Sunday, October 27, 2019
“God be merciful to me, a sinner!”
Let me ask you a tough question: how many of you have been accused of being a poor listener? Or should I call it “selective listener”? We hear what we want to hear. Most of us, including me, have been guilty of this at one time or another. Maybe we’re easily distracted.
There are all kinds of reasons communications break down. Maybe we have trouble listening to others because we’re tired or stressed out. And maybe we just don’t care enough about others to pay close attention to them.
We’ve all been guilty of being a bad listener at one time or another. This may’ve been why Jesus spoke in parables so often. He knew that we’re easily distracted. He knew that we have our own agendas. And He knew that sometimes our ego gets in the way of hearing God’s voice.
A University of Michigan football coach bought a bolt of cloth thinking he’d have a suit made out of it. He took the material to his tailor in Ann Arbor where the University is located. The tailor measured him, examined the bolt of cloth, did some computations on a piece of paper, and said, I’m sorry, coach, there just isn’t enough material in this bolt to make a suit for you. The coach was disappointed, so he threw the bolt of cloth in the trunk of his car, wondering what he was going to do with it.
This same coach was on his way on vacation, a couple of weeks later. Driving down the main street in Columbus, the home of the Buckeyes, arch enemies of the wolverines. he notices a tailor shop, which reminded him that he had that bolt of cloth in the trunk. He stopped, thinking he would give it a try. He told the tailor he had bought this bolt of cloth and wondered if he could do anything with it. The tailor measured him, measured the bolt of cloth, did some computations. Finally, he said, Coach, I can make you a suit. What’s more, I can even make you an extra pair of pants. And if you really want it, I can give you a vest too. The coach was dumbfounded. I don’t understand, he said. My tailor in Ann Arbor told me he couldn’t even make one suit out of this bolt of cloth. The tailor said, Coach, here in Columbus, you’re not nearly as big a man as you are in Ann Arbor.
We all like to think we’re a big man or a big woman in some area, don’t we? It’s no fun when our ego trip gets derailed. Imagine how Jesus’ listeners felt in our Bible passage today. This parable would’ve been shocking to them, mind-blowing. Let’s hope their big egos don’t get in the way of them hearing and understanding it. And let’s hope that our big egos don’t prevent us from hearing it and understanding it today.
Our lesson today starts out talking about some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else. Every parable Jesus told was an opportunity to understand God better. An opportunity to conform our lives to the image of God. An opportunity to turn away from sin and get a fresh start. So, what was Jesus wanting to teach us with this story?
First thing I thought of was that, Jesus wanted them to know, that when we compare ourselves to others, we turn religion into a competition. Jesus wanted them to understand that they were wasting their lives and missing out on the truth of God by looking down on others because of their religion. God isn’t about religion, it’s about relationships. And it’s a mistake to define ourselves by who we are or who were not, instead of by who God is. We were made in the image of God. If we Jesus Christ is our Savior, we’re adopted into God’s family and are children of God. So, our identity is not based on comparing ourselves to others. Our identity isn’t even based on our right actions. Our identity is based on who God is. And the Bible says that God is holy, holy, holy.
Self-righteousness is not the same thing as holiness. The Pharisee made the mistake of comparing themselves to other people. God, I thank you that I am not like other people. At some time or another we all do that. And when we compare, we don’t look too bad.
The Pharisee did look good compared to the tax collector. Pharisees were members of a strict religious sect. They devoted their lives to observing the rules and statutes of Jewish religious law. They were the gold standard for righteousness in their society.
The tax collector, on the other hand, was a traitor to his own people because he worked for the Romans that allowed him to cheat his fellow Jews by adding on extra taxes to line his own pockets. Tax collectors were considered traitors and extortioners. They weren’t allowed to be witnesses or judges in court because they were considered untrustworthy. They were excommunicated from the synagogue.
The Pharisee thought he was all right in comparison to the tax collector. But the tax collector wasn’t who he was in competition with. His competition was the man he himself was created to be. The Pharisee’s prayer showed there was a gaping hole in his life, he didn’t really know God. That’s a sad and scary truth. We can do everything right in life, keep all the rules of our religion, and still not know God.
