February 9, 2005 Luke 18:9-14
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 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.”
Dear friends in Christ,
If you were to write your own eulogy, what would you want it to say? Would you want it to say, “Mr. Smith was a great humanitarian, a wonderful husband, a faithful member of _______________ congregation?” Or would it say, “Mr. Smith was a filthy drunk, a womanizer, and a swindler to boot.” I read something once that said something to the effect of, “if you want to figure out what to do in life, write your own eulogy and then work backwards toward that goal.” It’s not too bad advice. Yet the problem is - no matter what you WANT your eulogy to say - and what it really ends up saying - those are two different things. Ultimately, you can’t control what people think of you. When push comes to shove - does it really matter WHAT the world thinks of you? Yes, you want a good reputation. God doesn’t want you giving HIM or your CHURCH or your FAMILY a bad name by what you’re doing or failing to do. What matters is what GOD thinks of you. This is all important, because when you die YOU will have to face Him. You can’t send your secretary, your mom, or your brother to stand in your place.
The parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector shows a man - the Pharisee - who had a problem with this concept. It wasn’t that he was necessarily overly concerned with what the world thought of him - though I’m sure he would have been. It was the fact that he was approaching God on what HE thought of HIMSELF. He said, ‘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.’ It’s kind of interesting - that as I was preparing for the sermon on this text, I got to thinking about how often we get so used to dogging this guy as just the most pompous jerk in the world - standing in the front of the church with a special robe on and raising his hands to heaven. But if you think about it, is that the picture that Jesus is necessarily drawing for us?
There are two points that came to mind. First of all, look at what he is doing. He is THANKING GOD that he isn’t a robber, evildoer, or adulterer. If he was thanking God that he wasn’t like those other people in the world - was he not in fact giving God credit for his life? He is not being completely arrogant in taking all of the credit for himself. He is acknowledging that the life he is living is a gift of God.
Think also about the things he is not - assuming he is being somewhat honest. He was not an adulterer, robber, of blatantly evil person. He didn’t overcharge people for taxes. He led a seemingly moral life. None of us wants ourselves or our kids to be well known robbers or adulterers. These are evil things. These are lifestyles that are not to be commended. It all too often happens that we as Christians use our “sinfulness” as a crutch - an excuse for immoral behavior. Some people who were well known in Christian communities have not only ended up being swindlers but adulterers and perverts as well. The sad thing is that they excuse their behavior under a rash of excuses ranging from their own “weakness” to the fact that it was someone else’s “fault” - they were simply forced into it. The other sad thing is that when we are so eager to show that we aren’t Pharisees, that we love to show people how “normal” we are. Even though this includes foul language and drunkenness and lewd jokes, at least we aren’t “Pharisees.” This man’s goal was to live a somewhat “moral” life - and he seems to have accomplished that in comparison with the many wicked people in this world. There is something to be commended in this, as strange as it may seem.
That’s what makes this man’s approach to God so insidious - so deceptive - in fact. Because he lives a more “moral” life, and because he also seems to give credit to God for his “moral” life - he then feels that he can approach God on the basis of his reputation - because he’s still giving credit to God for it. I see this idea more and more prominent through “Christian” authors today. It is called a theology of glory. It is a return to the Catholicism doctrine of grace infused. What it means is that we need God to work through us in order for us to fully receive the blessings of his grace and forgiveness. For instance, listen to this quote from one of them - he writes - Besides forgiveness, one must be cleansed from all sin. One’s own way ness, spoken of by Isaiah, must be crucified. Nakedness is clothed, but not sin. Sin is taken away, and the righteousness of Christ is imparted to those who know the recovery power of the blood and the cross of Jesus Christ". (Hegre:17, 35) While mentioning forgiveness, these authors state that you really aren’t forgiven, but that you must reform your life by the power of the Holy Spirit so you CAN BE forgiven. What this approach ends up doing is adding a little bit of your righteousness to Christ’s for forgiveness.
In God’s eyes - this is tantamount to putting a moustache on the Mona Lisa. It completely ruins his work of art. Time after time God’s Word says that this is the worst thing you can do -
Galatians 5:4 You who are trying to be justified by law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace.
Romans 11:6 And if by grace, then it is no longer by works; if it were, grace would no longer be grace.
