Sermon 10-23-2022: “The Scandal of Grace”

November 7, 2022

Scripture: Luke 18:9-17

Have you heard of the phenomenon of humble-bragging? Humble-bragging is when you say something that sounds “humble”—because we all want to sound humble—but you also want—at the same time—to send a signal to others that says, “Look at me! I’m really something special.” That’s humble-bragging. In case you still don’t know what I’m talking about, one website has collected some real-life examples of humble-bragging on Twitter, mostly tweeted by famous people. I won’t identify them. But they authentic tweets.

Here’s one:

Can we start a media campaign to question how I got into Columbia? Still scratching my head about how I got accepted & demand answers!

This person is referring to Columbia University, an Ivy League school in New York. Translation: “Surely I don’t deserve to get into this prestigious university… But, oh, by the way, I did get in! So… Yay, me!”

Or how about this one?

I’m wearing a ponytail, rolled out of bed from a nap, at the bar w/ my guy and guys r still hitting on me. Like really??

Translation: “Even at my least attractive, even when I’m a total slob,I am still way better looking than you.”

Or how about this one?

Watching my segment on FOX and cringing…. Listening to my voice on TV is SO painful. Do I really sound like such a valley girl?!?!

Translation: “My voice sounds so terrible… on this nationally televised program that millions are watching.”

Or how about this?

It always feels a little odd to me when I get recognized randomly in public. I never know what to say. I’m glad it doesn’t happen often.

Translation: “I’m famous, sure, but not that famous.”

Finally, this one… from a well-known pastor, who shall remain nameless:

I’m truly humbled you follow my tweets. I pray they enrich your life & strengthen your ministry. God bless all 200,000 of you!

Translation: “If my tweets ‘enriched the lives’ and ‘strengthened the ministries of’ only two hundred people, rather than two-hundred thousand, I wouldn’t be tweeting this right now!”

Ugh… What is it within us that makes us want to humble-brag? 

As the humble-bragging Pharisee in today’s parable proves, this phenomenon is nothing new. It’s been around at least a couple thousand years.

In this sermon, I want to emphasize the following three points: Point Number One, What’s wrong with the Pharisee? Point Number Two, What’s right with the Tax Collector. And Point Number Three: How does this apply to us?

But Point Number One… What’s wrong with the Pharisee in this parable?

Let’s notice, first, that this prayer isn’t as bad as we think… You’ve got to admit that the Pharisee gets off to a great start in verse 11: “God, I thank you that…” Dot, dot, dot. In fact, more than a few preachers and commentators that I respect point out that there is a kernel of truth even in what the Pharisee prays—his prayer isn’t completely off base. 

I mean, inasmuch as this Pharisee possessed within himself the power to resist the temptation to commit the sins that these people he names routinely committed, then praise God for that

After all, the people the Pharisee mentions are committing serious sins. Extortioners, for instance, are people who steal, who break the ninth commandment. Adulterers break the seventh. The “unjust” is a more general term that refers to people who sin in many different, conspicuous ways. And don’t even get me started with tax collectors. Tax collectors were given a license by the Roman Empire to collect taxes throughout a geographical region. They were entitled to collect as much as they wanted to—even at the point of a sword—so long as the Romans received their cut. Not only were tax collectors considered greedy and covetous, they were considered traitors to their country because they collaborated with an enemy occupying power!

So by all means, it’s perfectly okay for the Pharisee to be grateful to God that the Pharisee has been given the grace to overcome these sins or resist these temptations to sin. Taking the Pharisee’s words at face value, assuming he’s sincere, he is literally grateful to God. Give the Pharisee credit for giving God credit for his righteousness!

It’s almost as if the Pharisee were saying, “Thank you, God, that I’m not like that person… because I am well aware that it’s only by your grace that I’m not like that person!”

It’s almost as if he were saying, “There but for the grace of God go I.” 

And if that’s all he were saying, then I’d be like, “Amen.” 

The Pharisee’s problem, however, is, he doesn’t really believe it. Or if he did believe it at one time, he’s forgotten it. How do we know? Well, Luke tells us in verse 9 that this Pharisee is an example of someone who’s trusting in himself that he’s righteous and looking with contempt on others. Greek scholars say that we ought to hear this contempt come through in verse 11: when he says, “like this tax collector”… We’re ought to imagine his saying it with a sneer in his voice. Like, “This person is so far beneath me… I can’t stand being near him.”

The Pharisee hates this man… when, in reality, he should feel nothing but compassion and love for him. I mean, sure, maybe the Pharisee is little more sanctified than the Tax Collector, but again, the Pharisee might have said, “There but for the grace of God go I. My righteousness—inasmuch as I possess any at all within me—is not my doing. The only thing separating me from this man, after all, is that God has given me the grace not to be like him.”

But the Pharisee doesn’t do that…

In fact, his problem is identical to a real-life Pharisee we met earlier in Luke’s gospel—back in chapter 7. Jesus is dining in the home of a Pharisee named Simon. A recently converted former prostitute enters the room and begins anointing Jesus’ feet with both perfume and her grateful tears of joy. And Simon can’t stand that a supposedly righteous man like Jesus is allowing this well-known sinful woman to do this! “If this man were a prophet, he would know what kind of woman she was, and he wouldn’t let her touch his feet!” But, of course, Jesus did know the kind of woman she was.

Simon the Pharisee’s problem was, he didn’t know what kind of man he was!

