Too good to be saved - Luke 18:9-14
The last person you are most likely to blame if you have an accident is, so it seems, yourself. That is certainly case when it comes to claims for insurance. Just listen to some of these extraordinary excuses for incidents on the road which come from genuine insurance claims made in recent years. "Leaving home for work I drove out of my drive straight into a bus; the bus was five minutes early." Or take another: "I consider neither vehicle to blame, but if either was to blame it was the other one." Again: "I was sure the old fellow would never make it to the other side of the road when I struck him." Perhaps the most ridiculous: "In attempting to kill a fly I drove into a telephone pole." And finally my favourite: "I pulled away from the side of the road, glanced at my mother-in-law and headed over the embankment."
Human beings will do anything to pass the buck and justify themselves. And that's increasingly the case in our society, as we become an ever more litigious country. We live in blame culture, where if something happens, we must find someone else to blame, even if it is our fault. And it's nothing new. The very first thing that happened in the Garden of Eden after the fruit of the tree had been eaten was the now popular ritual of the passing of the buck. Adam should have taken responsibility. God blamed Adam, Adam blamed Eve, Eve blamed the snake and the snake didn't have a leg to stand on! And ever since then we have been passing the buck. It's not me, we say. I'm not to blame. I'm innocent. And there then follows the inevitable round of self justification. And one thing is for sure. We are always confident of our own righteousness.
But the most horrific form of self justification, of confident self righteousness, is when it involves the things of God. It's when human beings stick out their chests and pompously declare to God that they are alright, that they are not the ones who are to blame for the way the world is, that they should get into heaven on their own merits. And that is what Jesus is addressing in this passage in Luke 18, our passage for this morning. The theme of Luke 18 is about the sort of attitude that marks the person who is going to heaven. Back in chapter 17 v 20, Jesus was asked by a Pharisee when the kingdom of God would come. And Jesus replies not by telling them when it would come, but by telling them what kind of attitude they need to get in. And it's the attitude of humility. Of humbly admitting your need, like a child, and submitting yourself to Jesus' kingly rule. And the first two passages in our chapter have a common theme of prayer. Because Jesus is teaching us that what we pray about reveals where our hearts are with God. It's just as easy to be self justifying and confident of our own righteousness when we approach God as with anything else. And Jesus warns us in this passage not to have that sort of attitude, because it is fatal to our spiritual health. And if we are in any doubt as to what Jesus is talking about this morning, then Luke gives us the answer in verse 9: "To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable."
Now the problem of studying a story like this one is that we are programmed to miss the sting in the tail. Because we've been brought up to think that Pharisees are nasty people. The word Pharisee is a "boo" word. Every time we hear it we boo. It has very negative overtones. Whereas for us the tax collector is a man who needs help and pity. Nowadays, tax men are regarded as being respectable but boring, present company excepted of course. But in order to get the full force of Jesus' parable, we need to understand that our present day caricatures of these two men are hopelessly misguided. You see, Pharisees were the sort of men you would have loved your daughter to marry. They were the fine upstanding men of society. They were hard working, very generous with their money, scrupulously honest and very religious. But tax collectors were the complete opposite. They were the tools of the oppressive Roman Empire, and they often creamed more off the people than the simple taxes. They were often wealthy through ill gotten gain, they were traitors, and they were regarded as the lowest of the low.
In order to understand this correctly, imagine two men walk into Holy Trinity church in town one lunchtime. One is well turned out, because he's a senior partner in a city centre law firm. This law firm specialises in helping asylum seekers and deprived children. This man has recently given away a huge sum of money to help the local Scout Group rebuild their burnt down Scout Hut. He runs a local boys' football team, and he's also church warden in a church on the outskirts of the city. He's devoted to his church. He and his wife almost single handedly prop up the church's finances. He's always there at all the services. He reads his Bible daily and he prays like the best of them. He attends all the latest conferences and jamborees. He's off to Spring Harvest next Spring, and he'll be at Keswick next summer. His bookshelf is stuffed full of the very best Christian books, and his CD collection is full of the latest Christian bands. The church really couldn't be without him. And as he stands in Holy Trinity that lunchtime, he cries out: "O God, I thank you that I am not like other men, muggers, football hooligans, pimps, or even like that drug dealer over there."
