Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Sermon: Luke 18: 9-14

In our Bible reading this morning, Jesus introduces us to two men, both of whom have come along to the temple. The two men illustrate two completely different ways of approaching God, and there’s a great shock for his hearers, both then and now.

Up first, we’re introduced to a Pharisee. The Pharisees were the guys who took the Old Testament very seriously, trying to observe the whole law (all 613 commandments). He’s a prime example of someone who is very religious, and he’s probably someone you would want to be coming along to your church - a good member of the community. A decent sort of a bloke.

The other, well, the less said about him the better. He’s a tax collector - and just as no one likes tax collectors today, they weren’t very popular in Jesus’ day either. Only they were even less liked. To be a tax collector meant working for the Romans. You’re a Jew living in the Promised Land, but this guy is working for the army who defeated you, taking your money and giving it to Caesar (along with a healthy proportion for himself).

So we have the two men, arriving at the temple, and we can listen in to their prayers. Look at verse 11. ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’

He’s praying, but who is he praying to? Himself! He’s praising himself, while at the same time doing down others. It’s all about I, me, myself. His first sentence compares himself to other people, and unsurprisingly, he finds that he’s better than everyone else! He looks around and sees all these evil sinners, but he’s better than that, or so he thinks. It’s like comparing yourself to Hitler, Martin McGuinness and the Yorkshire Ripper. You’re going to think yourself better. The problem is that he doesn’t compare himself to perfection, to the perfect obedience of Jesus. He fails to see how he has fallen short.

His second sentence then focuses on the good religious practices he does - fasting and tithing. But again, it seems that he’s saying look at me! Remember the context of the parable - Jesus is telling it to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and treated others with contempt. Can they see themselves in this Pharisee?

Can we see ourselves there too? While we might not come out and say it out loud, there can be some times when we think these sort of things in our heart. We have a tendency to think better of ourselves and worse of others. We compare ourselves to more evil people, rather than better people. We always come out with a better opinion about ourselves.

The second man’s prayer isn’t as long., Just seven words in English: ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ He’s standing far off, he doesn’t even look up, he beats his breast. He recognises his sinfulness - not just the things he has done wrong but his very nature of being a sinner. He knows he doesn’t deserve anything, and so he begs for mercy from God. A full recognition of who he is, and a cry for God to be who he is - full of mercy.

The shock comes in verse 14. Jesus has told the parable, and now he gives the verdict. ‘I tell you, this man (that is, the tax collector) went down to his house justified, rather than the other (that is, the Pharisee).’ What a shock! Those listening (and us continuing to listen) expect that the high performing good guy will be justified, accepted by God, welcomed by God; but that’s not how it works. The tax collector who threw himself on God’s mercy, not trusting in himself but only on God - he was the one who was justified. As Jesus summarises, ‘For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.’

It’s so counter-cultural, isn’t it? Society and culture says exalt yourself, better yourself, take pride in yourself, achieve self-esteem, be independent. But to take that approach will lead, in the end, to being humbled. Whereas those who humble themselves, their need, their desperate state exposed - they will be exalted.

As we come to the Lord’s Table today, are you coming trusting in yourself, your goodness and your achievements? If so, there may just be a shock for you - God will not justify you. Or will you come humbly, recognising your plight as a guilty sinner; your need for mercy, throwing yourself on the arms of mercy of the Lord Jesus?

Nothing in my hands I bring,
Simply to thy cross I cling

This sermon was preached at the Midweek Communion service in St Elizabeth's Church, Dundonald on Wednesday 18th August 2010.

No comments:

Post a Comment