Posts Tagged ‘“The Prodigal God”’

Luke 18:9-14
Pharisee’s Annonymous

“I’m not ok. You’re not ok. And that’s ok” (William Sloan Coffin, when asked to summarize the gospel)


I’m sure most of you have heard more sermons on this text that years I’ve been alive. But I also know that both the Pharisee and the Tax collector have become sort of like “stock” characters to us, and so it’s hard for us to hear this story with new ears. We know what function they have in the story and we really don’t give them a whole lot of thought. As far as we really bother to consider, Pharisees and Tax Collectors just represent “bad” people. Here’s the deal with tax collectors– well, they were seen as collaborators with the hated Romans. They were unfair, unscrupulous– known to be cheats. In the words of the Beatles,

Let me tell you how it will be;
There’s one for you, nineteen for me.
‘Cause I’m the taxman,

Should five per cent appear too small,
Be thankful I don’t take it all.
‘Cause I’m the taxman,

(if you drive a car, car;) – I’ll tax the street;
(if you try to sit, sit;) – I’ll tax your seat;
(if you get too cold, cold;) – I’ll tax the heat;
(if you take a walk, walk;) – I’ll tax your feet.

By comparison, that Pharisee guy isn’t so bad really. In fact, he’s really, really good. Originally, a Pharisee was someone who had a very strict observance of the law– they kept every little bitty rule– all 619 of them down to the letter. But the aim of Pharisaic law was to make the Torah observance available to all.1 He even fasts twice a week and gives a tenth of all he has. He’s certainly not like that cheat of a tax collector. And of course– he’s proud of that fact. Who can blame him?

It turns out that Jesus does. We’ve heard this story for years and generations– we know that neither of these guys turns out to be role models we’d hold up for our kids. We’re completely numb to the idea that as Jesus so often does, he flips societal expectations on their heads. People who were reading this would have expected the Pharisee to be patted on the back–they would’ve been dumbfounded that the Tax Collector–so much worse in their minds, was the one held up as a model.

So what’s Jesus’ beef with this guy who is doing all the right things? The greek is pretty interesting here–and it gets rendered awkwardly in English translations. Several translations rendered this as “standing by himself, he prayed” or things along those lines. But what the greek actually says is “He prayed to himself”–and that’s funny because we know that he’s not exactly trying to keep all this quiet. There are a lot of ways that the greek could have expressed that if that’s what was intended. But what it says is that he prayed to himself.

I’ve never noticed that before. It says he thanks God that he is not like the tax collector, but with his careful rule following–this guy has in effect become his own savior. We’ve all seen people like this. We see them making a great show of prayer and religion, but we get the sense that they’re often trusting more in their own abilities to pave a way in the world than they are trusting in God’s gracious provisions. I’d argue that we’ve seen people like that, and that if we’re really honest, we’ve been people like that.

A preacher whose work I read fairly often tells a story about teaching this parable to a group of college kids. He was really digging deep, making the kids think about this story. He asked these questions,
“What does self-righteousness do to us?”
“It makes us think other people are inferior.”
“Whom do church people look down on?”
“The immoral, the poor, the uneducated.”
“Who would be like the tax collectors today?”
“Mafia bosses, drug dealers, pornographers.”

He says, “It was going very well. Several students were paying attention. A few had come to the front to get another Dr Pepper out of the ice chest. I was making lots of what I considered insightful comments. Then I asked, “What would a Pharisee look like today?” And goes on to say, “This kid, who at one point I thought I liked—he must have been in his third year as a sophomore—said, “A Pharisee would wear khaki pants and a blue sport coat and lead Bible studies.” Which the teacher thought was a pretty good answer, until he looked down to discover that he was wearing…you guessed… khaki pants and a blue sport coat.2

Imagine that shock to his ego. Imagine that sudden realization that the bad people and the good people aren’t who he’d presumed them to be. Of course, he’d considered himself a pretty good person. He was a preacher and a teacher of theology…how much better could it get? Of course, he knew God and probably talked of God and with God more than most folks. But, of course, the smart alecky kid was right.

