in the Court of Women so both genders could participate. The Pharisee stood as close to the Temple itself as he could get, where everyone could see and hear him. The tax collector stood as far to the back as he could get, so no one would see or hear him.
He “would not even look up to heaven,” though this was the usual Jewish posture in prayer (cf. Mark 6:41; 7:34). He “beat his breast,” a Jewish sign of grief and sorrow, used to express great loss. The Pharisee would have done this if he had lost his wife or child; the tax collector did this because he had in some sense lost his soul.
And he prayed, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” In the Greek he said, “on me, the sinner.” He deserved punishment, but was asking for grace and mercy instead. Jesus’ hearers would have all been nodding their heads in agreement that this was exactly how such a sinner should have prayed.
Now comes the twist: “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God” (v. 14a).” If you were Catholic and I told you a story in which God heard Osama bin Laden but not Pope Benedict or John Paul II, and I was serious, you’d be just as shocked. Here is Jesus’ reason: “everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted” (v. 14b). “Everyone,” with no exceptions by the Son of God.
Which are you?
Here’s the point: when we compare ourselves with others, our pride pushes us from God. When we compare ourselves to God, our humility pulls us to him. There is no third choice. The closer we get to God, the further away we realize we are.
You may be able to relate to the Pharisee today, having done nothing significantly wrong. Like most of you, I have never murdered, or cheated on my taxes, or stolen from others. I have not committed adultery, or embezzled, or been arrested (except for a bogus illegal turn ticket I got two years ago, which I have completely forgotten).
You can say the same: you go to church and Sunday school; you taught at VBS; you will be a sponsor at Youth Camp or Fish Camp; you serve on the finance committee or usher on Sunday morning or sing in the choir. You can say of your neighbors sleeping in today, “I am not like other men.” But are you like God?
Or you might relate to the tax collector in the Temple. You’ve done what it took to build a relationship with God. You’ve confessed the sins of your past and made restitution. You’ve paid the price to follow God this week–you’ve read your Bible and prayed, you’ve given and served, you’ve done all you could to please God. I’m like that as well. We would never claim to be Pharisees in their legalistic perfection, but we’ve done what we needed to do to be right with God.
But when was the last time you grieved for your sins? When was the last time you couldn’t even look up at God for shame? When was the last time you admitted that you were “the” sinner, as bad as the worst person you’ve seen on the news this week?
I know when–it was the last time you compared yourself not to others or to the person you used to be, but to God. It was the last time you compared your attempts at service to his universe-producing power; the last time you compared your relatively uncheckered past to his eternal perfection; the last time you compared your relative morality to his perfect holiness.
St. Francis of Assisi said, “Whatever a man is in the sight of God, that he is, and no more.” When was the last time you saw yourself in his sight?
I must tell you that this parable terrifies me. It terrifies me to think of all the times I thought I had met God when I didn’t; all the times I thought I prayed, or praised, or worshiped, but my self-sufficient, complacent pride kept me from him. It terrifies me to think of all the times my church family didn’t meet God but thought they did. Does this parable terrify you? If it doesn’t, you of all people need to be terrified most.
Why does God ask us to measure ourselves by him and come to him with humility and repentance? Because he loves us. He is a spiritual oncologist who wants to remove the cancer we won’t admit we have. That’s why Jesus’ first sermon began, “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand” (Matthew 4:17). That’s why his first Beatitude states, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, those who know their need of God, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3). Are you comfortable where you are, or do you have a humble passion to know God as he is? Are you a Pharisee or a tax-collector? There is no third option.
As usual, C. S. Lewis said this better than I can. I was reading in Mere Christianity yesterday and found a paragraph worth considering.
Lewis says that “what man, in his natural condition, has not got, is the spiritual life–the higher and different sort of life that exists in God.” Our biological life comes to us from nature and is always tending to decay and run down, so that it must be incessantly subsidized by nature in the form of air, food, water, and so on. The spiritual life is with God from eternity, and created the whole natural world.
Lewis also points out a “shadowy and symbolic resemblance” between the natural life and the spiritual life, but it is the kind of resemblance which exists between a picture and a place or a statue and a man. A man who changed from natural life to spiritual life would have undergone as great a change as a statue which changed from carved stone to being a real man.
Lewis concludes, “And that is precisely what Christianity is about. This world is a great sculptor’s shop. We are the statues, and there is a rumour going round the shop that some of us are some day going to come to life.”
Why not today?