In the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, a notorious sinner receives God’s mercy while a scrupulously religious person remains unforgiven. The parable illustrates in a powerful way that God’s gift of salvation is completely free. Will we trust God enough to receive it?
Sermon Text: Luke 18:9-14
The following is my original sermon manuscript.
When I was in Kenya last September, there were a few occasions on which I didn’t have access to bottled water. So someone would offer me a glass of water and say, “It’s been filtered, don’t worry.” And I’m thinking, “How do I know it’s been filtered. I didn’t see anyone filter it.” So I would drink and worry about getting sick. Of course I didn’t get sick, but I’ve told you before I tend to worry about these things.
So before my most recent trip to Kenya, someone told me to set my mind at ease and buy a SteriPEN. Do you know what a SteriPEN is? It’s like a magic wand… literally. It’s an electric wand that lights up when you place it in the glass of water. After a minute or so, it kills all living bacteria with ultraviolet light; and when the water’s all clean this little smiley face shows up on the LCD indicator. So this time, on my most recent trip, I would ask, “Has this has been filtered?” “Oh, yes. It’s perfectly safe.” “O.K., good.” Then, when no one was looking, I’m like… [mimic putting the SteriPEN in the water.]
My point is this: based on appearances, you couldn’t tell whether or not this glass of tap water was safe to drink. Judging by appearances, a glass of water teeming with harmful bacteria is indistinguishable from a clean glass of water.
In today’s scripture, Jesus warns us against judging by appearances. If we were going to judge the two men in today’s parable by appearances, we would be very wrong. No one could guess that of these two men, the tax collector would be the one who leaves the temple in a right relationship with God.
Tax collectors were notorious sinners. First because they worked for the enemy, the Roman Empire. They collected taxes on Rome’s behalf—but also because they kept a large portion of what they collected as a commission for themselves. Those of you who’ve bought a concert ticket through Ticketmaster know just what this is like! As long as the Romans got paid, they didn’t care what local tax collectors kept for themselves. So tax collectors were ostracized and hated by most people.
Do you get the picture?
Except in this case, we can’t see the whole picture. We can’t see what’s going on inside this tax collector’s heart. And the heart is what matters most. In the three verses that follow today’s scripture, Luke tells us about people bringing little children to Jesus. His disciples try to discourage them from doing so: judging by appearances, children aren’t very important. Don’t waste Jesus’ time. But Jesus says, “Allow the children to come to me. Don’t forbid them, because God’s kingdom belongs to people like these children.” Why? Because just as young children know that they depend on their parents for everything they need to survive, so we children of God know that we depend on our heavenly Father for everything we need to survive. Being a disciple is about living out this kind of trust in God.
In a way, trust has been the theme of this sermon series: In the first week of the series, Jesus encouraged us to depend on him for everything that we need—including humble things like our daily bread—and to ask for it boldly. Last week, Jesus encouraged us to trust that the time we spend with him—which is also time we spend away from our stressful, hectic schedules—will somehow pay off for us, that by doing so we’ll find the spiritual resources that we need to deal with the rest of our lives, including our stressful, hectic schedules. And this week our scripture is about trust again: Whom will we trust secure a right relationship with God? Will we trust God to do it, or will we trust in ourselves? Will we trust in the good works that we do to make us right with God, or will we trust in the good and atoning work that God himself did on the cross for us, through his Son Jesus?
Obviously, the Pharisee thought he could trust in himself to secure a right relationship with God, and that proves to be his undoing.
Some of you know that I’m a big fan of Pete Townshend—the guitarist, songwriter, and part-time singer for the Who. I even named one of my sons after him! Anyway, I read his recently published autobiography, and it was eye-opening, to say the least. I knew part of hhis sad story. I knew, for instance, that in the ’70s he struggled with alcoholism—he wrote songs about that. And I knew that he nearly died of a drug overdose in the early-’80s. He wrote a song or two about that. But around 1982 he got clean… and sober. He settled down; he became a better husband and father; he became a humanitarian who supported many charitable causes; and in general, he became a reasonably responsible adult instead of an out-of-control rock star. And he’s been clean and sober ever since.
Or at least that’s what I thought. One time around 1990, he was out at dinner. He asked if they served non-alcoholic beer, and as a joke someone offered him what they thought of as a weak and watered-down American beer—may as well be non-alcoholic! So Townshend took a sip and realized that it wasn’t. But he put it down and didn’t drink any more of it. He said he went back to his room later that night, knelt at his bed and prayed. He didn’t thank God for helping him overcome this temptation to drink, nor did he pray for strength to avoid the temptation in the future. Instead, he thanked God for showing him that he could drink socially again—that he could control himself now, that drinking didn’t have to lead him to those dark and scary places it led him in the past.
As I was reading this, I was thinking, “I don’t think that’s the right lesson to take away from this experience.” And it wasn’t—before long he was back on a self-destructive course. It took another few years before he found the help he needed get sober again.
My point is this: in my mind I thought that Townshend’s struggle with addiction was over once and for all in 1982—and after that he mostly lived happily ever after. But of course that’s not the way addiction works! It’s always a struggle. And that’s not the way sin, in general, works! It’s always a struggle, too. In this life, on this side of eternity, we must remain vigilant against sin. We can never let our guard down. After all, we have an Enemy who is always working against us and who wants to destroy us. And if Satan can’t destroy us one way, he’ll try to find another way to do it. We underestimate the power of Satan and the power of sin at our own spiritual peril!
