When God is deaf to prayer - Luke 18:9-14
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
Let me begin by telling you about the big time failure bank robber, Charles Robertson.
Strapped for cash, Robertson, then 19 years old went into Jefferson State Bank on a Wednesday afternoon and filled out a loan application. Apparently he soon changed his mind and opted for a quicker plan to raise the dosh. A couple of hours later he came back with a gun, a bag and a note demanding money. He pushed the note towards the bank clerk over the counter and she meekly complied with his demand. Being the sharp fellow he was he worked out that the police would have been alerted more or less straight away and so he dashed out of the door. He was halfway to his car when he realised he had left the note and fearing it would be used in evidence against him decided to go back to the bank to retrieve it. So running into the bank he snatched the note from the clerk and ran a couple of streets to his car. That was when he realised he had left his car keys on the counter when he had returned for the note. And that was when total panic set in. He rushed into the toilet of a fast-food restaurant, dislodged the ceiling tiles and hid the money and his hand gun. Scampering through the alleys and creeping behind cars, he finally reached his flat where his room mate who knew nothing about the robbery greeted him with the words, ‘I need my car.’ You guessed it; Robertson had borrowed his car for the robbery. But instead of owning up to what had happened he dug his hole deeper by lying, ‘Your car was stolen.’ Like a rabbit caught in the car headlights, Robertson watched as his room mate called the police to report his stolen vehicle. Twenty minutes later a police officer spotted the car a few streets away from the recently reported robbery. Word was already on the police radio that the robber had forgotten his car keys, and so they tried them and – they worked. Detectives then went to the address of the person who had reported the missing car. There, of course they found Robertson. He confessed, was charged with the robbery and put into jail. No bail. No loan. No joking.
You have to admit some days it is hard to do anything right. In fact some days it is even harder to do anything wrong right. And Robertson is hardly unique. In our own ways we have all acted like him. Maybe we have not taken money, but we perhaps have taken advantage or taken control and then we have taken leave of our senses trying to get ourselves out of a jam only to make matters worse. We dash through the doors of deceit. We hide behind cars of convenience. And rather than simply owning up and admitting we are in the wrong, we opt for some massive cover up. And one of the most effective ways of doing that is by shifting the searchlight from ourselves onto others. We do it as children don’t we? ‘If I can only get Dad to become angry with my brother I will get off Scott free” And so we play up our good points and play up other’s bad points. And that is exactly what we see happening in the parable Jesus told in his tale of two men who went to pray- Luke 18.
First let’s take a look at the point of the parable- which is spelt out for us in v 9: ‘To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable.’ You see Jesus is not in the entertainment business, telling stories for fun, he is in the exposing business telling stories for effect- getting people to change by exposing people’s true character. So who does Jesus have in his sights? We are told, ‘those who were confident in their own righteousness’ and so as a result looked down on everybody else’ Now, when we come across the word ‘righteousness’ we automatically think that it is referring to a person’s good conduct, their moral rectitude. Although it includes that, that is not what the Bible primarily has in mind. Both in the Old Testament and the New, ‘righteousness’ is about having right relationships. In the first instance it is being rightly related to God, being approved by him. In fact it was a term which was more or less interchangeable with ‘salvation.’ God saved or rescued people by putting them in a right relationship with himself, pledging to care for them and protect them. In the second instance it is about having right relationships with other people, loving them and serving them in a way that is proper. So apparently there were people around Jesus who were quite convinced, ‘confident’ that they were approved of by God and so right with him, and well thought of by others. They were part of the ‘in crowd’- in with God and in with the people that mattered in society. But did you notice the by product of having such a view of yourself? You ‘look down on others’. After all if you are on the pedestal then you have the lofty vantage point from which you can look down on others. But as we know, such a position can be rather precarious and it only takes a little nudge before you come tumbling off the pedestal and come crashing to the floor. The interesting thing here is that it is Jesus who is about to do the nudging.
