Sermon Preached at Grace Community Church (EPC)
Sun City Grand, Surprise, AZ
Sunday, February 21, 2010
by the Reverend Cooper McWhirter
"In a Manner of Speaking": The Parable of 'The Pharisee and the Publican'
The following account is based on a true story. “There’s nothing wrong with me,” the man said. The paramedic pleaded with the injured driver. “But sir, you’ve just been involved in a terrible car accident. You’re bleeding and have some deep bruises and contusions. There may be internal damage!” Again the accident victim protested: “There’s absolutely nothing wrong with me … I’ll be just fine.” But the paramedic kept insisting, “Sir, at least have a doctor check you over. We have an ambulance right here and the nearest hospital is just a few blocks away … it shouldn’t take very long.” The injured man, annoyed at this point, said: “I told you, there’s nothing wrong with me!” “But sir! …” said the paramedic as the injured man walked over to his wife’s car, got in, and drove away from the accident scene. Later that same night the man died at his home. The cause of his death? … Yep, you guessed it, he died from internal bleeding!
“There’s nothing wrong with me” can be a very dangerous thing to say. And this is especially true when it comes to a person’s spiritual life. Imagine someone having the gall to stand before God and say, “There’s nothing wrong with me!” which is just another way of saying, “I’ve done nothing wrong!”
Conversely, for someone in all sincerity to say, “There’s nothing right with me!” conveys godly sorrow and genuine contrition.
We’ve now entered the season of Lent, which is a period of forty days leading up to the celebration of Easter. It’s a time for the Christian to look inwardly and to be mortified by his sinful behavior. But Lent is also a time for the believer to give thanks to God for He promises “to forgive us our sins and to cleanse from all unrighteousness” [1 John 1:9]. In a word, it’s time for all of us to “fess up” and to come clean!
In this parable, Jesus draws a distinction between two nameless individuals. But notice their similarities as well as their differences. First of all, BOTH INDIVIDUALS WERE INTENT ON PRAYING (repeat).
Previously, Jesus had been addressing a group of Pharisees in which He shared a trilogy of parables about the “Lost Sheep,” the “Lost Coin,” and the “Prodigal Son.” The Lord then turned to His disciples, and told them another parable entitled the “Unrighteous Steward” which was an obvious reference to these religious legalists because immediately following we read: “Now the Pharisees who were lovers of money; were listening to all these things, and they were scoffing at Him” [Luke 16:14]. Jesus rebukes these hypocrites and says to them: “You are the ones who justify yourselves in the eyes of men, but God knows your hearts. What is highly esteemed among men is detestable in God’s sight” [Luke 16:15].
Jesus wasn’t one to mince words for in verse 9 Luke writes: “To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable” [Luke 18:9]. Jesus begins this parable by saying: “Two men went up to the temple to pray – a Pharisee and a tax collector.” In other words, both men went to the temple for the same expressed purpose … to pray. So far so good; after all, what could possibly be wrong with praying?
Tony Evans, well-known conference speaker and author and the Senior Pastor at Oak Cliff Bible Fellowship in Dallas, has this to say about prayer: “For many of us, prayer is like the playing of the “National Anthem” at the beginning of a sporting event. It gets the game started, but it has no connection with what’s happening on the field. It’s a courtesy call!”
Unfortunately for many people prayer has become perfunctory; it’s almost an afterthought! We go to God in prayer when our backs are against the wall and there’s no one else to turn to! It’s a kind of “foxhole” mentality where we seek to bargain with God saying something to the effect, “God, if you get me out of this situation, I’ll never bother you again. The only problem is that God expects us to come to Him with all of our needs. If the truth be known, God not only expects it … He demands it!
But there’s a difference between what I call a “horizontal” prayer and a “vertical” prayer. A horizontal prayer is when we pray aloud so that others can hear us. In other words, it’s a collateral form of communicating.
