“Justified Before God”
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. 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.’ 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.’ 14 “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” Luke 18:9-14
There was a very lost, wicked, rebellious man who decided it would be good for business if he went down to the church and joined it. He was an alcoholic, had a few other bad habits, and had never been a member of a church in his life.
But when he went down to the altar to join the church, he gave his public testimony but left a few things off of his story, maybe he was a politician. He made it sound like there was no sin in his life and that he had grown up in the church. They readily accepted him as a member.
When he went home and told his wife what he had done, she herself being a godly woman, exploded. She explained to him in no certain terms that what he did was wrong. She called him a hypocrite and demanded that he go back to the church the next week and confess what he really was. It seems that God used his wife to break him, and he took it to heart.
The next Sunday he went back to the church, walked down to the front again, and this time confessed to the church all of his sins. He shared about his dishonesty, the alcohol and other problems. He laid out his heart and told them how sorry he was. They revoked his membership on the spot. He walked out of the church that day scratching his head and muttering to himself: “These church folks are really strange. I told a lie, and they took me in; and when I told the truth they kicked me out!” That’s not the way its supposed to work, is it?
In our text this morning Jesus shares one of His parables which is about two men in a similar situation who had totally different results. One man tried to talk himself into God’s kingdom, but he didn’t make it. One man tried to talk himself out of God’s kingdom and he did make it. In his introduction to Jesus’ parable, St. Luke hit the nail on the head when he wrote, “To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else.”
Have you ever noticed how Jesus loved to use the unlikely in His parables or stories to shame those who considered themselves likely. The Samaritan who came to the recue of the unfortunate traveler on the road down to Jericho. The Samaritan leper who was only one of ten who thought it prudent to return and give Jesus thanks for healing them. And today, the tax collector who goes home justified while the Pharisee gets shamed.
Don’t you imagine that Jesus told some of these stories with a gleam in His eye—or a wink to some in the audience. Have you seen the insurance commercial out right now where the little boy wishes that Shaquille O’Neal is his big brother? I love the scene where Shaq is holding the boy up so he can reach something on the top shelf, and he looks sideways at the camera with a mischievous look. I can picture Jesus giving that same look as He tells this story about the Pharisee.
Several of you are my friends on Facebook and maybe you’ve noticed that I post a daily Scripture just about every morning. It’s something I have read on my daily reading plan or something else I’ve been pointed to in one of my morning devotions. And some days I have to giggle a bit when folks hit the “like” button when it’s really a Scripture that should shame them. I get that same mischievous look on my face as Shaq and Jesus.
While some parables teach or confirm a teaching, others break up the soil of previous teaching and prepare for a new perspective. The first 14 verses of this 18th chapter of the Gospel of Luke contain two parables that most would consider are about prayer.
The first is about a woman and her persistence in prayer. If you were here last Sunday, I mentioned Susanna Wesley, and the fact that she held everything together in her family with her perseverant prayer. Have you ever prayed about something or for someone for what seemed like years and never really saw your prayer answered?
One of the Lectio 365 devotions this week was about the Prophet Elijah praying that it not rain, and it didn’t rain for three years. But all that time the people continued to sow their crops. The devotion said, “They sowed seeds in the dust.” It didn’t rain, but the people kept on planting and praying. And then it did rain.
Jesus ended His parable with a question, “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?” When the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on earth? In Dodge County? In Eastman, Ga.? At the Eastman First UMC?
In the second parable, our text for this morning, we have two men praying. But is this parable really about prayer?
In the time of this story people would go to the Temple twice a day to pray and worship. Early every morning one of the Priest’s assistants would pull a lamb from its pen, bind its legs and bring it to the altar to offer as a sacrifice of atonement for the people’s sins and those gathered for this 9 am service would offer up their prayers.
The same ritual would be repeated at 3 pm every day. Again, the priests would offer the sacrifice of atonement in an elaborate ritual. Again, the people would go up to the temple to pray; and they would pray their individual prayers out loud. So we have, “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.”
I heard about a fifth grader who came home from school so excited. She had been voted, “Prettiest Girl in the Class.” The next day she was even more excited when she came home, for the class had elected her, “The Most Likely to Succeed.” The next day she came home and told her mother she had won a third contest, being voted, “The Most Popular.”
But the next day she came home extremely upset. Her mother said, “What happened, did you lose this time?” “Oh, no,” she said, “I won the vote again.” Her mom asked for what, and she replied, “Most Stuck Up.”
The Pharisee in our story this morning could have won that award hands down. It’s pretty obvious that he had an “I” problem. Four times in just two short verses we read the pronoun, “I.” He was stoned on the drug of self. He suffered from two problems: inflation and deflation. He had an inflated view of who he was and a deflated view of who God IS.
In his defense, this Pharisee would be welcomed into any of our churches. He faithfully attended worship—he prayed, as was the custom of his day, standing with raised hands, palms open with his eyes lifted to God—and he tithed. I mean, most preachers would love to have this guy as a part of their congregation. The problem would be his humility and his total misunderstanding of who Jesus was.
I was reading this week about King Uzziah from 2 Chronicles 26. The 15th verse says, “His fame spread far and wide, for he was greatly helped until he became powerful.” Some translations say, “The Lord gave him marvelous help.”
But verse 16 says, “But after Uzziah became powerful, his pride led to his downfall. He was unfaithful to the Lord his God.” And verse 19 says, “Leprosy broke out on his forehead,” verse 20 says, “The Lord had afflicted him.”
Verse 21 says, “King Uzziah had leprosy until the day he died. He lived in a separate house—leprous, and excluded from the temple of the Lord.” And when he died, he was buried near his fathers, in a separate field. All because of his pride getting in the way.
The tax collector, considered by most on the same level as a Samaritan and disliked, didn’t suffer the same problem as the Pharisee. He stood in the corner at the back of the congregation, far removed from the others, and beat his chest in a display of emotion reserved for women at funerals. He knew who he was, and he knew that God knew who he was. His prayer was not an exercise in self-promotion, but a confession and a plea for mercy. He wasn’t selling himself but opening himself.
To exalt oneself is to deny one’s dependence on God. This is the essence of sin, and one who is guilty of it has already fallen. When one realizes his utter dependence on the Lord, he will inevitably feel humble, his humility will be deep and genuine, not a surface mask for a dominate pride of heart. Honest, intelligent thinking will cause one to feel sincerely humble.
The Pharisee regarded God as a corporation in which he had earned a considerable block of stock. His prayer told God that he was waiting for well-deserved honors; like God owned him something, like God is a Santa Claus God. The Pharisee trusted in himself rather than God.
When I think of humility, I think of what I heard once was the definition of character: “Doing the right thing, even when nobody is watching.” When I think of character, and humility, I think of my friend Paul Williams.
Where have you placed your trust? In your job, your retirement plan, your government, or simply, in your self? If this is true, then you’re not spending enough time in God’s Word.
As I’ve been saying for several weeks now, spending time in the Word is what we need to be doing. Spending time in prayer is what we need to be doing. Fasting, and not only from food, is what we need to be doing.
Jesus didn’t condemn the Pharisee’s charities and honors—but his motives were all wrong. Jesus didn’t justify the tax collector’s way of life—but this man’s soul was open to God—and because it was, he “Went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
Thanks be to God!