When Righteousness Isn’t Enough – Sermon on Luke 18:9-14

October 23, 2016
Watch a video of this sermon here. 

Like last week’s parable, Luke introduces today’s story with an explanation. Last week, Luke told us that the parable of the Persistent Widow and the Unjust Judge was about the need to pray continually, and to not lose heart. Jesus closes that teaching with a question: “When the Son of Man returns, will he find faith on earth?”

We can almost see the people around Jesus nodding to one another knowingly, assuring themselves that they will certainly be faithful. Others might fall away, but surely those who are closest to Jesus will stay strong. Sounds a little like Peter on the night Jesus was betrayed, doesn’t it? But there isn’t a rooster crowing this time (Luke 22:60), to alert these listeners to their foolishness.

So Jesus tells another story. This one is aimed at those who trust in their own righteousness, and regard others with contempt – in other words, the very people smugly nodding to each other, sure that they have what it takes to stay faithful to Jesus, even if others fail.

He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Luke 18:9-14)

Jesus describes someone who, by all appearances, should be one of the most holy and devoted Jews around: a Pharisee. Pharisees get a lot of negative attention in the gospel stories, so we might need to adjust our thinking about them to understand how they might be seen through the eyes of first century Jewish culture. Pharisees were extremely devout, and highly disciplined in their religious practices. A Pharisee was obedient to the Law, even going above and beyond what the Law required.

The Law required fasting on one day of the year – the Day of Atonement. A good Pharisee fasted at least once a week, and the most religious Pharisees fasted both on Mondays AND Thursdays, for the sins of all Israel, as well as for their own sin. The Law required tithing, but made allowances for those who were too poor to offer a regular tithe. A Pharisee might give ten per cent of everything he bought, as well as everything he earned, just in case the person who sold him goods had not tithed those goods before he received them. A Pharisee was a Really Good Person.

A tax collector, on the other hand, was a Really Bad Person. Tax collectors were considered traitors and cheats. They had sold out to the Romans who oppressed Israel, collecting the Roman tolls and padding their own pockets with whatever they wanted to charge over and above the required tax. And it was all legal.

But Jews considered the practice to be highly unethical, and contrary to God’s commands. If a Pharisee was at the top end of the righteousness ladder, a tax collector was on the very bottom rung.

So the Pharisee goes to the temple to pray, feeling confident before God about himself and his own righteousness. He knows he’s a really good Jew. In fact, he’s much better at being Jewish than most other Jews, and his prayer reflects this awareness. He stands where he can be clearly seen by anyone who might look to him as an example, and he lifts his hands and eyes to heaven. His very posture looks righteous as he begins to recite a prayer of thanksgiving. His prayer sounds a lot like the psalm David used to rejoice when he was delivered from Saul.

The Lord dealt with me according to my righteousness; according to the cleanness of my hands he rewarded me. For I have kept the ways of the Lord, and have not wickedly departed from my God. For all his rules were before me, and his statutes I did not put away from me. I was blameless before him, and I kept myself from my guilt. So the Lord has rewarded me according to my righteousness, according to the cleanness of my hands in his sight. (Psalm 18:20-24)

But the Pharisee doesn’t just recite a psalm. He prays, “I thank you, God, that I am not like other people.” As he compares himself to rogues and thieves, and especially to the tax collector he sees off in the corner, the Pharisee is proud of the sharp contrast between his good works and the evil he sees around him.

The tax collector also prays from a Psalm of David, but he chooses Psalm 51, a prayer of repentance: “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.” The tax collector beats his breast, head bowed, off in a corner of the temple court. His sin is such a burden to him that he can only speak the first phrase of the psalm, ‘Have mercy on me, O God.”

Consider the language of these two prayers. Four times, the Pharisee uses the word
“I” as he prays. He sees himself as the subject of each sentence. And everything the Pharisee says about himself is true. He has set himself apart from others by faithfully obeying the Law. He really is righteous (Luke 15:7), by the standards of first century Judaism.

So before we condemn the Pharisee for his pride, it might be a good idea to wonder if we’ve prayed prayers similar to his. How often might we have seen someone else down on their luck and said, “There but for the grace of God go I”? It’s too easy to judge the Pharisee as a prideful, self-righteous hypocrite.

The problem with limiting our understanding to such an obvious interpretation is that we end up sounding just like the Pharisee: “Lord, we thank you that we are not like other people: we aren’t like the hypocrites you find at other churches. We aren’t overly pious, or self righteous, or even like that Pharisee, making a big show of our religion. We show up every week, we listen to Scripture and pray, we sign up to bake pies and serve meals, and we know that we should always be humble.”

When we start sounding like the Pharisee, it might mean we are starting to think like the Pharisee. The Pharisee’s problem is that he thinks his righteousness is securely grounded in his own actions and attitudes. He has trusted in himself, in his own effort. He may be telling the truth about himself, but his prayer misses the truth about God.