Jesus is also trying to teach His hearers that when we compare ourselves to God rather than with others, we realize we don’t have anything to offer Him. What does the tax collector in this parable do? He doesn’t even look up to heaven when he prays. Instead, he looks down at the ground and beats his breast in sorrow, and he prays simply, God, have mercy on me, a sinner.
God, have mercy on me, a sinner. This tax collector compared himself to a holy, holy, holy God and he knew he had nothing to offer. I think the tax collector identified with King David who wrote these words in Psalm 51: My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart you, God, will not despise. (Ps. 51:17)
If anyone should be humble, it would be those of us who every morning stand before the “mystery of the Creator and Sustainer and Redeemer of the world.” You cannot know who God is and still hold on to your pride and self-righteousness.
In C.S. Lewis’ fantasy story The Great Divorce, a busload of people from Hell are driven to the gates of Heaven and offered admission, but with one exception, they all refuse it. The people in Heaven are so radiant and so substantial that they make the visitors from Hell look like mere shadows.
One pale ghost from Hell wanders through the gates into Heaven. He gets upset when he meets a citizen in Heaven he knew in his previous life. This heavenly citizen had worked for him and had not been a great guy. In fact, he had committed a murder during his life on earth. How dare he live in Heaven now? He hadn’t earned that right.
The citizen from Hell complains, look I’ve gone straight all my life. I never said I was a religious man and I never said I had no faults, far from it. But I done my best all my life. That’s the person I was. I never asked for anything that wasn’t mine by rights. If I wanted a drink, I paid for it and if I took my wages, I done my job. I asked for nothing but my rights. I never asked for anybody’s charity. The heavenly citizen looks him in the eye and says, Then do it right now. Ask for the Charity.
The tax collector asked for the charity. And God gave it to him. Jesus finishes His parable with the words, I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted. What does that mean, “he went home justified”? It means his sins were forgiven. He got exactly what he asked for, mercy from a holy, holy, holy God who knows that we can never be holy enough to deserve His mercy. Which is exactly why God sent His perfect, sinless Son, Jesus. To take away the penalty of our sins and make us holy in His eyes.
The final point of this parable: if you don’t know grace, you don’t know God, because grace, the unearned gift of God’s love and salvation through Jesus Christ, was God’s plan for us from the very beginning.
The Pharisee, while he’s right about the kind of life he should live, he is confused about the source of that life. The tax collector knows the one thing the Pharisee doesn’t: his life is God's, his past, present, and future are entirely dependent on God’s grace and mercy.
A family adopted a daughter. She had been adopted before, but her adoptive family gave her up and put her back in the foster system. For some reason, this previous family hadn’t treated the little girl like she was truly their child. Whenever they went to Disney World, they took all their biological children with them but left their adopted daughter behind. She got the message that she wasn’t wanted, wasn’t good enough to earn a gift like Disney World. She wasn’t a full member of the family.
So, when this new family adopted this little girl, she had a lot of behavioral outbursts. The family decided that the best way to welcome this little girl to their family was to plan a trip to Disney World. But when they told their new daughter, her behavior problems increased. She lied, she stole food, she treated her new siblings brutally. No matter what system of punishment or reward they used, their adopted daughter’s behavior was out of control. This little girl was so afraid of not getting to Disney World that she was trying to guarantee her new parents would have a reason to leave her behind.
The day finally came for their trip, and the family went all out: rides and refreshments and long lines and exhaustion. As they collapsed in their hotel room that night, the dad asked his new daughter what she thought of the experience. She smiled and said, Daddy, I finally got to go to Disney World. But it wasn’t because I was good; it’s because I’m yours.
That’s the message of outrageous grace. Outrageous grace isn’t a favor you can achieve by being good; it’s the gift you receive by being God’s [child].
The Pharisee missed out on the gift of God’s outrageous grace because he thought he could do something to earn it. He didn’t want any charity. He wanted to be good enough. He was comparing himself to those around him. But the tax collector compared himself to God, and he cried out for mercy. If you don’t know the gift of outrageous grace, then you don’t know God. Because our salvation isn’t about our goodness, but about God’s grace.