Summary: A short talk given at a baptism service. If we’re too full of ourselves then God desires humility. If we’re weighed down by sin, by shame, by guilt, and if we can pray, "God have mercy on me a sinner", God will restore us and lift us up.
Jesus told lots of challenging stories; and in the Church we tend to calls his stories parables. But why did Jesus use stories, parables, to communicate truth to his 1st century audience? Well, he used parables to paint a picture with a punchy, poignant, pertinent point. His pithy parables packed a punch.
Rather than simply pointing the finger at other people, Jesus used his stories, his parables, to challenge the views and assumptions of his listeners. Often, a parable of Jesus would be met with shock, astonishment, chins dropping to the ground in disbelief; and yet some people would hear these parables and be changed by them. Yet more people would hear them and experience the love of God breaking through into their situation.
I wonder how you will respond to this parable we are about to hear. A parable first told by Jesus himself.
The primary target audience is immediately clear: Jesus told this parable for people who were confident of their own sense of righteousness and looked down on everyone else (18:9). They were holier-than-thou!
The parable would also have spoken of God’s love and mercy to anyone who’d made a mess of their life through bad choices or was feeling guilty or full of shame. To anyone listening who knew that they needed God’s mercy, to anyone who knew they’d wronged God, to anyone who was aware they were in the gutter and needed saving, to anyone who was prepared to humbly seek God for forgiveness – this parable brought hope.
But the primary targets were highly religious people who attempted to be meticulous in their religious practice and who also looked down on others. In today’s world this parable speaks to anyone who consciously or subconsciously thinks they’re better.
The Pharisee stands for anyone who thinks they’re in God’s good books and looks down on others. The tax collector stands for anyone who knows they’ve sinned and humbly asks God for mercy and forgiveness.
It saddens me deeply to know that too many people in the wider community don’t believe they would find mercy, forgiveness, acceptance and support in the Church; and it comes from a sense that too many so-called religious types act and speak as if they’re better, more holy, more correct; somehow more pure.
It shouldn’t be this way. Jesus mixed with, ate meals with, spent time with, and befriended anyone who felt as if they were an outcast, the lowest of the low. If we claim to be disciples of Jesus – Christians – then he alone is our example.
The author Philip Yancey tells the story of a Christian who was working with street people.
One day he was approached by a woman who was in a desperate situation. She didn’t know that the man was a Christian, she just knew him as someone who might be able to help; and so she described the mess she was in: she was sick, she was an addict, she was homeless, working on the street, and had a daughter that she couldn’t afford to buy food for. As the man listened to the sordid details he was horrified but he tried not to let it show. Finally he asked her if she had ever thought of going to a church for help. She looked at him in amazement and said, “Church! Why would I ever go there? They’d just make feel even worse than I do already.”
Yancey concludes his story with an observation: How far we have come from [Jesus] the teacher who was criticised as a friend of outcasts and sinners. In the parable the holier-than-thou religious man prays this: “God I thank you I am not like other men – robbers, evildoers, adulterers – or even like this tax collector.”
Are there times when we too have prayed or thought quietly to ourselves, “My God, I’m so glad I’m not like him, not like her, not like them, not like that out-of-control family in my road, or that man who did this, that, or the other. Oh God, thank you I’m not like that dishonest MP who forced his wife to take 3 penalty points on her licence.” Thank God I’m not like that (see 9:11-12).
Jesus is not impressed with that kind of prayer, or that kind of mind-set. Instead he points to the tax collector, the sinner who stands at a distance well aware of their condition before God and prays this: “God, have mercy on me a sinner” (9:13).
Jesus wraps up his parable with some straightforward teaching that we do well to hear, learn from and put into practice: ‘Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled and everyone who humbles himself will be exalted’ (9:14).
Are you too full of yourself? God desires humility.
Are you weighed down by shame, by past failure, past sin, past wrong-doing? If you can pray, “God have mercy on me a sinner” God will lift you up, restore you, forgive you, and will give you a new hope. It’s the hope of sins forgiven and a heart washed and made clean. It is this hope that we celebrate with the waters of baptism.