In the tax collector’s prayer, God is the subject. God is the do-er, the one who shows mercy. The Pharisee made himself feel better by comparing himself to someone he considered to be less than he was. The tax collector also made a comparison, but it wasn’t to another person. The tax collector compared himself to the holiness of God, and he recognized how far he was from matching that kind of righteousness.

The Pharisee saw himself as holy because of what he did, but the tax collector saw himself as a sinner, dependent on what God does. The tax collector knew his only chance at holiness was by the grace of God.

Both men addressed God directly in their prayers. Both men quoted psalms, those models for prayer that cover nearly every circumstance. Both men prayed about themselves. But one put himself at the center of his praise, while the other asked for God’s mercy.

The tax collector isn’t so much humble as desperate. He doesn’t take time to divide humanity into sides, to sort people into “acceptable” and “unacceptable” groups. All he recognizes as he prays is his own great need. He doesn’t stake his hopes on anything he has done or deserved, but entirely on the mercy of God.

This parable can be a trap. Whenever we try to divide people into any kind of groups, we find ourselves siding with the Pharisee. Whenever we take it upon ourselves to judge who is righteous and who is a sinner, as the Pharisee did, or we try to divide people into the proud and the humble, as Luke seems to do, we fall into the trap. “Anytime you draw a line between who’s “in” and who’s “out,” … you will find God on the other side,” David Lose writes. This parable “is not about self-righteousness and humility any more than it is about a pious Pharisee and desperate tax collector. Rather, this parable is about God: God who alone can judge the human heart;” God who justifies the ungodly when they ask for nothing more than mercy.

The only way to avoid this parable’s trap is to remember, each time we try to interpret it, that we can claim nothing but our dependence on God’s mercy. When we forget about creating divisions, and we stand before God aware only of our need, then we, too, can be justified through Jesus and invited into God’s mercy and grace.

At the end of the day, the Pharisee went home from the Temple the same way he came. He was righteous, in his own eyes and in the eyes of everyone who saw him. Nothing had changed.

But the tax collector experienced something different. Jesus says that when he left the Temple, he went home … justified. That word means “shown to be in the right,” or “acquitted.” How did this happen? The tax collector made no sacrifice, no offering of restitution. So how is it that he was the one who was justified? The tax collector was made right with God by his prayer for God’s mercy.

The prayer didn’t change God, but it did change the tax collector.

Prayer doesn’t change God; it changes us. If the tax collector had kept praying from Psalm 51, he’d get to verse eight: “Create in me a clean heart, o God, and renew a right spirit within me. Cast me not away from your presence and take not your Holy Spirit from me. Restore unto me the joy of thy salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit.”

Dawn Chesser writes,
“We don’t pray because it changes God, but because it changes US.

  • It changes us into people with humble and grateful hearts.
  • It changes us into people who care less about having our good works recognized
  • It changes us into people who care more about loving God, and loving others the way we love ourselves
  • It changes us into disciples of Jesus Christ, who eagerly participate in Christ’s mission to transform the world.”

Over the past few months, there has been a lot of conversation about “change” in this congregation. The Healthy Church Initiative process that we voted to undertake back in April has raised lots of questions, and much of the concern that has been expressed in those questions centers around change. How will it work? What do I have to give up? What will I be asked to do differently than I’m used to doing it?

Some people embrace change easily. They thrive on being the first to adopt whatever is new. Just look at the people lined up at an Apple store whenever a new iPhone is released, or even the people who were lined up at the new ALDI when it opened here in New Ulm this week.

Others claim they don’t like change. They like things to stay predictable. They find a lot of comfort in the familiar. They wear the same hairstyle they’ve had for years. They listen to the same music that was popular when they were teenagers. They can tell what day of the week it is by what’s on the table for dinner that night. Meatloaf on Monday, Fish on Friday … you get the idea.

But Jesus doesn’t really give us a choice. If we want to be his disciples, we have to accept the fact that our lives will never be the same. If we hope to see our faith grow, we have to be willing to let Christ change us. A Christian isn’t someone who shows up on Sunday and prays good prayers like a Pharisee. A Christian is someone who has been transformed by the power of the Gospel, someone who has turned away from sin and has asked Jesus for mercy. A Christian is someone who keeps following Jesus, growing deeper in faith, becoming more and more like Christ. You can’t do that unless you are willing to let God change you.

And if we want to see our church grow, we have to be willing to let God change our church. We have to be willing to focus on God’s grace instead of our own accomplishments. We have to seek God’s desire for us instead of seeking for our own preferences to be satisfied. We have to remember that the mission of our church is to make disciples for the transformation of the world. Transformation means change.

One left the Temple the same way he had come – righteous in his own eyes. But sometimes righteousness isn’t enough. The one who went home justified was the one who had humbled himself, focused his attention on God’s grace, and asked for God’s mercy. May we do likewise. Amen.

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