(Luke 18: 9-14)
I firmly believe that God hooked me up with Teresa almost fifty years ago because he knew that, from time to time, or more often than not, I would need the occasional attitude adjustment. And he was right. There were many times in my past life, particularly when I was an elected prosecutor, that I would get a case of the big head, an inflated ego, when I would proclaim: “I did this, and I did that.” She would stop me short and tell me to stop using the “I” word so much and use “we” instead, even if there wasn’t any “we”. At least I wasn’t referring to myself in the third person. Hopefully, I’ve gotten better and use “we” more than “I” and that there actually is a “we” involved. I’d also like to think that being voted out of office twice was because of something other than God needing to humble me. That would be harsh. And humility, I think, is something most of us have to work at and I’m reminded of Mac Davis’ song: It’s Hard to Be Humble where he says: “Oh Lord, it’s hard to be humble when you’re perfect in every way. I can’t wait to look in the mirror cause I get better lookin’ each day. To know me is to love me. I must be a heck of a man. Oh Lord, it’s hard to be humble but I’m doin’ the best that I can.
God appreciates and values humility which is what the Apostle Luke is talking about in our scripture reading this morning. Luke tells us that Jesus told this parable to certain people who had convinced themselves that they were righteous and who looked down upon everyone else with disgust. Jesus says: Two people went up to the temple to pray. One was a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed about himself with these words, “God, I thank you that I’m not like everyone else—crooks, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week. I give a tenth of everything I receive.” Ouch! That was hurtful. You can imagine the tax collector saying to himself: “You know, I’m right here. I can hear you.” It’s not as if the tax collector needed anyone reminding him that he was not looked upon with favor by anyone. Nobody likes paying taxes, especially the rich, and the Pharisees were considered upper middle class at the very least. They did alright and wanted for little. Now, in all fairness, we need to acknowledge that the Pharisees at times got a bad rap, but it was often at their own doing. In some Christian preaching and teachings, Pharisees have been viewed very negatively, however, at the time of Jesus, Pharisees were generally respected religious leaders and looked up to. It was only when Jesus challenged the status quo that some of the more vocal and conniving ones gave the others a bad name. We’re told that the tax collector stood at a distance and wouldn’t even lift his eyes toward heaven. Rather, we are told, that he struck his chest and said: “God, show mercy to me, a sinner.” Jesus continues by saying: I tell you, this person went down to his home justified rather than the Pharisee. All who lift themselves up will be brought low, and those who make themselves low will be lifted up.
This parable is addressed to those who had convinced themselves that they were righteous and who looked upon everyone else with disgust and contempt. The temptation here is to read this parable and associate ourselves with the tax collector. Nobody wants to think of themselves as some sort of pompous ass. We all want to identify with the sinful tax collector as we are really big on telling everyone we are saved sinners, but let’s be honest with ourselves, even though we half-heartedly admit to being sinners we also tell ourselves we are, at least, not as big a sinner as that guy or “those” people. However, the parable is described as being for those individuals who find themselves acting like the Pharisee. And we have to honestly ask ourselves how often have we ourselves been guilty of such thinking and how and why are we thinking those thoughts today? Now there is no doubt that the Pharisee did all he did, but the problem was his attitude in doing it, which wasn’t very Godly. Certainly, today it wouldn’t be considered very Christ-like. He didn’t go to the temple to pray to God, but to announce to all within earshot how good and pious he was. It’s the tone of the Pharisee’s prayer that reveals his problem. He uses the pronoun “I” five times in two verses. “I thank you that I’m not like everyone else-crooks, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week. I give a tenth of everything I receive.” The Pharisee’s attitude seems to be that God should be grateful to him for his commitment. The tax collector, on the other hand, went to temple recognizing his sin and begging for mercy. The tax collector knew that he could not say or bring anything to enhance his standing with God. He knew that only God’s mercy and grace, and not his own works, could deliver him. Now don’t get me wrong, good works are good if they are done for the right reason, but the heart of the true servant recognizes that even in our best deeds we have only done our duty. True humility keeps no track of good works and focuses upon confession and repentance.
Self-righteousness, like that of the Pharisee’s, is dangerous and contagious. It leads to pride, causes a person to despise others, you know, those people, and prevents him or her from learning anything from God. You know, those things Jesus spoke of in his Least of These parable about giving water to the thirsty, food to the hungry, clothes to the naked, tending to the sick, welcoming the stranger, and visiting the person in prison, and when you are doing it for the least of his brothers and sisters, you are doing it for him. Remember, the Pharisee was bragging about what he did, fasting twice a week and giving his ten percent, no more, no less. You didn’t hear him ticking off a laundry list of what he did for the less fortunate and if he did, he would only be doing it to call attention to what a great guy he was. He’s certainly not sharing out of his abundance. He’s following the Law of Moses and the prophets, what we call the Old Testament, and he’s not learning anything from God as he should if he would take the time to understand the teachings of Jesus, as in love God and love your neighbor.
Jesus identified the contrast between the Pharisee and the tax collector as one between pride and humility, between those who exalt and those who humble themselves. And here we are two thousand years later, and false pride is still just a big a problem now as it was then. All you have to do is go on social media and you can see the boastings of modern-day Pharisees flaunting their piety, their self-proclaimed holiness all-the-while putting down people who are different from them with their vitriol. This form of self-aggrandizement is dangerous and contagious as it leads to a false sense of pride, and you begin to think you really are better than the people Jesus cares about, and you start doing things by acts of commission or omission to further disenfranchise “those” people. If we are to believe this parable, and there is no reason not to, these are the proud people God will bring down, the ones who don’t get it or refuse to even try, as He exalts the humble.
The message here is that those of us who are religious today need to heed the caution directed toward the Pharisee and throw ourselves on the mercy of the one who lifts up the lowly. The tax collector’s prayer: “God, show mercy to me, a sinner” should be our prayer because we need God’s mercy more and more every day. Don’t let pride in your achievements or who you think you are cut you off from God. Admit to God that you really are a sinner and ask God for mercy. Admit to yourself that you are no better than those who don’t look like you, don’t pray like you, don’t think like you, don’t speak like you, don’t love like you, and don’t vote like you. We are all equal in the eyes of God. And if you think there are any exceptions, stop and pray for an attitude adjustment.
Let us pray.
Pass us not, O gentle Savior, hear our humble cries. While on others thou art calling, do not pass us by. Gracious, loving, compassionate, and forgiving Father, hear our humble prayer: “God, show mercy to me, a sinner.” Keep us from all pride in what we have, what we do, and who we think we are. Remind us of whose we are and that there is nothing we can do to earn your mercy and grace other than by humbling ourselves before you and turning our lives over to you in the hopes that you will use us in the establishment of your kingdom here on earth for all of your cherished, troubled, and forgotten children. Move us in all that we do to be the “we” and not the ”I” as we show our gratitude for the mercy you have shown us. In Jesus’ name, we pray, Amen.