Because out the corner of his eye he's noticed a dishevelled young man who has just come in from the cold. He's been on drugs since he was ten and he's now a dealer on one of the Estates in East Hull. He's been known to beat rival dealers half to death. He's got a history of violence with women, and a good number of the children on the estate would call him Dad, if only they knew it. But there are tears in this man's eyes, as he looks at the cross hanging at the front of the church. And as he kneels in one of the pews at the back, sobbing almost uncontrollably now, he utters these words in his heart: "O God, what a wretch I am. I've mucked up my life totally. Please have mercy on me, this pathetic sinner." Who was it that went home forgiven and welcomed into heaven? The respectable, religious solicitor, or washed up drug dealer? Well here's the sting in the tail. Jesus says it's the drug dealer who went home forgiven! Verse 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." It's not that Jesus is condoning sin. He's not saying God only the loves the drop outs of society. What we need to see is that both men are sinners, both need forgiving, but only one realises it. And only one goes home forgiven. And that's what the parable is about. Jesus is warning us of the danger of pride, of self justifying self righteousness. And that is a danger that can afflict us at any time in our lives, whether we claims to be Christians or whether we don't. So I urge us to be humble this morning and to be willing to hear God's word, whether or not we've heard this story before. Because he's telling us the attitude we need to have to enter heaven. As often in Jesus' teaching the stakes are high. So what was the difference then between these two men? Why the sting in the tail? Well Jesus makes two points.
1) The Wrong Way to Approach God: Exalting Yourself before God (Vv 9-12)
2) The Right Way to Approach God: Humbling Yourself before God (Vv 13-14)
1) The Wrong Way to Approach God: Exalting Yourself before God (Vv 9-12)
So first Jesus explains to us the wrong way to approach God: Exalting yourself before God. Verse 9: "To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable: 'Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The 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. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I
get.''" And this Pharisee makes two fatal mistakes which shows where his heart really lies with God.
a) Misplaced Confidence- First he had a misplaced confidence. His confidence was not in God as it should have been, but in himself. Now at first sight we might be tempted to think that there is nothing really wrong with this Pharisee's prayer. I mean surely it is good to thank God that we are not as bad as we could be? Surely it's good to thank God that we are not robbers or evildoers or adulterers. Well yes that's true. God is in his grace does spare many of us from falling into worse sins. There should be an element in our prayers where we thank God for his mercy in sparing us being led down these paths, where we say but for the grace of God go I. But that attitude is one of humble gratitude. What this man displays is proud confidence. And Jesus gives us a clue to the state of his heart in verse 11: "The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself." In fact the original could also be translated he prayed "to himself". He was indulging in the most crass self obsession. This prayer is really no prayer at all. It's just a time of personal pampering. It would be as self obsessed as me standing in front of the mirror and saying to myself each morning: "Nathan, you're wonderful, you're beautiful, you're God's gift to this world. Now go get 'em." How horrific would that be! It would be like a man going to the doctors, and saying: "Doctor, I've come to give you some good news. I've just come to say I'm absolutely fine. The heart's ticking well, the blood pressure great, and my general sense of well being is as good as it's been for years!" And this man was like that. His confidence was placed in himself. He was confident of his own morality, and also of his own religious achievements in verse 12: "I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get." He was some guy. Because he went to far greater extremes than he needed to. The law said fast once a year. He did it twice a week. The law said give a tenth of your income. He gave a tenth of everything, even, if he was a good Pharisee, his herbs. It was as if he was saying to God. "God, I'm great, and you should be proud of me." His confidence was all in himself. It was seriously misplaced. That was one mistake.
b) Misplaced Comparison- But he also made another. And that was a misplaced comparison. Verse 11: "God, I thank you that I am not like other men- robbers, evildoers, adulterers, or even like this tax collector." Quite frankly, this man thought he was better than others. He thought he was a cut above the rest. He looked down his nose, saw the robbers and evildoers, the adulterers and tax collectors, sneered and thought: "Lord, thanks that I am not like them." In his own little world, he was king pin, and he was above the dross of his society. I'm better than them, Lord, he said. But the trouble was that it was a misplaced comparison, and his confidence was misplaced. Because what counted was not his own verdict on himself, but Jesus'. And what was Jesus' verdict? This man went home unforgiven. He was not right with God. It was a misplaced confidence and a misplaced comparison because this Pharisee, for all his good deeds and high morality, also a fatal heart condition. A heart opposed to God and centred on self. And that was his biggest problem. He could not save himself. His self confidence was seriously misplaced. And there was no point comparing himself to others. Because he was just as lost as everyone else. He might be outwardly good, but inside he was a black as anyone else. He had failed God and needed as much forgiveness as the next man. But he refused to see it. Because he exalted himself before God.
