Scriptures: Luke 18:9-14, Romans 3:21-28
In 1915 the evangelist Billy Sunday preached a series of sermons here
in Seattle. For those of you who haven't heard of him, Billy Sunday, not to be confused with Billy Graham, was a professional baseball player in the early 1900s who became a traveling evangelist, preaching at revivals around the country urging people to repent of their sins and turn to God. In one of his more striking statements, Billy Sunday said, "Many a boy and girl trained in the home by their mother to abhor cards have been ruined by going to board in some good-for-nothing, no account, beer-drinking, card-playing, dancing Presbyterian family" (Spokesman-Review, Dec. 21, 2008). I've never heard us sound so exciting.
It reminds me of the Pharisee in our second scripture reading. The
Pharisee goes to the temple and prays, "God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector." He could have added gamblers, drunkards, and Presbyterians. He was so good at identifying the sins of others he was oblivious to the ones in himself.
In his book Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis writes,
There is one vice of which no [one] in the world is free; which every one in the world loathes when he sees it in someone else, and of which hardly any people, except Christians, ever imagine that they are guilty themselves. . The vice I am talking of is Pride.. Pride gets no pleasure out of having something, only out of having more of it than the next [person]. We say that people are proud of being rich, clever, or good-looking, but they are not. They are proud of being richer, or cleverer, or better-looking than others. If every one else became equally rich, or clever, or good-looking there would be nothing to be proud about. It is the comparison that makes you proud: the pleasure of being above the rest (pp. 94-95).
That's the story of the Pharisee in our second scripture
reading. His goodness was not his problem. He gives ten percent of his income to the church. What pastor would criticize that? His problem is not his generosity; it's his pride. His sense of superiority alienates him from everyone else, not just the tax collector but everyone. If you notice, when the Pharisee goes to the temple, he prays off by himself. He does not really want to associate with the other people in the temple. He probably considers them all hypocrites. He prefers his own private relationship to God. But in the process he alienates himself from God. Again C. S. Lewis explains,
As long as you are proud you cannot know God. A proud man is always looking down on things and people: and, of course, as long as you are looking down, you cannot see something that is above you (p. 96).
That is why we have a prayer of confession every week in our
church services. Confession is the antidote to pride. The practice of confession is the practice of humility. Every week in worship we pray a prayer of confession in order to practice the attitude about ourselves that is necessary to experience a relationship with God.
Of course, you can also have the opposite problem: feeling so unworthy
that you give up on a relationship to God. That's the danger for the tax collector.
In high school my best friend was a guy named Mike. Mike grew up
Roman Catholic, which in his case meant he grew up feeling a lot of guilt. He overdosed on confession. Weekly confession made him feel that he was never good enough to be accepted by God.
Actually, I remember feeling that way in some of the conservative
Protestant churches I attended growing up in Texas. For a time my father was stationed at Shephard AFB in Wichita Falls, TX, and we lived there for four years. Hell seemed hotter in northern Texas than anywhere else, and I remember as an 11 year-old boy feeling afraid of God, afraid that I would never be good enough to be accepted in heaven.
My friend Mike and I talked about this one time when we were in high
school. We discovered that we dealt with our fear of God in opposite ways. Mike dealt with it by rejecting God. He became an atheist. He believed there was no God to punish him or send him to hell. When he died, that was it. So he was free to enjoy himself while he could.
The problem was he really did not enjoy himself, because he never
found any real meaning for his life. He got a PhD in economics and taught at several different universities, including one in Spokane, but his life, in his own words, seemed empty.
I could have ended up like Mike. Even though he was Catholic and I
was Protestant, I too grew up being afraid of God and fearful I might end up in hell. But fortunately there were enough pastors and Sunday School teachers and Vacation Bible School leaders who told me over and over about God's grace until I finally came to believe it.
I was especially helped by reading a children's biography of Martin
Luther. As some of you may know Martin Luther, the leader of the Protestant Reformation, grew up afraid of God and afraid of being rejected by God. As a young man he did all kinds of religious works to make up for this, just like the Pharisee in our parable. He went to church all the time. He prayed and read the Bible constantly. He even entered a monastery where he thought he would be safe from temptation to sin. He was, to my surprise, a lot like me. He felt he would never be good enough to be accepted by God, which is just how I had felt at that time in my life.
But then Martin Luther read the same scripture that Bill Lewis just
read for us a moment ago. He read in Romans 3 where the apostle Paul says, "Since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus."
It's a gift! It is not something we earn; it is something we trust
in. So instead of rejecting God in order to feel safe, I could embrace God and know that God's love for me is greater than my ability to screw it up.
That's what the tax collector experienced. He knew he was unworthy.
He knew that by his own good works he would never earn God favor. But instead of fleeing from God, he flung himself on God's mercy. He prayed, "God, be merciful to me a sinner."
Jesus says that the tax collector went home justified, using exactly
the same word that Paul uses in Romans 3 when he says, "They are now justified by God's grace as a gift." The word justified means "put right." When we try to justify ourselves to God, as the Pharisee did, it does not work. But when we give up trying to justify ourselves, we are put right with God by grace. We are given a new relationship to God based not on our goodness but on God's transforming power to make us the people we were meant to be, beginning in our lives even now and finishing at the resurrection.
When you are looking down on others, or when you are looking down on
yourself, you cannot see someone above you. But there is someone above us, reaching down to take our hand, if we will only let go of our self-righteousness and self-sufficiency long enough to grasp it.