Let me illustrate. It was Christmastime and the small boy knelt down by his bed to pray, “Lord, please bless mommy and daddy, my sister and my brother and bless grandma, too. And Lord let me have a bicycle especially from YOU! The boy’s mother could hear him praying so loud that he was almost yelling. She walked into the little boy’s room and said, “Son, you don’t have to scream, God can hear you.” The boy looked up with his eyes all aglow and said, “Yes, mommy, I know God can hear me, but grandma doesn’t hear very well and she’s the one with the money for my bike!”
On the other hand, vertical prayer is as Jesus has instructed us: “But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father who is unseen. Then when your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you” [Matthew 6:6].
Presumably both of these men had the same purpose for coming to the temple that day which was to pray. However, as we’re about to discover BOTH INDIVIDUALS WERE DIFFERENT IN THEIR MANNER AND THEIR MOTIVES (repeat).
Notice that the Pharisee was in a standing position which was the posture for that of a priest. And he prayed about himself saying, “God, I thank You that I am not like other men – robbers, evildoers, adulterers – or even like this tax collector” [verse 11]. Please, my friends, whatever you do when you pray to your heavenly Father, never, ever compare yourself to somebody else. God will do the sifting for He alone will separate the wheat from the chaff and the lambs from the goats.
Then, as if to justify himself before Almighty God, this Pharisee lauded himself for fasting twice a week and giving a tenth of all he earned. In every respect this man’s deeds were commendable and exemplary. In the eyes of the world this was a man for whom others should imitate, look up to, and respect.
Or should we? Not according to Jesus’ own words where in His “Sermon on the Mount” He said: “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogue and on the street corners to be seen by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full” [Matthew 6:5].
On the other hand, this tax collector was a contemptible human being. In Jesus’ day such men were reviled and hated by both the Jews and the Romans. The Roman authorities relied on such men to help in collecting taxes for Caesar. But such men were also loathed by their fellow countrymen because they seized what money they could, pocketing the difference. Men such as these enjoyed a comfortable lifestyle on the backs of the oppressed and poor.
But notice what Jesus says about this pitiful character where in verse 13 He says: “But the tax collector stood at a distance.” In other words this man dared not come too close to this revered Pharisee. In some respects he compared himself to that of a leper who was required to carry a sign around his neck saying, “Unclean!” “Unclean!”
This man was in such anguish and his soul tormented that he dared not even to look up to heaven, but instead beat his breast saying, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner” [verse 13]. This man didn’t come to the temple to be seen! In fact I suspect that he would have preferred to have been invisible to others.
This man pleaded for God’s mercy. Mercy is best defined as “not receiving that which we deserve.” His sins were great, but God’s mercy was ever so much greater!
Like that of this penitent sinner, we pray to the unseen God who sees both the seen and the unseen. He knows full well the condition of our hearts which prompted Jesus to make this startling declaration: “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted” [verse 14].
John Bunyon, the 17th century English Christian and writer of Pilgrims Progress, once said: “It is better by far to pray with your heart without words, than with words without heart.”
It was the spring of 1989 and I was in the process of selling the family business; a business that was founded by my grandfather in 1917. I had devoted almost twenty years of my life in this endeavor and now it seemed that it was all for naught. As I stood in my office with tears running down my cheeks, hot tears, I prayed to God for His divine guidance. His Spirit spoke to my spirit in a language all its own, as if God was saying to me: “I have other plans for you …” for just as the prophet Jeremiah writes: “… plans for welfare and not for calamity to give you a future and a hope. Then you will call upon Me and come and pray to Me, and I will listen to you” [Jeremiah 29:11, 12]. From that moment on I knew that God would direct my steps in whatever I was to do and wherever I was to go!
My friends, a day is coming when all of us will have to stand before Almighty God. And if we are to be found justified in His sight, it will not be because of anything we have done, even in our meritorious service to Him. Rather, it will be because of what Christ Jesus has done on our behalf!
And on that appointed day if you were to be asked, “How are you?” please don’t say, “I’m fine … there’s nothing wrong with me!” Because unless Christ is by your side as your Advocate and Intercessor, then there’s nothing right with you! Instead be like that tax collector who lamented: “God be merciful for I am a sinner, but thank God I am a sinner saved by Thy grace!”
Let us pray …