Secondly we have the people in the parable- v10, ‘Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.’ When we think of people say, going to church to pray, we tend to envisage it being a private thing. So the person perhaps sneaks into a pew at the back of the church and then gets down on the kneeler, closes their eyes, bows their heads, clasps their hands together and silently prays. But the picture we are being given here is somewhat different. The scene is the temple and both men are there at the same time. Chances are they were at a daily service which took place twice each day, at dawn and then again at three o’clock in the afternoon. This was the service of atoning sacrifice. It begins outside the sanctuary at the great high altar with the sacrifice for the sins of the people being provided for by the killing of as lamb whose blood was sprinkled on the altar. In the middle of the prayers there would be the sound of silver trumpets, the clanging of symbols and the reading of a psalm. The priest would enter the outer part of the sanctuary where he would offer incense. Then he would disappear into the building while the worshippers would offer their private prayers to God. This is the service to which these two people had gone up. And you could not get a greater contrast could you? On the one hand is the person you would expect to be there –the religious leader. He has given over the whole of his life to God; no sacrifice is too great for him, no devotion is too much of a burden. He is the pillar of the community, well respected and well loved. Surely, that man’s prayers will be heard? Why shouldn’t they be? The other man is the drug pusher, the one who makes a living by feeding off the misery of others. Of course he is not literally a drug pusher in the story, but the 1st century equivalent, a man who collected taxes for the occupying power-the Romans, and adding a hefty levy on top for himself, burdening an already burdened and impoverished people. That sort of person wouldn’t even know how to pray- so what is the point of him being there? That is pretty much what would have been going through the minds of Jesus hearers as he told the story.
But pray they do, hence the prayers in the parable. First, the ‘prayer’ of the religious, ‘11The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: `God, I thank you that I am not like other men--robbers, evildoers, adulterers--or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.' Now that translation is probably not the best- it is about his position and posture, so we should read, ‘The Pharisee standing by himself was praying in this way….’ Do you see what he is doing? He is setting himself apart from the ‘hoi polloi’, the crowd. After all he is a Pharisee and he doesn’t want to religiously contaminate himself by accidentally brushing against someone who is spiritually dodgy. That would make him ceremonially ‘unclean’ and so compromise his righteousness. However, he does pray aloud so that those folk ‘over there’ can hear him. Have you ever been to one of those prayer meetings and someone prays a prayer which is really a ill concealed sermon aimed at someone else in the room? ‘O Lord isn’t it about time that some of us (meaning ‘them’) became more passionate about evangelism?’ ‘Dear Lord, you know that our greatest need today is to get rid of that old organ and replace it with the latest digital keyboard and when will the Vicar see sense?’ Have you come across that sort of thing? Maybe we have done it ourselves? Well, that is the sort of thing going on here. But can what he says really be called a prayer? , ‘I thank you that I am not like other men--robbers, evildoers, adulterers--or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.' In Jesus day there were basically three types of prayer a good Jew would pray: confession of sin; thanks for goodness received and petitions for yourself and others. With the very remote possibility of the second, it is difficult to see how this man’s utterance falls into any of these categories. There is no confession of sins, because apparently he feels there are no sins to confess. There certainly is no offering of requests for others, especially the needy tax collector. Even though he begins by thanking God that he is not like other people, it is pretty clear who he thinks is responsible for what he is like- namely himself, after all look at what he does. The written law only required fasting once a year, this religious triple alpha male does it twice a week! The Old Testament required the Jewish people to give a tenth (a tithe) of their grain, oil and wine to God, this man decides to tithe everything that he has. But do you see what his big problem is? It is the problem with the religious then and many of the religious now, is legalism- rule book religion. Think for a moment of the characteristics of legalism. Legalism is rigid, uniform and mechanical-you don’t even have to think about it, just disengage the mind and go through the rituals- fasting and giving. But the real problem with the legalist of course, is that he thinks that he doesn’t need God. Legalism is the search for innocence, not forgiveness. ‘I must be alright’ says the legalist, ‘for I have kept all the rules. In fact I have added a few more myself for good measure and gone beyond them.’ And so at the end of the day, legalism is all about self- explaining self, justifying self, exalting self, asserting self. The legalist is quite literally self-obsessed. His so called pray is nothing but a lengthy self-advertisement- ‘I thank you that I am not like other men….I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’ – I, I, I. Can you imagine someone going to the doctor and saying, ‘I just came to let you know Doctor how healthy I am. I am in brilliant physical condition you know. My pulse is 70 beats per minute, with a blood pressure 120 over 80. I run 30 miles three times a week, swim 200 lengths twice a week and what makes me feel really good is taking a long look at some of the miserable specimens in your waiting room.’ That is what this man is doing, but not in the doctor’s surgery but God’s house.
You have heard of the Sunday school teacher who told this story to her class? Afterwards he drew what he thought was the obvious moral lesson. ‘Now children,’ he said, ‘let’s thank God that we are not like that proud Pharisee.’ The trouble is it is so easy to slip into the mentality of the Pharisee without even realising it. Do we not feel even that little surfacing of pride when we think we have some theological insight others do not? Is there that slight glow of a self-congratulatory spirit when we discover that our quiet time in reading the Bible and praying is longer than someone else’s? Is there not some measure of the ratchetting up of the pedestal on which we have placed ourselves when we hear of a fellow Christian who has come a cropper in some moral slippage? I don’t know what you heart is like but mine finds itself inclined precisely towards those sorts of things and it is pretty horrible.