Now it would be the easiest thing in the world and to sit back and take this story as a nice moral tale from Jesus without letting the point of Jesus' story affect us. Because each one of us here this morning are in serious danger of going down the wrong way of approaching God, of exalting ourselves before God. There are many who believe for example that simply because they are, in their eyes, a good person they are going to heaven.
One extreme example is the novelist Leo Tolstoy. There was no doubt he was a genius, responsible for War and Peace and Anna Karenina among other things. But he was not God obsessed, he was self obsessed. This is what he wrote one day in his diary: "I read a work on the literary characterisation of genius today, and this awoke in me the conviction that I am a remarkable man both as regards capacity and eagerness to work. I have not yet met a single man who was morally as good as II do not remember an instance in my life when I was not attracted to what is good and was not ready to sacrifice anything to get it." Now few of us would be so crass to say that about ourselves, and yet don't we think it sometimes? But Jesus makes it clear in this passage that we'd be a fool to think that. Because we are making the same cardinal error as this Pharisee. We have a seriously misplaced confidence and are making a seriously misplaced comparison. The Bible makes it clear time and again that no-one is good enough for heaven. The pass mark is 100%, because God is 100% holy. He cannot physically live with anyone who is not perfect. Because that person would be destroyed and blown away in an instant by his perfect holiness. No matter how good we are on our own scale of rightness, no matter how much we give away to charity or help sick relatives or lovingly bring up our families, yet we still fail. Because we have a fatal sickness called sin, which means we cannot live God's way, which is goodness 100%. And there's no point comparing ourselves to others, because that would be as daft as criminal condemned to death being thankful he's not got leprosy. Both will end in death. What you and I need to do is to see our condition from God's perspective. Let not one of us here consider we're are good enough to get into heaven. Because we're not.
And if a little voice is saying inside you: "Come on Nathan. I'm a Christian. I know I'm a sinner. I've come to Christ." Don't be so quick to pat yourself on the back. Because the pride of the Pharisee so easily creeps into Christian circles. We're often like the Sunday School teacher who taught this parable to her class and then at the end prayed: "Thank you God that we are not like the Pharisee!" Perhaps one of our biggest dangers as Christians is the misplaced comparison. We catch ourselves looking around the congregation and thinking: "Well at least I'm not as bad as them!" Or sometimes it's the misplaced confidence that creeps in with ideas like: "Well I'm doing far more in the church family than anyone else!" And the danger is we become proud of our achievements, even though they are very notable and worthy. Yet done with the wrong attitude and a proud heart, they are worthless. Yes, we too can suffer from misplaced confidence in our own gifts and abilities and commitment. We too can suffer from a misplaced comparison as we put ourselves in the pecking order above everyone else. So hear the words of Jesus this morning and let's make sure we don't go down the wrong way of approaching God. For then you're exalting yourself above God. And that's a very dangerous position to find yourself in.
2) The Right Way to Approach God: Humbling Yourself before God (Vv 13-14)
So if the Pharisee's way is the wrong way, then what's the right way? Well that's the way of the tax collector which is humbling yourself before God. Verse 13: "But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, 'God, have mercy on me, a sinner.' 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." Now let's not loose sight of how shocking this would have been to Jesus' audience. It wasn't the nice religious upstanding member of society who went home right with God, but the drug addict, the tax collector, the one who was regarded as the dross of society. And again let's not make the mistake of thinking that God is interested in you only if you've lived a life of sex, drugs and rock and roll before you come to Christ. It's your heart that counts before God. God will accept you on his terms regardless of your education or your standing in society, regardless of whether your past in society's terms is spotless or a trail of disasters. He'll accept you whether you're a serial killer or a respected judge. What counts is whether you'll accept his terms or not. So what then is the right approach to God? How did the tax collector receive God's pardon? He did two things.
a) He had a right view of himself- Well first of all he had a right view of himself. Did you notice how different this man is to the Pharisee? The Pharisee stands up for all to see and prays to himself about how great he is. Whereas the tax collector has a full understanding of just how bad he is. He stands at a distance, perhaps at the back of the Temple, away from watching eyes, and simply pours our his heart in recognition of his sin. He's let God down badly, and he knows it. In fact he won't even look up to heaven. It's as if he won't even make eye contact with God. He had a right view of himself. He knew he's broken God's laws and he hurt God and everyone else. And so he cries out: "God have mercy on me, a sinner." In fact, literally the man cries out, God have mercy on me, THE sinner. He's saying to God: "I'm your man. I'm guilty as charged. I am the sinner. I'm the one you're looking for." And that is the first step in having a right approach to God, in admitting that you are a sinner, that you have not kept God's laws, that no matter how good you might think yourself to be, you still need God's forgiveness. That you are the sinner.