Romans 3:28 For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law.
Galatians 3:10-11 All who rely on observing the law are under a curse, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law.” Clearly no one is justified before God by the law, because, “The righteous will live by faith.”
Even if I try to rely on what GOD does through me, and give credit to HIM for doing it - it still comes down to the same problem. I am relying on my OWN righteousness. So even though I may not be a drunkard, even though I may not be a swindler, and even though I may not be an adulterer - which is a good thing - it isn’t going to do me a bit of good on Judgment Day. Even if you were an alcoholic and reformed your life, or if you’ve been a faithful father, or if you’ve been a good church goer, it isn’t going to make God somehow tip His hat to you. You can’t fall into the temptation of comparing yourself to other Christians - constantly looking down on other people - even other Christians - because they aren’t as “righteous” as you are. Why not? Because God is a HOLY God. It doesn’t matter how you measure up to OTHER people. It doesn’t matter if you’re “better” than they are. It only matters if you are holy. Matthew 5:48 says, “be holy, because I the Lord your God am holy.” This is not the way to approach God - not with one ounce of your righteousness.
How can we approach God then? It is only by faith. When the tax collector approaches the temple he says, “have mercy on me.” The word “mercy” is full of meaning. But that translation is really kind of generic when you look at the actually phrase he uses. He actually says, “be propitiated for me.” That word “propitiated” can also mean to be “satisfied.” It gives what he’s saying a little more guts. He’s basically asking the Lord to make the payment for him - to find some way of finding something to cover up his sins - to pay for what he’s done. That was the faith of the Old Testament - belief that God would send the Messiah to be the actual Lamb of God. With faith in that promise of God - He still found the courage to go to the temple and asked God to make good on His promise of propitiation.
This is why we continue to focus on the message of the cross throughout the year, and especially during Lent. On this Ash Wednesday we like to say with the tax collector - “be propitiated. Send Him to the cross!” We are forced to look at the suffering and death of Christ and encourage it to happen- because in that suffering and death our payment to God was being made. God was fulfilling His promise. As we hear Jesus again shouting out, “it is finished,” we will once again be assured that our payment has been made in full - that God has been “satisfied” or propitiated. This is the evidence that God uses to prove our innocence. This is where we find our confidence to stand before a holy God - because through the blood of Christ we are wrapped in Jesus’ holiness. With faith in this sacrifice we stand before God - ready for judgment.
You would think, then, that we would have an aura of arrogance about ourselves. That we would have maybe a Christian strut. But as we continue on to look at the tax collector, this is not the case. 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.’ Look at the tax collector’s posture, his actions, and his words. He didn’t feel worthy to even come near the throne of God - so he stood at a distance. Even the angels - who are holy - have such an attitude toward God. In Isaiah’s vision of God he wrote -
I saw the Lord seated on a throne, high and exalted, and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him were seraphs, each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying. (6:1-2)
Notice in the vision that the two angels were covering their faces. God was too holy for them to look at face to face. In the same way but even more so - this tax collector felt unworthy to come before His heavenly Father’s throne.
He could have pointed to the adulterers or the murderers and felt “better” about himself. But instead, when he looked at himself - he only had one thing to say. “Sinner.” The word in the Greek is hamartolos. Strong’s concordance says it means -
1) devoted to sin, a sinner
1a) not free from sin
1b) pre-eminently sinful, especially wicked
1b1) all wicked men
1b2) specifically of men stained with certain definite vices or crimes
1b2a) tax collectors, heathen
Tax collectors were especially looked down on because not only were they were agents of hated the Roman government, but also because they used their powerful positions to actually overcharge people for what they really owed. With that extra money they could line their own pockets, and they often did. So they were apparently despised as some of the most greedy and traitorous people among the Jews.
In view of this he beat his breast. This was a common sign of sorrow back then among the Jews. At their funerals they would have professional mourners who would make a great show of their sorrow by physically beating on their chests. Back in the olden days they would also throw dust on their heads and clothe themselves in sackcloth - a very itchy covering. You would have no problem being able to tell who was sorrowful. Even though the tax collector approached the throne with faith in the mercy of God, he was still sorrowful.
