St Andrew’s, Edwardsville—Luke 18:9-14
Most of us have probably had this experience. We’re standing in the checkout line at the grocery store. We’re just getting a few items, and we’re in kind of a hurry, and our mind is distracted by a million and one other things that we’re concerned about. And then we notice that the person ahead of us looks like they’re buying groceries for a small army—including some high-quality cuts of meat that we normally think twice about buying—and—What’s this?—they’re paying with food stamps. We take a closer look, and see that the customer is a young mother, and it appears that there’s a pack of cigarettes in her purse. “Well…” we think to ourselves, “She has enough money to feed her nicotine addiction, but not to feed her family, huh?” Then we look down and see her six-year old boy wearing the latest fashion-fad footwear, with built-in trampolines or jet engines or whatever it is this month, and our irritation begins to verge on anger. Our own kids have been asking for those shoes, and we’ve said, “No, they’re too expensive.” We think, “Why doesn’t she just get a job and pay for her own food and quit mooching off hard-working taxpayers.” We feel just a little bit proud of our own self-sufficiency. Our nose is pointed just a tiny bit upward, in recognition of the fact that we would never let ourselves sink to such a level, and if this woman would just develop some character, she wouldn’t have to live that way either.
And at the very same moment that we find ourselves despising . . . well, maybe “despising” is too strong a word . . . well, then again, maybe it’s not . . . at the very same moment that we find ourselves despising the woman in the checkout line, we despise ourselves for despising her! We see in ourselves the people to whom Jesus addressed this parable about the Pharisee and the tax collector, people who St Luke says “trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others.” It’s one thing to think highly of ourselves, to think we’re “all that.” It’s bad enough to be conceited and arrogant, but it’s really over the top, most of us would feel, to look down on those who are not as beautiful or healthy or rich or talented or intelligent or educated or cultured or sophisticated as we are. This was the attitude of Jesus’ audience when he told this parable, and it was certainly the attitude of the Pharisee.
Now, trying to negotiate our way through a parable like this is like walking through a minefield. It’s very tricky. To Jesus’ original audience, right off the bat, the Pharisee would be presumed to be the “good guy” and the tax collector the “bad guy.” It would be like if I were to tell you a story that began, “Once upon a time, there was a bishop and a gangster.” The bishop would right away be presumed innocent and the gangster presumed guilty. We would look kindly on the bishop and sneer at the gangster. But, as we know, in a parable, the tables are turned: The Pharisee turns out to be a scoundrel and the tax collector a hero. And once we figure this out, it’s not hard to make the switch: We praise the humility of the tax collector and sneer at the arrogance of the Pharisee. And therein lies the pitfall, because once we do that, we become guilty of the very offense of which we accuse the Pharisee—trusting in ourselves, that we are righteous, and despising others.
It’s really a very easy trap to fall into. As human beings, we know ourselves to possess free will. We are not always free to act on what we will, but our will is free. Dale Carnegie was fond of observing that time is the great equalizer among people. Both the king and the beggar have exactly 24 hours in a day—no more, no less. The difference between people lies in what they do with those 24 hours. Particularly in American society, we are all about “options” and “choices.” I remember an advertising slogan from the early days of cable TV: “It’s not just more choice, it’s your choice.” And that was long before program guides with numbers that extend up to channel 1800! “Freedom” and “responsibility” are highly-esteemed values in our culture. We are so solidly formed in those values, that we suppose a person can, by the strength of his or her character and will, achieve sufficient virtue to satisfy God’s expectations of the way a human being should live. A well-instructed Christian might know better, but to the people among whom we live and work in this society, it sounds quite reasonable that, if a person tries hard enough, he or she can lead a life that is pleasing to God, a life that earns God’s blessing and favor, a life that deserves to be rewarded. The connection that we don’t readily make, however, is that such a life would be exactly like that of this Pharisee. “I am not like other people,” he says. “I’m upright, honest in my business dealings, and faithful to my wife. I fast twice a week as a religious discipline, and I’m a tither—I give back to God a full 10% of all that I make. What more could God want? I have satisfied all his requirements.” And the minute we make such a statement, we have condemned ourselves. We have tested positive for the spiritual diseases of pride, arrogance, and self-righteousness—or, in a word, sin; sin that is progressive, chronic, and eventually fatal to our souls.
Well, that’s the bad news, at least. But there’s also good news. Just as we know that anthrax is 100% curable if the right kind of antibiotic is administered in time, sin is also 100% curable. But the first step in taking the cure is to open ourselves to the sort of attitude change that doesn’t come easily to most of us. Most of us have had, at one time or another, a parent or a boss or a teacher or a coach or—God forbid!—a spouse . . . who is just impossible to please. Nothing is good enough to satisfy that person. However good our intentions, however honest our effort, there is always something that is not done right, some detail we overlooked, some instruction we misunderstood, and the one little part we got wrong seems to negate the effect of anything we got right. Well, in a way, that’s what God is like. Now, I know that doesn’t put God in a very appealing light, but hear me out. That fact is, nothing we can do is enough to satisfy God. No effort we can make is capable of meeting God’s standards. We can do things that please God, but we can never satisfy Him. The prophet Isaiah says that all our righteousness is “as filthy rags” in God’s sight. It isn’t that the Pharisee was lying about his achievements; we can assume he was telling the honest-to-God truth. It’s just not good enough. Nothing we can do is good enough.
But here’s the deal. God knows. God knows that that His holiness is so infinite, and our sinfulness so profound, that “never the twain shall meet.” And what God knows, the tax collector in Jesus’ parable also knows. He knew that he dare not even lift his eyes to Heaven. He kept his head bowed and prayed, “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.” And since nothing we can do is adequate to reconcile us to God, and since the only thing that matches the infinity of God’s holiness is the infinity of His love, God has known, from the very beginning, that it’s up to Him to save the day.
And so God has taken the initiative to more than compensate for the inadequacy of our efforts. He made made Himself known to and established covenants—solemn agreements—with Noah, with Abraham, with Moses, and with David. He sent a series of prophets to make His will known, to announce His holiness and justice, as well as His mercy and loving-kindness. Finally, He took our flesh Himself, in the person of His Son, Jesus. He lived among us, and gave us an example of the kind of life that does meet God’s standards, the only human life that has ever been so lived. In order to reconcile us to the Father, Jesus died for us, and in so doing, defeated death on our behalf. He ascended back to the right hand of the Father, where he now continually intercedes for us, pleading our case.
God is like a judge who imposes a fine on a convicted criminal, then steps down from the bench, and accompanies the convict he has just sentenced to the courthouse cashier, pulls out his own personal checkbook, and pays the full amount. Any effort we can make to reconcile ourselves to God is woefully inadequate. But the initiative God has taken on our behalf more than compensates for our inadequacy.
When this fundamental truth sinks in, what a glorious and liberating realization it is! It becomes the foundation for a genuine humility, with attention focused on God and on others, knowing that life is not “all about me.” It becomes the foundation for a habitual disposition of gratitude, a heart that is constantly overflowing with thankfulness, and infecting others with the same attitude. And, it becomes the foundation for an authentic compassion, an openness to truly “suffering with” others—which is the literal meaning of compassion—that we may offer our suffering and theirs in union with the suffering of Christ for the healing and life of the world. Praised be Jesus Christ. Amen.