Now let’s turn to the other man standing there on that day-the tax collector. Notice he also stood apart from the crowd- ‘at a distance’ but not because he was too good but because he felt so bad-v13. The accepted posture for prayer in the temple was to look down and keep your arms crossed over the chest, like a servant before his master. But do you see what this man does? He takes one of his fists and beats his chest where his heart is located because he is so distraught. You see in the Middle East, generally speaking, it was the women who beat their chests, not men. In the Bible the only other case of people beating their chests is at the cross when the crowds, so disturbed at what was taking place, beat their chests at the end of the day just after Jesus died (Luke 24:48). Now just think about that. If it requires a scene as distressing as the crucifixion of Jesus to cause men and women to beat their chests, then imagine what utter turmoil the man in the parable is going through? He is practically suicidal. He is so utterly ashamed that he does not lift up his head towards heaven, no, what he wants is the proverbial hole to crawl into, for the ground to open up and swallow him whole.
And then just listen to his prayer, in most people’s books it is hardly a prayer at all: ‘God have mercy on me, a sinner.’ In fact that is not quite right. What he actually says is ‘God, atone for me the sinner.’ As he stands there alone, alienated, loathed and self-loathing, he feels as if he is the only sinner in the whole wide world. As far as he is concerned all that matters is that there is God, and there is him and while he may have learnt to cope with the sneers and venom of other people because of his occupation- the one thing- the one thing he cannot cope with is the disapproval of God. That is the one relationship above all else he wants restoring and that is the one relationship he cannot restore. In this case it is God who has been offended and so only God can take steps to overcome the offence. And it will take a mighty act of divine proportions to get rid of the years and years of deceit, lies, bribery and pure godlessness that has steadily corroded this man’s soul like acid rain defaces a grand sandstone statue. And so he pleads this heartfelt prayer, ‘God be propitiated towards me, make some act of atonement to rid me of the defilement so that I can be restored to you, the God who made me and for whom I was made.’ But why does he think that is at all possible? That it is a prayer which God could, let alone would, answer? Well remember where he is-the temple. His eyes are on the altar and the sacrifice of atonement, the sprinkling of the blood of a lamb. By and large, we human beings are squeamish about blood. Well, God is squeamish about sin. He is repulsed by its stench and stain and the blood on the altar symbolises that repulsion as well as the cost involved in dealing with it. Blood speaks of death. In order for blood to be shed an animal has to die, sin demands death. Forgiveness is freely offered by God but that doesn’t mean that there is no price which has to be paid. And this man realises that. ‘Please God’ he cries, ‘be propitiated towards me, let my sin be atoned for. I don’t minimise my offences. I don’t underestimate the penalty they deserve and which is invariably coming my way unless you do something. I see the blood and so I know the cost. So please, turn your anger away from me and be satisfied with the substitute put on the altar in my place today. Have mercy on me the sinner.’
Now only one of the two men was heard by God that day. And it was the man who said the least who received the most, look at what Jesus says about the two pronouncements in the parable, 14"I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted." The one who is morally unrighteous is declared by God to be righteous, that is, in a right saving relationship with himself; while the one who was morally righteous is declared not to have a saving relationship with God i.e to be unrighteous. You see, for Jesus sin is not primarily about breaking a law but breaking a relationship. The religious, oh so Mr upright is so far away from God that he might as well be in a different universe. And why? Because he has refused God’s basis for friendship which is grace-undeserved love. In fact he is so wrapped up in his own goodness that he is not particularly concerned with a personal relationship with God at all. When you are so good, who needs God? And although you may not quite couch it in those terms, when all has been said and done maybe that is what it comes down to for you. Church may be a filler for the religious part of your life, you enjoy the company, the singing, the ritual- but when it comes to getting close to God…. Well, then you would rather keep him at arms length. Is that so? Then remember what is so in this world will be carried over into the next- a world without God now means an eternity without God then. Even our prayers are unheard if we come to God on this basis. But then look at the prayer God does hear and from which type of person. It is the prayer of a broken and desperate heart. It is the life which owns up that things are bad and only God can put things right. It is the man or woman whose eyes are drawn to an altar with blood on it- not a human altar with animal blood, but a gallows with human blood- the blood of God’s one and only Son Jesus. Sinner or saint, it makes no difference, this is the place we must all come to in order to experience what this man experienced. What was that? Justification; the sweet words of not guilty, pardon, freedom, sonship, God declaring, ‘You are mine.’ Friends, don’t let us be like Robertson trying to cover up our guilt and so making things worse, trying to deflect attention from ourselves onto others like the Pharisee. No we are to be like the tax collector, who in turn was simply like King David when he said to God, ‘a lowly and contrite heart you will not despise O Lord.’ Let us pray.
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