I’m sure many of you are familiar with the nursery rhyme that goes like this “Little Jack Horner, sat in a corner, eating his Christmas pie, he put in his thumb and pulled out a plum and said ……(wait for congregation to answer) what a good boy am I”. Before anyone could say anything, Jack Horner ended his story by saying “what a good boy am I”.
Wonder if you noticed that in today’s parable we have little Jack Horner’s first cousin the Pharisee who stands in the temple to pray and tells God “what a good boy am I”. I am not like other men he says: I give a tenth of my income to charity, I fast twice a week; I am not an adulterer, thief or rogue - I’m not a sinner.
Actually, according to religious laws at that time, the Pharisee was probably a good man. None of his claims were challenged. But his theology was wrong. Giving a tenth of your income is great but this is not a Louisiana purchase – we cannot buy favor or salvation with the Lord. Also, we are all sinners and comparing oneself with someone else is an act of self righteousness to say the least. God knows everything about us without having to fill him in with the inside story of who we are. Worse still is bad mouthing someone else whom we do not even know! Instead of allowing God to decide if he was a good boy or not, he goes on to say “I am not only good but I am also better than other men.”
Some of us may be in danger of doing the same thing when we compare ourselves with others. Perhaps you are saying, I contribute more to the Church than others, I don’t drink, smoke or hang out with the wrong crowd and for sure I am better than so and so. Friend, we are to leave the judging of others to God. It is quite a different thing to pray for someone who we might assume is less righteous than ourselves but to assertively say that we are better than others is wrong in the sight of God. When I was a little boy I was taught not to point fingers at anyone because 4 of those fingers point back to me!
As you know, Jesus directed this parable to those who exalted themselves and despised others. The Pharisee focused too much on himself. He uses a lot of “I” statements. I thank you, I am not like, I fast, I give tithes, I posses, I am not a sinner (sounds like a Narcissist to me). It’s all about I, Me and Myself and everyone else can go to hell! In a sense he was making his case to God saying you ought to be happy with me because I am a really good guy. Besides, I have achieved everything from my own from hard work and I am giving you a tenth of my money. The Pharisee’s attitude is one that suggests God was a debtor to him and should be grateful and happy to have him. There wasn’t even a remote feeling that he owed God anything. There was no thanksgiving for what God had done for him, no word of praise and he argued that he deserved the best from God.
I do not know about you but I am not going to make it to heaven on my credentials but only through the nail pierced hands of my Lord. Isaiah 64:6 says all our righteousness is like filthy rags. The apostle Paul who wrote a third of the new testament had every reason to be puffed up but instead said “God forbid that I should boast, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world is crucified unto me, and I unto the world.”
Prior to the doctrine of justification by faith, which means we are saved by the atoning death and grace of God, people did believe that they could save themselves through their good works. I am sure the Pharisee was trying to drive home that point but he went wrong many ways especially because he knew everything about himself but never really knew God. Many people are set for this life but not for the life to come.
Today’s parable says two people went to the temple to pray but the beauty is that Jesus allows us to overhear the secret prayers of these two men. We would never have known what was in the heart of the men unless Jesus told us what happened. Likewise, God knows what is in our hearts. I am not suggesting any of us have bad thoughts towards others but we have to be careful because God is watching and knows our thoughts. Unless we esteem our brothers and sisters better than ourselves we may not have a seat at the table. Friends, the Kingdom of God is not made up of the proud and arrogant but rather humble people who confess that they are saved by the atoning blood of the lamb.
We have to be really careful about comparing ourselves with others and more so putting them down. No one might know our thoughts but God knows. The Pharisee went to the temple to pray but instead the tax collector became a conversation piece for him. It is like people coming to Church who watch people walk through the doors and say to themselves, “Look here comes so and so and look at her dress; ...hum and look at that attitude too - how come she looks me in the eye and says nothing. There goes Mr. so and so who thinks no end of himself - in fact he shouldn’t even be in Church. Look at this old woman who is always grumbling and gossiping and yet pretends to be so pious by coming to church every week. She even has the audacity to shake my hand. As for the Priest, we should have got rid of him long time ago!”
It is not out of the realm of possibility that we get caught into situations like this; making judgments of others while we put ourselves above and beyond - even to a standard of perfection. To some of our eyes certain people in the church are hypocrites who could barely talk the talk, let alone walk the walk! This is where the Pharisee went wrong. He never confessed anything and so he was neither blessed with anything. The Pharisee focused on himself, while the tax collector focused on the grace of God. The tax collector did not pray as much as he cried. He kept pounding his chest and pleaded with God to have mercy upon him because he was a sinner. Friends, we cannot fail to learn from this man’s confession that the very foundation of our Christian character is a personal sense of sin and that in confessing it and being delivered from it is essential both for this life and for the life to come.
There might be some among us who find that this very thing the most difficult to do – which is to confess our sin - to say to God, I’ve not been the person you want me to be. Although others may not see what’s inside of me, You know and I know that I need cleansing, I need you grace, heal me, forgive me and make me whole by your mercy O God.
The parable ends with a warning by God who says: “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted” We need to be careful about how we perceive ourselves because the higher we get, the greater will be the fall. To be lifted up and exalted is God’s job not ours. One day he will call our name and each one will be rewarded according to our faithfulness. Hear these precious words from the epistle of James (read ch.4:6b-10)
“God opposes the proud but favors the humble. So humble yourselves before God. Come close to God, and God will come close to you. Wash your hands, you sinners; purify your hearts, for your loyalty is divided between God and the world. Let there be tears for what you have done. Let there be sorrow and deep grief. Let there be sadness instead of laughter, and gloom instead of joy. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up in honor.
Prayer is a conversation with God in which we speak to God and God speaks to us. It is also a holy time because we take our earthy requests to a holy place which is the throne room of God. There is also much intimacy in prayer because God has allowed us to call him “Father.” When we claim a common Father our relationship to one another become brothers and sisters in Christ! It also indicates the need for us to pray for each other as members of one family and not put the other down. When we pray for someone in essence we are connecting that person to God because we take God’s hand on one side and the other persons hand on the other side becoming a conduit of his heavenly grace.
In summation, I want to leave you with some things we can learn from the parable. When we pray, we are not to keep on babbling like pagans, hoping to be heard because of our many words. Sometimes prayer need only be one sentence - like the publican who beat his chest and said “Lord have mercy on me a sinner.” Prayer can also be silent meditation. Sometimes when I think of how good God has been to me and my family, tears roll down my eyes. I do not fully understand it but I am left speechless and overwhelmed by his mercy and grace. My silence and my tears is my prayer.
When we pray, we are to focus on God and not upon ourselves. We are to approach the throne of grace with humility not trusting in our own righteousness but in the mercy and grace of a loving God. We are to remember that salvation or the favor of God cannot be purchased with tithes or offerings nor is there an advantage in having Church membership. We can never be saved by being good but only through surrendering ourselves to the Lordship of Jesus Christ and crying out for his mercy.
Friends, I hope this message helped you feel the love of God and one that provided you with a framework of how to pray. If you are not praying already, make daily prayer a part of your life style. Without prayer, you and I will remain powerless and without prayer you will never have a relationship with the Lord. In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.