Scripture: Luke 18:9-14
The story goes that there was a woman who taught Sunday school. While you do not know this specific woman, you probably have met her type. She was quick to look down on others. She had mastered the art of saying “bless your heart” or “I’ll pray for you” as a way to insult, put down, and belittle. She had a pompous, self-entitled, and overall self-righteous attitude. One particular Sunday morning she was trying to make the point that good Christians did not keep their faith a secret. They made sure that everyone knew exactly what they believed. With her head held high, nose up in the air, she strutted impressively back and forth across the room and asked, “Now class why do you think people call me a Christian?” The teacher thought the answer to this question was obvious, but she was met with uncomfortable silence. She started to “tsk, tsk, tsk” to show her disappointment at the class when one of the boys slowly raised his hand and said, “Probably because they do not know you.”
I do not know about you, but jokes and stories like that are a bit of a guilty pleasure of mine. I find it to be very satisfying when the smug get knocked down a peg or two, when the arrogant are humbled, and when the self-righteous are called out. It causes this euphoric feeling to see a dose of truth shot right between the eyes of someone who needs it the most. The uncomfortable flipside, is that in some area all of us are the smug, the arrogant, or the self-righteous. All of us need to be hit upside the head with some sort of hard truth. It is not quite so satisfying when it is our toes being stepped on. Scriptures like this morning’s remind us that Jesus was pretty good at stepping on toes. We tend to think of Jesus primarily as being loving, but scriptures like today remind us that tough love was one of thing that Jesus was really good at. It is really easy when we read this morning’s scripture to assume it is talking about other people. After all Jesus addressed this parable to those “who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else.” The most honest way that we can approach this scripture is to put our toes out a little bit and see if they are the ones that get stepped on.
In the scripture Jesus tells a parable. It is a story that Jesus made up, but like the story about the self-righteous Sunday school teacher this parable is one based firmly in reality. The people who heard the story knew the kinds of people that Jesus was talking about. The Pharisees were the religious leaders of Jesus day, and everyone knew they were the religious leaders of Jesus day. What made the Pharisees the religious leaders of their day was how righteous they were. The talked the talk and they walked the walk. For the people who heard Jesus tell this parable they probably had heard a Pharisee pray something similar. They probably had heard a Pharisee humblebrag in prayer about all they tithe, how much the fast, and all of the sinful behavior they do not do. When we read the prayer of the Pharisee in verses 10-12, our natural reaction is to roll our eyes and think “get a load of this guy.” However, we have to remember that the Pharisee was not making empty boasts. A Pharisee who would have prayed like Jesus described, probably did truly tithe, he probably did fast regularly, and he truly was not like all of the sinners he mentioned. Chances are the Pharisee did not even think he was bragging. It is possible that this hypothetical Pharisee would respond by such accusation by saying, “well it’s true” or “I’m sorry, I am just telling it like it is.” The Pharisee was, perhaps justifiably so, confident in his own righteousness.
The counter to the Pharisee was the tax collector. In Jesus’ day the tax collectors were the worst. They were thought of as thieves and traitors. They were agents of the empire who fleeced their own people for their personal benefit. When it comes to how one stood before God the conventional wisdom of Jesus day is that the righteous Pharisee not the loathsome tax collector would be the one on God’s good side. Yet because the parable was directed at those who were confident in their own righteousness that is not the end result. Jesus purposely steps on the toes of the self-righteous. He burns them good when he makes it clear in no uncertain terms it is the tax collector who is right before God because those who exalt themselves will be humbled and those who humble themselves will be exalted.
In addition to how the Pharisee and tax collector viewed themselves, there are two other key differences between them. The first is in how they relate to God through their prayer. The Pharisee is giving a prayer of thanks for all that he has done. Everything the Pharisee says is about what he has done to reach to God through righteous living. For the Pharisee relationship with God was all about what he could do to reach to God. Faith became a series of do’s and do nots, it was a checklist, and his prayer show he had checked off everything twice for good measure. The simple prayer of the tax collector is considerably different. God have mercy on me a sinner. Lord have mercy in Greek, is Kyrie Eleison, and that phrase is one of the oldest phrases of worship in Christianity. Almost back to the beginning of the church, Christians have prayed Kyrie Eleison as an act of worship. It is a fundamental prayer and expression of the Christian faith. Because Lord have mercy is not about what we do for God, it is about what God is doing for us. Lord have mercy is an acknowledgement that there is nothing that we can do to reach God. It is a humble confession that on our own we are not good enough to stand in the presence of true holiness. The prayer of the Pharisee is touting all of the ways that he has reached up to God, the prayer of the tax collector is the realization that it is God who reaches down to us.