The time of Lent has been traditionally set down as a 40 day period of repentance. 40 days is a common amount of time throughout Scriptures - for Moses time on top of Mt. Sinai, Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, the time of raining of the flood, Jesus time on earth after his resurrection - and so many other things. For these 40 days, the Christian church throughout the ages has decided to set aside this time to dwell on the suffering and death of Christ. Not only are we to dwell on it, but we are to approach it from a penitential - a sorrowful point of view - because WE caused Jesus to go to that cross. Instead of approaching God by comparing ourselves to others, we come with a more humble view. Ash Wednesday is meant to symbolically remind us of our mortality by putting ashes on our foreheads and saying to ourselves and the world - “I am dust and to dust I will return.” It is therefore also a time to repent.
Some might say, “why do this if we’ve already been converted? Why feel this way when we live in the Gospel promise - with the fulfillment of Christ? Are we being too dark in our view of Christianity? Too gloomy? Notice what Jesus said. “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.” Who ended up being justified? Not the Pharisee - who was confident of his lifestyle - but the tax collector.
But why? If you notice in the Pharisee again, he had gotten to the point that not only did he think he was doing what God demanded with the TITHE - but that he was even doing MORE than God demanded. God only called for a fast once a year on the Day of Atonement - and he was fasting twice a week. It’s like those who think they are doing something special by fasting throughout Lent - not eating meat on Fridays - or by even putting ashes on their foreheads. It gets to the point where you try to take pride in your humility saying, “God, look at how really sorry I am.” That’s not why we try to do the 40 days of Lent. It’s really a quite simple concept. If I had a pitcher full of nice refreshing hot chocolate and I wanted to fill your mug, but your mug was full of disgusting old sewer water, I simply couldn’t do it. You would have to empty your glass first. So Jesus says you can’t approach him full of anything - not even your own sorrow.
The tax collector’s attitude wasn’t one that was clinging to his sorrow or even trying to make a show of his sorrow. He was sitting at a distance. He was simply coming to cling to God’s mercy - to the propitiation to come. So Jesus said, “whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” The most humbling thing to do is to admit to God that you are a sinner. Even as Christians, we are still sinners. It is sheer arrogance to think that in our good works as fathers, mothers, pastors, or teachers - that we are somehow earning a good spot with God or removing some sins from our lives - even when we thank Him for our status. Isaiah said, All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away. (64:6) The most humble thing to do is to continue to admit to God - even today - that we continue to be like filthy rags. It is only with this attitude that we will then feel the need to cling to the full righteousness of Christ - to submit to the complete holiness of Christ. It is only with this attitude that God can fill us up. The last thing we want is for any of our “righteous rags” to show before God. This is not going through an unnecessary humility or a dragged out depression. It is approaching God in the way He requires. For Jesus encourages us with the words - “whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” Note the word WHOEVER. This includes all people of all times - no matter where you are in life - a hardened criminal or a lifelong Christian. God promises that you will be exalted. Not in YOUR righteousness - but in Christ’s.
There was once a man who was well-known through his community - but not in a good way. He was a drunk, a party animal, a womanizer, a liar, and often ended up in jail. Finally, after a long life of immorality, he died of liver disease. His brother happened to be rich, and didn’t like the idea of his brother getting a private funeral in shame. He wanted a big hoopla in a huge worship building. He wanted his brother to be remembered as someone great and grandiose. So he approached the preacher and said, “I want you to do the funeral. I’ll give you a thousand dollars, as long as you call him a saint.” So the preacher said, “ok.” In the sermon he then stated, “Mr. Smith was a drunk, a womanizer, a liar, and a swindler, but compared to his brother, he was a saint.”
It seems that many people today are wanting to leave legends about themselves more and more. So they are trying to live lives that will be impressive to the masses, wanting everyone to eulogize about how great they were or what they did during their lives on earth. The tax collector had no chance of dying with a good reputation in his community. It was shot. Yet what really mattered to him was not what people thought of him - but what God thought of him. It didn’t matter what the preacher said about him or his friends said of him - but that God would simply be merciful to him. Jesus said, I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. When you die, it won’t matter what other people think of you, but what GOD thinks of you. With the attitude of the tax collector - that clings to God’s mercy - not to your own righteousness - you will be justified. God grant you that attitude during this Lent season and throughout your life. It is the attitude of faith. Amen.