Some of you have heard me talk about super heroes before, whether in movies, or comics, or old television shows. I love them all, because they rise above the fray to make decisions and take action when other people are standing around. Whenever danger lurks, they rise. Whenever evil strikes, they respond. That’s great. But the truth is, super heroes have some serious character flaws as well.
Take Batman: while being the world’s greatest detective not named Sherlock, he suffers from a serious desire for vengeance. Or Spiderman: who is the world’s bravest teenage mutant, but struggles with insecurity and indecision. Even Superman has problems—he’s always trying to save the world, making decisions that aren’t always his to make. The superheroes are sweet, but they sure are bipolar.
Speaking of bipolar, (and no, I’m not going to reveal a personal confession,) I want to share one of my favorite parables tonight. That’s the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector from Luke 18:9-13. It’s the story of the opposite ends of the spectrum of faith for two people who both admit that there’s a God, but who relate to God in opposite ways.
To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’
“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.’
I’ve always been fascinated by the way Jesus sets this up—and the way that the author comments on what he’s about to tell us. Jesus is about to enter Jerusalem and head toward the cross, and his last parable is about righteousness. What does that say about what Jesus thinks is important? He doesn’t preach on marriage, or homosexuality, or how much you’re supposed to go to church—he preaches on righteousness.
So these two guys go up to the temple to pray—they’ve two things in common, they’re both men (because no one would’ve listened to a parable about two women) and they’re both headed to pray. There’s no comment on the way they’ll do it, just that this is where they’re headed and why.
But when we hear that one is a Pharisee, and one is a tax collector, we hear the difference in the way that society would’ve seen them. The Pharisees saw themselves as the end all and be all of righteous living, as well as their self-appointed status of gatekeepers of the faith. By gatekeeper, I mean, that they decided whether you were in or out of the religious community—they determined the kosher and the not kosher, the in and the out. But the narrator, the author of Luke has already let us in on where this is going—we’re going to hear something that knocks down the righteousness of the self-righteous.
The Pharisee it says, stands up. I’ve always taken that to mean he went to the front, and that he might as well have used a megaphone. It wasn’t really a prayer to God, it was a prayer about himself, out there, for everyone else to hear. What are prayers supposed to be about? The answer on that varies, but it should be TO God, and the focus here was definitely the content—this is for the individual, not between him and a powerful, spiritual being who has created and sustained him.
So the Pharisee compares himself to other men, to robbers, evildoers and adulterers. I’ve heard murderers in place of evildoers, if that helps you get a broader picture. So it’s like he’s saying, “I’ve never done the big three. I don’t steal, I don’t kill and I don’t sleep around.” But he takes it a step further, because he looks an aisle over and says, pointing, “Thank goodness I’m not like that guy over there.” That’s the same attitude that drove Jonah to Joppa, into the belly of a whale (or giant fish!) because he didn’t want to go to Nineveh like God told him to. Nineveh was too evil to be saved (in Jonah’s mind) so he didn’t want to waste his time. Jonah was an Old Testament Pharisee.
Speaking of Pharisees, robbers, murderers and the like, it reminds me of my favorite billboard. It was one a church ran on Cary Street: “Jesus hung out with tax collectors, prostitutes and murderers. There’s plenty of room for you here, too.” That billboard didn’t survive long before the Pharisees of the present day church had it taken down, but I think it was more in line with Jesus than the Pharisee’s prayer.
But he’s not done yet. Besides not doing wrong, our Pharisee is also quick to point out that he also meets the law by his actions, by what he’s doing. The fasting and tithing of ten percent would’ve been expected, required, part of his service to God. So, he’s all set as far as the law is concerned, both coming and going. The Pharisee has proven to himself that he’s a good person, that his actions exceed the expectations, so of course he’s right with God.
We see a completely different attitude from the tax collector. He’s humble because he sees his own sins and can’t look even in God’s direction—he merely prays, “God, have mercy on me a sinner.” He’s a guy in the back of the church who can hardly walk in the door, because he knows he’s screwed up, sinful, and desperately in need of some spiritual healing. He’s humble, and direct, not wordy or convoluted.
So I wonder what that would look like here at our church. Who are the Pharisees and the tax collectors? How are we guilty of being like the Pharisee? When we’re the ones who’s lives are together, right now, and we shake our heads at those who are struggling, we’re Pharisees. When we’re the majority of race, gender, religion or sexual preference, and we hold that against others intentionally OR unintentionally, we’re Pharisees. When we get hung up on who’s drinking, partying, sleeping around, smoking weed, spending money, etc., we’re being Pharisees. When we look at the faith of other people, and see our checklist as more filled than theirs, we’re Pharisees. And that scares me, because Jesus didn’t come to earth by way of the so-called ‘stable,’ for people who thought they had at all, like the Pharisees, he came for the least and the lost.
See, the Pharisees are masters of the checklist. And Jesus’ parable is specifically aimed at reminding us that the love of God isn’t about a checklist. You can’t make yourself good. You can’t earn a relationship with God. You can’t earn heaven. You will never be good enough. But that’s not the point. God’s grace is enough. It’s for the least and the lost, the people who can admit their need for God.
It says in Romans that “while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8.) While you were still stuck in the worst thing that you’ve ever done, completely oblivious of everything that Jesus wants for your life, Jesus died for you. Jesus knew every thing you’d ever do, before you accepted him and after, and he still died for you.
And Paul puts the emphasis on the “we,” not the video game setup that provides you with everything you need, without having to really throw a football or swing a golf club—no the “we” of community. C.S. Lewis said in Mere Christianity that “Pride gets no pleasure out of having something, only out of having more of it than the next man. We say that people are proud of being rich, or clever, or good-looking, but they are not. They are proud of being richer, or cleverer, or better-looking than the others. If everyone 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.”
