Summary: Jesus points to our salvation by the Father's grace alone, not by our works--first through a parable, and then in action as He welcomes children (even infants).
The Word of God that engages us today is our Gospel reading from Luke 18. And in our Gospel reading, Jesus challenges the presuppositions of those around Him. Our Gospel reading is really broken down into two sections—and quite often you’ll get a sermon on one or the other, as if they’re unrelated. But they’re not. They are very much tied together. The passage begins in the realm of imagination, in the form of a parable; but then leaves us in the realm of reality, as Jesus’ ministry is played in full view of His disciples. And in the end, we see the Father's inexplicable, irrational love for us fallen creatures.
Like I said, the two sections of this passage are very much tied together, as the events unravel and we hear and join in the narrative of what I call “The Good, The Bad, and the Snuggly.” And the thread holding it together is found in that first verse. Jesus looked around Him and saw that He was surrounded by people “who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, [while treating] others with contempt.”
So, Jesus says to them, “Stop me if you’ve heard this one…Two men walk into the temple to pray. One a Pharisee, and the other a tax collector.” It certainly sounds like the beginning of a joke, but it is no laughing matter. Because it’s here that we need to stop and check our own understanding and presuppositions of these two men. See, we’ve grown up learning about Pharisees being the bad guys, while the tax collectors and sinners Jesus so often proves aren’t so bad after all. And while for the most part that’s what we find in the end in Scripture, sometimes it’s good to step back and consider what Jesus is saying from the perspective of those around him—those who first heard him say these things we take for granted. So, before we go any further, put yourself in the shoes of a first century Palestinian man or woman.
If you were a first century Palestinian, you’d find that the Pharisee, from a worldly perspective, was a good man--not so bad, after all. He was a model Jewish citizen, really. The word “Pharisee” means “separated,” meaning he did not live like others. Which is really saying something, because the people of Israel were already supposed to be holy, or “set apart,” to the Lord. They were already supposed to be living differently than all the other nations of the earth. Then, within this people group, the Pharisees arose, setting themselves apart even further from within a people already set apart. So, it’s no surprise, then, to hear Jesus telling the story saying the Pharisee stood by himself. He was physically setting himself apart from everyone else in the temple that day--up front, away from everyone, but in full view of them all. And all who heard his prayer would have admired him, for HE was a good man. He did what was right according to the Law. And if you question the validity of that statement, just look to his example. He fasted and tithed more than what was required by the Law of Moses. Only one fasting a week was prescribed—this guy’s doing double duty. And tithing was only required for certain specific profits—this guy is super generous, giving 10% of everything. Not just 10% of what he makes, but 10% of ALL he possesses! This is a good guy. If anyone was right before God, we think, this guy is it. Anyone would be happy to have him serve on their Church Council or Board of Elders. Everyone would be more than happy to welcome this guy as a son-in-law. This Pharisee was a good, good man!
But then, off in the back corner of the temple, you spot him. The tax collector. Your blood boils just at the thought of this guy. The tax collector, from a worldly perspective, was a bad man. A very bad man. He was considered a traitor for working with Rome. A sort of “puppet” doing the bidding of a foreign world power. He was not honest with his taxes, using certain loopholes to get more money than he should have. The government gave him certain responsibilities relative to his dealings there in the Middle East—but he often betrayed their trust. He should’ve been thrown in prison, but the authorities had no one else to hold this office, no better system for collecting their taxes, so they settled for this man--whom some on this side might call "crooked," and others on this side might call "deplorable." From his job, to his politics, to his lifestyle—everything about this guy flies in the face of your values and what you believe and uphold. He was no model citizen, and everyone knew it—including himself!