As I was preparing this talk I listened to a tape by a man who used to lead a church in Southampton. And he said that one Monday morning he got a phone call from a member of his congregation. And she said to him: "Pastor, I have some good news." And she went on to say: "Yesterday after church I became a Christian." Well the pastor was amazed, and said to her: "But you've been coming to this church for 20 years. You must have heard me and my predecessor preach the gospel hundreds of times. Why now?" "Oh yes, I know, she replied. But whenever you talked about sin, I always thought you were speaking about someone else. But last night I realised that I was THE sinner. And I realised I needed forgiveness, and so I asked for it and God forgive me." You see, the first step to having the right approach to God is to have the right understanding of ourselves. To realise that we are The Sinner in desperate need of forgiveness.
b) He had a right view of God- But that's only the first step. Because the second step that this tax collector made was to have a right view of God. He realised that God was a God of great mercy and kindness. Verse 13: "But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, 'God, have mercy on me, a sinner.'" He cried out for mercy from God. When you're in trouble and there is nothing you can do to save yourself, then the only thing you can do is cry for help. And God is willing to help us. And in fact, the tax collector knew exactly how God could help. For when he says "God have mercy on me" his words literally were "God be propitious to me" or "God take away your wrath from me". He knew that God was rightly angry for all the things he'd done wrong. But he knew too that in that Temple God had provided a sacrifice which was killed on the altar which could take away his sin. A lamb would die in that tax collector's place so that he could be forgiven. And for us living the other side of the cross, we now know that Jesus Christ himself provided the perfect, full and final sacrifice for us when he died on that cross, dying in our place so that we might be forgiven and go free. It is through Jesus' death on the cross that sinful rebels like you and me can go free. We can be washed clean and spared an eternity without God by trusting in Jesus to take our place. And that is wonderful news. That's how kind and generous and merciful God is! His own Son became our substitute so that he stood where we should have been, and we could go free.
There is a very good illustration of this substitution at the end of Charles Dickens' book A Tale of Two Cities. The book is set in the 18th century, during the French Revolution. And there are two men called Charles Darnier and Sydney Carlton, who look identical to each other. And both men love the same woman. But the woman in question loves only one of them, Charles Darnier, which is a good thing because Charles Darnier is a very good man, while Sydney Carlton is a total scoundrel. Well Darnier finds himself imprisoned as an aristocrat and he is facing the guillotine, but Sydney Carlton decides to do the one good thing he ever does in his life for the sake of the woman he loves. Carlton goes to the prison in Paris with a friend and manages to drug Darnier and then swap clothes with him. And Carlton takes Darnier's place in the prison awaiting death for a crime he did not commit. No-one notices that the two men have swapped places because they are identical. Darnier is given Carlton's clothes and the friend drags the drugged Darnier out of prison, with Sydney Carlton's identity papers on him. And Darnier is now a free man. Eventually he flees the country and is able to go the woman he loves in England. But because of his one act of kindness in his life, Sydney Carlton now dies in Darnier's place on the guillotine. And the book ends by saying that it was the one good thing that Carlton had ever done.
Dickens wrote about a fictional substitution. But God performed a real one when Jesus died on our place on the cross. God has gone to extraordinary lengths to brings us back to himself, to forgive us through the very costly death of his own Son. And the key question for us is whether we have the humility to admit our desperate need and come to Christ for help, or to proudly go on in our own strength. It maybe you have never actually taken that step of admitting your need and receiving Christ's forgiveness. Well why not make this Christmas time the most joyful Christmas ever by accepting that gift. And for those of us who've been Christians a while, we need to remember that God's mercy and grace is something that doesn't just come at the start of the Christian life when we first become a Christian. We need it every day. We begin the Christian life because of God's grace, and we need to continue to walk in that grace every day. For as soon as we think we can make it under our own steam, then we're going the Pharisee's way.
So let us hear again Jesus' challenge to us this morning. Will we be people who exalt ourselves over God, people who have a misplaced confidence and misplaced comparison. Or will we be people who go the tax collector's way. People who a have a right view of themselves and a right view of God. Only one man went home justified, forgiven, right with God, that day. That could be you today. "For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted."
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