Seward United Methodist Church
Friday, November 15, 2019
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Humility and Justification

Luke 18:9-14

Sometimes the stories of the Gospels don’t really hit us the way they should, and I think this story is a good example. We’re used to the ideas Jesus is teaching, and we’re used to the Pharisees being the antagonists in the Gospels, so we miss that this story was meant to be shocking. Pharisees were regarded as the most pious of people, the most devoted to keeping God’s Law. Tax collectors, on the other hand, were seen as greedy, dishonest, traitors to their own people. The story was meant to shock people, meant to surprise them at the conclusion, and we probably miss that because we don’t live in that culture.

Jesus directs the story to those “who were proud of themselves and looked down on others.” Of course, this would include the Pharisees themselves, but also the scribes and others who had a similar understanding of themselves. And there will always be people who are self-righteous and look down on others. We just have to make sure we’re not among them.

Two men went up to the Temple to pray. In first century Judaism, the pious prayed three times daily, at about 9 AM, 12 noon, and 3 PM. And if possible, they prayed in the Temple. It was believed that prayer was most effective when it was offered in the Temple, because the Temple was God’s “throne on the earth.”

The Pharisee begins, “I thank you that I am not a sinner like everyone else.” We read that and think of Romans 3, “For all have sinned and fallen short,” and think he’s pretty boastful. Or delusional. But in his culture, it was considered pious to thank God for one’s righteousness, so he would not necessarily be thought boastful.

“Especially not like that tax collector.” It’s pretty dangerous to go around comparing ourselves to others. The real measure of righteousness is God, not other people. But when we compare ourselves to others, we like to pick easy targets. “I thank you that I am not a sinner like that politician!” We don’t usually compare ourselves to Billy Graham or Mother Teresa. We might not measure up so well, right?

“I am not a cheater, a sinner, or an adulterer.” I have to wonder if he’s assuming all these things about the tax collector. He would certainly assume the tax collector to be a cheater. That was the reputation, though not all of them were dishonest. And to assume he’s an adulterer? I guess the truth is we often like to assume the worst in

other people. Someone cuts us off in traffic, and we assume they’re Hitler. Maybe they were just distracted and feel really bad for doing something dumb.

“I fast twice a week and tithe all my income.” The Law only required one fast per year, which was on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. But by the first century, many Jews fasted once weekly. The Pharisees did it twice weekly, on Mondays and Thursdays, just because they were extra pious. Many even went without water while they fasted. As for the tithe, because the Pharisees were so meticulous about it, tithing everything, even things that weren’t required, many times they would “tithe” more than a tithe. It was also an “insurance policy,” just to be sure they didn’t break the Law by accidentally only giving 9.9%.

The Pharisee’s prayer seems to be for the purpose of being seen and admired. I don’t know if he prayed it out loud, but it wouldn’t surprise me. It is most definitely self-centered rather than God-centered.

On the other hand, there is the tax collector’s prayer. He does not lift his eyes to heaven. That was the normal posture of prayer, standing with eyes lifted up. But he bows his head and beats his breast, which was a sign of grief or sorrow. “God, be merciful to me, for I am a sinner.” And that’s all he prays.

The cynic would say that his prayer was invalid because it included no promises of making restitution. But Jesus says, “He went home justified.”

To be justified is not the same thing as being righteous. A person is righteous when they are free from sin. To be justified is to have one’s sins covered by the grace of God. We should seek after righteousness, but with the awareness that it is impossible to be totally righteous. And at the end of the day, our salvation in Jesus Christ is based on the fact that we are justified. Our sins have been covered by the grace of God revealed in the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ. Our righteousness is the righteousness of Christ, not our own. We have no self-righteousness.

Why was the Pharisee’s prayer not accepted? Bible scholars and theologians point to three answers, and I would say the truth is at least a combination of all three.

First, there is a lack of humility. Verse 14, “The proud will be humbled but the humble will be honored,” is a word for word repetition of what Jesus said in Luke 14:11.

In that case, it was applied to a dinner party, here it is applied to God’s house. The Pharisee lacks humility, so he will be humbled.

Second, there is the assumption of righteousness. The Pharisee doesn’t need to be justified, in his mind. Jesus began his ministry by saying in Luke 5:32, “I have come to call sinners, not the righteous.” Well, who are the sinners? All of us are sinners. So Jesus came to call all of us. But if we assume we are righteous and not sinners, then we won’t hear the call of Jesus. We’re all sinners, but not all of us know it.

And third, in separating himself from others, the Pharisee has also separated himself from God. By despising others made in the image of God, the Pharisee has also despised the One who made them. Only those who are keenly aware of their own need can be free from the temptation to look down on others. And only those with compassion and empathy for others can receive God’s grace.

There is a danger to having the wrong kind of religion. Religion should make us godly and humble. But the wrong kind of religion can make us virtuous without humility. Then we look down on those who lack our virtue. And in separating ourselves from others, we also separate ourselves from God.

Our other text this morning is from one of Paul’s letters to Timothy. In 1st Timothy chapter 1, which we read as a text last month, Paul says of himself, “Christ came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the chief.” That seems like a strange thing for Paul to say at this point. He has been serving Christ, and very often suffering greatly for Christ, for more than twenty years. Yet he calls himself the chief of sinners.

I think the point to take away is that we are in real trouble, spiritually speaking, if we ever lose the awareness that we are nothing more than sinners in need of grace. The Pharisee in Jesus’ story lost that awareness, and he went home without being justified. The same will happen to us if we lose that awareness.

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