There is an old, old story that you have probably heard from the pulpit before, but it is worth retelling. A man who was a lifelong member of his church reached the end of his life and passed away. He found himself standing in front of the pearly gates waiting to enter heaven. The gate was barred and a sign declared that 500 points were needed to enter. The man was a little confused, and he asked the angel, “How does one get points?”
The angel at the gate responded, that you had to get the points before now or it was too late. Even more confused and a little nervous, the man asked, “How many points does he have?”
The angel shrugged and said “I don’t know what did you do on earth to get points?”
The man said, “Well I attended church faithfully. I think I can count the number of Sundays I missed on one hand. Surly that is worth something.”
The angel nodded in acknowledgement. “that is one point.”
Exasperated the man added, “But I was a faithful tither the whole time.” The angel consulted a big book and confirmed he was, so that is another point.
The man added on, “I taught Sunday school to all different age levels for 30 years that has to be worth a lot.”
The angel stated “That is one point.”
The man continued, “What about the hours and hours I volunteered at the food pantry?”
“That is also one point.”
The man racked his brain trying to think of everything and anything he did that could have earned points, “What about all of those years that I gave extra money to support that missionary overseas?”
Frustrated and upset the man finally exclaimed, “I do not know what else there is! What about the grace, love, and forgiveness of Jesus is that worth any points.”
“Yes”, the angel replied consulting the book of life, “That has given you 500 points.” The gates then opened.
Our approach to our faith should not be based on what we have done, but it should be based on what God has done for us. When we approach faith this way, it is hard for us to get a big head about all the stuff we do because we know deep down we are saved by grace not by works. We know that no matter how much good we accomplish our most basic prayer should still be “Lord have mercy on me a sinner.”
The second difference between the Pharisee and the tax collector was how they viewed other people. Jesus told this parable to convict and if we are being honest to burn those people who looked down on everyone else. It is clear that the Pharisee looked down on everyone else. His prayer was thank God I am not like those people. Of course if we were able to ask the hypothetical Pharisee if he believed he looked down on other people, he would say no. Very few people will proudly state they think they are better than others. However, we should always be cautious of attitude, because if we are not careful we might find ourselves venturing into Pharisee territory. When we start thinking in terms of us and them, then we are entering a danger zone. When we start categorizing whole groups of people in a somewhat negative light; when we are quick to label someone as an addict, a delinquent, or a thug; or when we dismiss someone who disagree with our particular viewpoint as uneducated then we have are displaying the same attitude as the Pharisee. We may not dress up our bias in pretty religious language as the Pharisee did, but when we compare ourselves to other people, and see ourselves as inherently better than them we are guilty of the same sin as the Pharisee.
One of the things this morning’s scripture makes clear is Jesus had little patience for self-righteous religious people who belittled others. He still has little patience for those kinds of people. We need to keep in mind that we share some commonalities with all people. It does not matter if that person is the Pope, the president, a powerful CEO, a common criminal, a strung out addict, or a porn star. The old saying goes they put on their pants one leg at a time just like everyone else. It does not matter who we are, we are all in need of the grace of Christ. We are need to pray “Lord have mercy on me a sinner.” Our cultural climate today is one that is bitterly polarized and the cultural message is that we are supposed to demonize the people we disagree with. We are supposed to belittle them, and look down upon them. We must not fall into that trap. Our attitude should be more like that of the tax collector, where we are focused more on the change that we need to make within us and less on the change we think others need to make. We should claim the freeing truth that the ground at the foot of the cross is level. The rich the poor, the righteous and the unrighteous, the liberal and the conservative from every tribe, tongue, and nation bow there and pray “Kyrie Eleison”. Lord have mercy on me a sinner. Instead of finding people with differences that we can look down on or be thankful that we are not them, we should be beacons of grace that declare Jesus saves everyone, even a sinner like me. We should always be checking our heart to make sure we love people like Jesus instead of judge people like Pharisees.
This morning’s scripture is Jesus delivering a dose of truth, and he was not afraid to step on any toes or leaving anyone feeling a bit burned. When we are confronted with scriptures like this, our natural reaction is to assume it is talking about other people. However, the most honest way we can confront this scripture and the other teaching of Jesus is to ask ourselves, how is Jesus stepping on our toes here? How does the truth singe us a bit? If you say it does not, then you are much further along the path to Christian perfection than I am. May we be willing to open up our hearts and reflect on scripture’s like this one. More importantly though, may the attitude of our hearts be like that of the tax collector. May the basis of our prayers be Kyrie Eleison, Lord have mercy. Lord Have mercy on a sinner. Lord have mercy on me.