October 27, 2019
The Pharisees are often misunderstood.
Because of several rather pointed comments and parables told by Jesus, we often view them with
suspicion. Most Pharisees, as scholars will tell us, were relatively good people.
They lived righteous lives, obeyed the laws, kept the Sabbath day holy, and gave sacrificially for the work
of the Temple.
They were not rogues or thieves or drunkards.
They did not cheat on their spouses. They did not cheat in their business dealings.
They were model citizens for the most part, like many good Presbyterians
or like the local Rotary or Kiwanis Club Presidents.
The problem lay not in what they did or did not do;
the problem lay with the attitudes of their hearts about the people around them,
about those who were different than themselves.
At least some Pharisees of Jesus’ day thought that they were better people than the people around them.
They thought that their righteousness and their good deeds made them more worthy before God,
more loved even by God. “Thank God I’m not like those other people”, they said.
In response to this heart attitude, Jesus offered the following parable.
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.’
When we hear a familiar passage from scripture, we often forget how shocking Jesus was.
We forget just how counter cultural were the words of Jesus.
Jesus said: The tax collector went home justified rather than the Pharisee!
That’s ridiculous! Tax collectors were bad people.
They were in bed with the oppressive Romans.
They were well-known to collect more than what was due, to collect as much as they could,
to line their own pockets at the expense of the poor, all with the backing of the powerful government.
The Pharisees were the good guys. The tax collectors were the bad guys.
Right and wrong. No gray area. What is Jesus talking about?
How could this tax collector be justified before God rather than the Pharisee?
Notice the direction of the words of the tax collector – God, be merciful to me, a sinner.
Notice the direction of the words of the Pharisee – I am not like other people, I fast, I tithe.
The direction the tax collector is toward God.
The direction of the Pharisee is toward self.
The attitude, the direction of the heart makes all the difference.
Humans look on the outward appearance. We notice how people look; we notice what people do.
We notice where people live and what they drive and how much we think they earn.
As a people, we tend to be very aware of and interested in the differences between people.
And we tend to be very aware of how we measure up against others.
But God looks on the heart, God sees differently, and God judges according to the attitude of the heart,
something we cannot see by mere observation.
Just after the parable about the Pharisee and the Publican praying comes the scene
when the disciples were trying to stop the children from gathering around Jesus.
Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.’
Whoever does not have the attitude of the heart of a little child cannot enter the kingdom of heaven.
The other day in staff meeting, Evie Claire, Emily and Drew’s precious daughter, was with us.
Alex was holding her, and I kept noticing Evie Claire looking at me
with those bright and wondering eyes. Finally, I had to take a turn holding her.
She is so precious, so genuine, so naturally loving.
Little children tend to be trusting and curious and hopeful and open to strangers.
Mistrust of strangers, despair, close-mindedness – these are learned behaviors.
Jesus’ parables are often told to the crowds or to the disciples,
but this parable was directed, pointed toward those whose hearts were misdirected,
those whose hearts were quick to judge, quick to label,
quick to stratify the people around them, quick to place themselves above others.
Jesus told this parable about the Pharisee and the tax collector praying
“to those who trusted in themselves and regarded others with contempt.”
These were the behaviors that certain Pharisees lived and taught to others.
These were the behaviors, the attitudes of the heart, that Jesus sought to remove
with the in-breaking of the kingdom of heaven.
In the kingdom of God, there is no one who is inferior.
In the kingdom of God, there is no one who is superior.
Let that sink in for a moment. No one is superior; no one is inferior in God’s kingdom.
Recognize how counter to our culture is this kingdom which Jesus ushered into our world.
Earlier in the gospel of Luke, in chapter 6, part of Jesus’ sermon on the plain:
“Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned.
Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you.”
If you enter the kingdom of heaven, if you want to live in harmony with others,
if you want to live with joy, then live by that old acronym J.O.Y. – Jesus, others, yourself.
This is a quite simple idea, really – Jesus first in my heart, then others, then self.
In 1970, a book titled I Am Third was written by NFL running back and hall of famer Gale Sayers.
The book outlined Sayer’s credo for living: “The Lord is first, my friends are second, I am third. “
We haven’t lost that ideal, have we?