“How is it that people who are quite obviously eaten up with Pride can say they believe in God and appear to themselves very religious? I am afraid it means they are worshipping an imaginary God. They theoretically admit to themselves to be nothing in the presence of this phantom God, but are really all the time imagining how He approves of them and thinks them far better than ordinary people.”
C.S. Lewis isn’t taking any prisoners! When I’m proud, I’ve lost sight of God. When I judge someone, I’ve lost sight of God. To me, as someone who has accepted Jesus and his death and resurrection for myself when I was six, I must recognize that I am often the Pharisee, that pride and my desire to be better than others gets in my way. Anytime I accept the excellence and position of my life as right, and ignore the wrongness of the lives of those who are less fortunate, oppressed, abused and left behind, I become a Pharisee. When I let my education, my occupation, my salary, my comfort, get in the way of the people God wants me to love, I become a Pharisee. To avoid being a Pharisee, I must see through the eyes of God.
It makes no sense that God would spend his time dying on a cross for me, his creation, but he did. And because he did, I must look through his eyes at situations, places and people. Like Night Vision goggles, what was invisible and in the dark becomes visible. What was forgotten and neglected now takes center stage. God himself came into the world as someone invisible, unnoticed, absurdly. Why would he come like that? How else could he have come? He came absurdly to make the lowly royal and the royal lowly.
Yet the religious majority often make the lowly lower. God wants us to know the invisible, and to make the least great.
Speaking of the invisible, God has really turned my eyes to Africa as of late.
I am not much of a newspaper reader or news watcher. I am sure that you have more experience and more of a world-aware outlook than I have. My sister served as a short-term missionary to Guinea and Kuwait. But she really has turned my attention to Africa.
On a recent trip with her church, my sister Andrea found that her church group was the main attraction. People came from miles away to see the white people! They were celebrities. One night, the lead missionary who was showing their team around showed a movie about how Jesus had changed the life of a tribal witch doctor, and the people were packed in so numerously, that they couldn’t all get in the tent. The crowd came because of the visiting white people, but then they stayed and this movie sucked them in.
When the movie was over, nobody moved, which the missionary said was atypical. So, finally, he got up front and asked if anyone had seen anything that changed their minds about what they believed. He told them Jesus loved them, and twelve people ended up coming forward to pray a sinner’s prayer and accept Jesus into their hearts.
But the visiting group from my sister’s church couldn’t really take much credit. They didn’t do much, but they showed up. It’s one of those times where they could see so clearly that God loved them and that God used them, but it wasn’t about them.
Jesus told this parable about the Pharisee and the tax collector, and died only days later, still trying to prove to people that God loves them more than they could ever know. And that they didn’t need to compare themselves to others, they just needed to love God… back.
What happens when we start to live like that, knowing that God has loved you since before you were born and will love you forever? See, the Pharisee isn’t the only one “wrong” in the parable. The tax collector has a problem, too. He can’t see how much God loves him and wants to embrace him and lift him up. He, too, doesn’t seem to understand that Jesus is enough.
Is that you? Do you fail to see how much you’re loved because you’ve been told over and over again that you’re not lovable? Have you been told you’re not worth it? Have you been fed so much of the American dream, of pulling yourself up by the bootstraps, of working hard to get ahead, that you feel like you’re doing something wrong if you’d just accept God’s grace? Do you accept that God alone has done the heavy lifting?
Both of these guys are flipsides of a personality, one the exhaustingly insecure and the other, the incredibly arrogant. Neither one meets Jesus where he is, and neither one fully embraces the gospel, the good news of liberation for the world.
As Easter approaches, think back to Christmas, the Nativity, as God himself enters the world as a baby. I can’t imagine what it would be like to be God the Father and send his Son innocently into the world. When I look at our kids, I see the way that we’re blessed to care for someone else, and I recognize how weak and fragile our human lives really are. But God loved us enough to expose his one and only son to that, without holding back!
When I look at my kids, I feel love that I didn’t understand before. God loved me so much he gave up the one thing that was his own—not a creation but the real thing. God didn’t see me as invisible, he saw me as priceless, more worthwhile than anything money or power could buy.
Because I’m priceless, because you’re priceless, God was willing to sacrifice his one and only son to die on the cross, so that you could have an eternal relationship with him. You have to want it, and you have to let it change your life. He isn’t going to force it on you, but when you let him, it’ll change your life. Someone said once that there is a resurrection at the end of every sentence, a new hope, and something beautiful that is about to begin. When your life is that sentence, that means even more.
Today, I pray for you, that God would open your eyes, and reveal the things that are invisible to you now. As we move through Lent, I pray that God would expose the things that you are proud of that keep you from seeing God’s grace, and that he would wipe away your insecurities and doubts that keep you from knowing that you matter. I pray that he will bless you with friends to keep your accountable, and a compassion for those hurting around you, especially those people on the fringe.
Maybe this parable is for you, the Pharisee, that God would show you what portions of your life are keeping you from seeing him clearly, and which people you need to reach out to. Maybe you have a family member, a co-worker, a neighbor that needs to simply know that Jesus loves you.
Or maybe this parable is for you, the tax collector, today. Maybe you need to pray that you can see the love of God, that he has forgiven the sins you can’t talk about AND the ones that everyone knows and make you ashamed. Pray that God would heal your heart and your life, because in God’s eyes, we’re all part tax collector, all part Pharisee.
But in the end, we’re all sinners who Christ has died for, and that makes us the blessed children of God.