A modern-day pharisee looks like each of us. We’re good people. We do the right things. We’re a blessing to the church. What a blow to our egos to hear that Jesus is talking about us in this parable!

So what exactly is it that Jesus wants from us? If you’ve been able to come to our “Prodigal God” studies, and happened to watch the video, you might remember this quote that’s really grabbed ahold of me lately. The author of the book says to us “God doesn’t want perfect people. God wants new people.”3

The Pharisee couldn’t become new because he was convinced he already had it figured out. He didn’t need God. But look at the tax collector– who wouldn’t come close, who couldn’t even bring his eyes to look up to heaven because he felt so unworthy. He knew that there was no way he was ever going to get it right on his own. Theologian John Calvin talks about the Total Depravity of people– in other words, we’re rotten, and smelly, and save but for the grace of God, there’s really not a whole lot thats great about us–at least not on our own. The Tax Collector realizes that–and only when he sees that, is he in a place to be changed.

By the end of this parable, we’re so confused. We find ourselves wanting to be the sinner, the tax collector, when just moments ago– we just wanted to be a good person. We want to be the person that Jesus holds up and praises. So how do we get there?

Here’s the first step. Hi. I’m Kim, and I’m a Pharisee. It’s been mere minutes since I last thought I was better or more justifed or more righteous than someone else. I don’t like to admit it, but sometimes I feel like I can save myself by doing all the right things.

Have you ever thought about our prayer of confession in worship or why we do it? It’s not just something to fill a little space in our worship service. It’s a way for us to acknowledge our sins, both as individuals and as a community. Why can’t we just do this on our own? Because the truth is that it’s hard for us to do that sometimes. We would really like to make ourselves look as good as we can before God, or maybe without meaning to, we justify most of our behavior and don’t realize how sinful we are. Praying in a spirit of confession helps us to admit that we’re wrong, and reminds us just how much we need a savior– because we’re not ever to get it completely right on our own.
Many of you, either from TV or movies, or for helping loved ones through an addiction, will recognize the words I spoke earlier as being from a 12-step program. I’m not in any way making fun of that, but if you look really closely at the 12-steps, they are definitely faith based, and could add a lot to our lives of faith. If you consider that being a Pharisee at heart is both life-hindering and an addiction, then these steps might help us considerably. (These are available at 12step.org or there are copies in the Narthex if you’d like to use them as a tool in your spiritual life.)

Step 1 – We admitted we were powerless over our addiction – that our lives had become unmanageable

Step 2 – Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity

Step 3 – Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood God

Step 4 – Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves

Step 5 – Admitted to God, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs

Step 6 – Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character

Step 7 – Humbly asked God to remove our shortcomings

Step 8 – Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all

Step 9 – Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others

Step 10 – Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it

Step 11 – Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood God, praying only for knowledge of God’s will for us and the power to carry that out

Step 12 – Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to other addicts, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.4

Being self-righteous isn’t all there is to life. Just because our culture teaches us that it’s ok to be a Pharisee at heart doesn’t mean that it’s what we’re called to do. But only when we bring these shortcomings before God are we really ready to be changed into the true Christ-followers that we are called to be.

I’m not terrifically interested in self-help sorts of things, so please don’t think I’ve just given you a checklist of how to become a better Christian. What I am interested in is God-help things, and presenting the Gospel (good news) to everyone. It is not good news for me to remind us that we all have Pharisee tendancies, but it is terrific news for us to hear that God holds up the one who is broken, who can’t get things right on his own as role models for us. The tax collector, not the Pharisee, it turns out is our champion because all of us miss the mark for what God calls us to be– and we will never hit that mark on our own– not by being good, not by keeping all the rules.

It turns out that this story isn’t about right vs. wrong or good vs. bad. It’s about God’s grace, plain and simple. Our calling isn’t to be perfect or keep all the rules. It’s to put ourselves before God, broken, missing the mark, and just as we are, and let God make us into the people we are called to be.

Hear the paraphrase of our scripture from The Message translation:
This tax man, not the other, went home made right with God. If you walk around with your nose in the air, you’re going to end up flat on your face, but if you’re content to be simply yourself, you will become more than yourself.”5



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