Do we still teach our children that God comes first and others before ourselves?
It is good thing to be thankful for one’s family and thankful for one’s heritage,
thankful for one’s nation or one’s denomination.
It is a good thing to celebrate the good things about the heritage from which we come.
What is dangerous is when we begin to become prideful in comparison with others,
when we begin, in subtle and small ways, to begin keeping score,
tempted to judge who is better or more righteous or closer to God.
As Vernon wrote this week: “A scoreboard mentality has disastrous consequences.
Scoreboard mentality leads to self-righteousness, comparisons, then to contempt,
and in the worst case, (ultimately) to literal killing (of others).
Calling others by derogatory names is one of the first ways we hold others in contempt.”
Name calling is the first step in the process that leads to genocide.
You may say, I don’t do that. I don’t use those derogatory names.
I am an inclusive. I am a welcoming person, not like those others…
I am not like those others who are not as inclusive as I am.
And there we go! We have just become prejudiced ourselves.
In our righteous efforts to be inclusive, we fall into the trap
of being prejudiced about those who are prejudiced! As Vernon wrote:
“Today’s version of ‘trusting in ourselves’ does not necessarily have to be blatant self-promotion.
It can simply be our believing we aren’t as bad as those other sinners.”
(Vernon Gramling blog 10/25/19)
But the Bible teaches not to think too highly of ourselves, but to think with sober judgment.
Romans 12:3 For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself
more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment,
each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.
Judge yourself according to the amount of faith you’ve been given.
And when it comes to others, God alone is judge, so I don’t have to be.
More importantly, I do not get to be the judge of others.
As my grandmother taught me, whenever we point our fingers at another person in condemnation,
there are three fingers pointing back at ourselves.
Have we lost such common wisdom?
Have we forgotten Jesus’ cautionary words against any attitude that elevates ourselves or our group,
or any measurement that might set ourselves apart from others?
Do we still feel a twinge of Christian concern whenever we hear any attitudes or any words or any tweets
that are demeaning to other people?
Or have we become overly accustomed and accommodated to such language?
Perhaps the most helpful move we can make as Christians is from judgment to self-reflection.
When we are tempting to be judging of others
and yes, when we are tempted to judge those who are judgmental,
we can seek to turn the attitude of our heart away from self,
away from judgement and score-keeping and toward God.
Breath Prayer is a simple spiritual exercise that can encourage us to do so.
With Breath Prayers, we breathe in slowly and deeply as you whisper or think on a Bible phrase.
We breathe in as you pray the first half of a Bible phrase… we breathe out as you pray the other half.
“Speak Lord (breathe in); for your servant is listening (breathe out).” (1 Samuel 3:9 & 10)
“The Lord is the stronghold of my life (breathe in); I shall not be afraid (breathe out).”
“My help comes from the Lord…who made heaven and earth.”
“The Lord is my Shepherd…I shall not want” (Psalm 23:1)
“Not my will, O Lord…but thy will be done.”
Such spiritual exercises can be combined with physical exercise,
when we are walking or jogging or doing yoga or even working around the house.
These prayers can help turn the attitudes of our hearts whenever we are tempted to judge or blame
or condemn others.
The prayer from our text today, the prayer of the tax collector in this Lukan parable,
has actually become a popular and well-known breath prayer.
“Lord Jesus Christ (breathe in), Son of God (breathe out),
have mercy on me (breathe in), a sinner (breath out).”
Say it with me: “Lord Jesus Christ…Son of God…have mercy on me….a sinner.”
When we focus more upon our own need for God’s mercy,
we tend to become more merciful toward others.
When we direct the attitude of our heart toward God,
our attitudes toward those around us begin to be transformed.
Jesus’ teachings and parables were then and are now shocking and counter-cultural.
We cannot help but have one foot stuck in the kingdom of this world,
and be influenced by the attitudes of this world, but we can also, by God’s grace,
keep our other foot firmly planted in the kingdom of God,
and seek to live with the attitude of the One who came that all may have life,
and have it abundantly.
Rev. Dr. Todd Speed
Decatur Presbyterian Church