And isn’t that a large part of the Pharisee’s problem? “You’ve successfully resisted these temptations to sin. Good for you, Mr. Pharisee! You’ve done great work. You should feel really proud of yourself.” This is why humility is the hardest virtue to cultivate. The moment we become aware of achieving it is the moment we fall victim to pride.
What if, instead of praying this self-righteous prayer, the Pharisee turned it around a little and said something like this: “I thank you, God, that by the power of your Holy Spirit you have enabled me to overcome some of the sin with which I’ve struggled in my life. I’m not where I want to be, but with your help I’m moving in the right direction. Of course, even at my worst, I was always a ‘respectable’ kind of sinner whose sins weren’t nearly as visible to the world as the sins of these these crooks and “evildoers” and adulterers. But in my heart I was as bad as the worst of them—and I confess that sometimes I still am. Please forgive me! In fact, when I look at that tax collector over there, I remember the person I used to be, before your grace got hold of me. I remember the shame and guilt that I felt—the shame and guilt that he must feel as he stands before you. Lord, please pour out your mercy, grace, and forgiveness on him—the same way you did for me. Give him the power to turn his life around. When pride gets the best of me, and I start to feel superior to people like him, please remind me of the person I used to be and the person that I still am. Please remind me that ‘there but for the grace of God go I.’ Please remind me that I’m still a sinner, and I have my plenty more work to do to repent and change. Amen.”
I don’t know how to get rid of pride and achieve humility, except by staying focused on my own sin, rather than other people’s sin.
The tax collector, by contrast, was focused on his own sin. He had nothing to offer God in his defense—no character witnesses, no alibi, no extenuating circumstances. He was guilty and he knew it; and all he could do was throw himself on the mercy of the court—and hope that God showed him mercy. He certainly had no right to expect it. But he received it!
Please notice that all the tax collector did to receive forgiveness was ask for it. I know we want to make it more complicated than that, but… it really isn’t. Someone may object: “Yes, but… remember Zacchaeus? Shouldn’t this tax collector go and give away half his money to the poor and repay everyone four times what he stole from them?” Well, maybe… probably. For all we know, that’s exactly what he will do when he gets home. But it’s clear from this parable that saving faith happens first, independently of any good works that we perform. The good works that we do are in response to this gift of salvation that God has already given us. This parable illustrates the truth of Paul’s words in Ephesians 2: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.”
Brothers and sisters, this gift of God’s saving grace is completely free! Forgiveness is completely free! Salvation is completely free! Eternal life is completely free! We don’t have to do anything to earn it. We don’t have to do anything to pay God back for it! We can’t pay God back for it! The price that God paid for this gift was way too extravagant for us—it cost God nothing less than the life of his Son Jesus on the cross! Trying to earn our salvation is like saying we’re going to buy up all the stock in Apple Computer, and we only have a few pennies in your pocket! You can’t do it! Stop trying!
In 1689, the city of Windsor, England, was in an uproar. The city fathers had commissioned famed architect Sir Christopher Wren, the designer of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, to design a new town hall. On the bottom floor of the town hall was a large open space called a “corn market,” in which farmers and merchants could display their products. The floor above the corn market would include meeting rooms where the city fathers could gather to conduct city business.
So Wren completed the building to everyone’s satisfaction—with one glaring exception: Wren had used a new technique for supporting the floor above the corn market that required no pillars for support—except on the side of the large room. To the city fathers and others, it seemed obvious that the ceiling of the corn market would come crashing down under the weight of people gathered above it in the meeting rooms. The city fathers insisted, therefore, that Wren add four pillars in the middle of the corn market to support the floor of their meeting rooms above.
And Wren hated the idea. Adding these pillars was not only unnecessary: it would detract from the beauty of the open space. But he finally got tired of fighting them and added the pillars. Years after Wren died, the ceiling of the corn market needed painting. While it was being painted, the city fathers made a shocking discovery: Wren had left a tiny space between the tops of the pillars and the ceiling—unnoticeable except under close inspection. All this time, these pillars, which were believed to be holding up the floor above, were actually doing nothing at all except providing a false sense of security.
In the same way, our good works can easily lull us into a false sense of security if we imagine that by doing them we’re somehow earning our salvation. And if we think we’re earning our salvation, then chances are we’ll worry that we can never be good enough. We’ll feel insecure. We’ll doubt that we’re saved. And our only defense will be to compare ourselves with others and say, “Well, at least I’m not as bad as her.” And we’ll never be truly happy. And we’ll never know peace. And we’ll never know the abundant life that God wants us to have!
Brothers and sisters, it’s time to break those pillars down! It’s time to stop trusting in ourselves and trust that God the master architect has done everything needed through the life, death, and resurrection of his Son Jesus to save us. Forgiveness, grace, salvation… is completely free! Amen?
You know, since God paid for this gift of forgiveness already, you may as well receive it. If you haven’t I hope you will.
Yesterday in our sanctuary, we celebrated the fact that 60-something young people in our church did receive this gift—and they promised to live the rest of their lives in grateful response for the that God gave them. I want invite Turner Lee to come forward and say more about this.