And again, as in the case of the Pharisee in today’s parable, it may very well be that Simon had been sanctified and given enough grace by God not to fall victim to adultery and other sexual sins. Maybe he’s not “as big a sinner” as this woman. And if he’s not, then praise God for that! But don’t look down on this woman… because you’re not so different from her, Simon! “Do you realize just how many sins you’ve committed, Simon? Do you realize that apart from God’s grace, you would be just as bad or worse? Inasmuch as you are righteous, Simon, you did not make yourself this way! God did… by the gift of his grace!”

That’s why, as Jesus tells us in Luke 7:47—this is the key verse, and it applies to the Pharisee in today’s parable: “Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little.”

Jesus’ point is, “Simon, you don’t love this woman, a fellow sinner like you, because you don’t understand the extent to which you’ve been forgiven, the extent to which you’ve received grace, the extent to which you’ve received God’s unmerited favor. You’ve forgotten about all the sin that God had to pardon in you in order for you to have a relationship with God! You may not be as big a sinner as this woman—and praise God for that—but it’s not because of anything, anything, anything that you yourself have done.”

The very springboard, the very foundation, of our ability to fulfill the Great Commandment to love God and love neighbor, to genuinely love others the way Jesus commands us to love, rather than to have contempt on them, is gratitude to God for what God has done for us—not what we’ve done for ourselves!

This why, by the way, we never outgrow our need to hear the gospel over and over, to be reminded over and over, what God’s Son Jesus did for us to give us eternal life and make us part of his family forever!

I mentioned Twitter at the top of the sermon, and I’m going to mention it again… because there are just so many sermon illustrations there—including this tweet from a real-life pastor last week. I have no idea who this guy is, but this tweet was very popular, unfortunately:

Sure. We can sing to Jesus. But Jesus never asked us to do that. Jesus asked us to feed the hungry, to give them water, to welcome the stranger, to clothe them, to visit the prisoner, to care for the sick. Jesus didn’t want songs. Jesus wants justice.

This makes me want to gag. It’s completely untrue—and I could cite a thousand scriptures that contradict this idea, not least of which the entire Book of Psalms. Because if the very Spirit of Christ, the Holy Spirit, breathed out the words of the Bible, as the Bible says he did, then actually Jesus did ask us to sing praises to him! 

But even more, you can almost hear the self-righteousness in his voice, “I thank you, God, that I am not like all those poor, benighted Christians who waste so much time praising and worshiping you when, like me, they should be out there doing all these good works that you’ve commanded them to do!”


Besides, I want to say, “Good luck with your efforts to serve people for the sake of Christ if those efforts do not spring from a heart overflowing with gratitude to Christ for what he has first done for you! If you are finding your life’s greatest treasure in work—even the good work of God’s kingdom—rather than in the treasure that we find in a relationship with Christ himself, then you are going to experience burn out really fast! And you’re going to be angry and bitter and mean! And you’re going to be judgmental and self-righteous. And you’re going to fail to have compassion on fellow sinners like yourself, including fellow sinners sitting in the pew across the aisle from you.”

Even if it were true that this pastor is more righteous than all these other Christians who fail to do what he thinks they should do—and of course he’s not right, as I’ve already said—but even if he were right, even if he were more righteous than his fellow Christians who failed to act the way he does, his righteousness would only be a gift of God’s grace… not something that he did to earn it!

“There but for the grace of God go I.” 

I know that this famous saying isn’t in the Bible. But it follows from the truth of today’s parable, among many other scriptures. There’s a verse that makes the same point: Paul says, “by the grace of God I am what I am.” 1 Corinthians 15:10. In other words, “I’m not responsible for becoming the person I am; inasmuch as I’m becoming a righteous person, God has made me this way by his grace.” Earlier in that same letter Paul writes, “What do you have that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if you did not receive it?” 1 Corinthians 4:7.

Receiving from God is at the heart of what it means to live a Christian life! In today’s parable, the Pharisee’s problem is he approaches God as if he has something to offer God: “God, let me show you my spiritual résumé. Let me show you my list of accomplishments. Let me show you all the reasons you should be lucky to have me on your team! I think I can be a real asset to your organization, Lord, let me tell you why.”

No… We possess nothing good that God himself didn’t give us. We did nothing to earn or deserve any good thing. It’s all grace! The Pharisee misunderstands that. And how easily the little “Pharisee” within us misunderstands that! And that’s Point Number One. That’s what’s wrong with the Pharisee.

Point Number Two: What’s right with the Tax Collector?

To illustrate this point, let me go back time… My young life changed in a dramatic way on December 8, 1980. That was the day that John Lennon was murdered outside his apartment in New York by a deranged fan named Mark David Chapman. My life changed because in the wake of that tragedy, my friends and I were exposed to a lot of Beatles music on TV and the radio—and we loved it—and for me, at least, their music was the beginning of my lifelong passionate interest in music.

Mark David Chapman and I are both alumni, by the way, of what used to be called DeKalb Community College—which is now part of Georgia State. Oddly enough, Georgia State doesn’t advertise that John Lennon’s murderer went there, but it’s true… he went there for one quarter not long before he killed Lennon.

Anyway, Chapman was genuinely mentally disturbed at the time, and strung out on drugs. I’m not making excuses or saying that that absolves him of his responsibility. He doesn’t think so either. He was a cold-blooded killer. He’s now in his right mind, however, and serving out a life sentence in prison. He will likely never be paroled. And he doesn’t seem especially bothered by that.

Why? Because prison has become his place of ministry. Because—oh yeah—he has become a very articulate and outspoken Christian. 

Like many formerly bad people—including other cold-blooded killers like Tex Watson—formerly of the Manson family—and David Berkowitz, the notorious “Son of Sam” killer—Chapman found Jesus while serving life in prison. And like these other two, Jesus is all Chapman wants to talk about when he gives interviews.

Now, when we hear about men like these who are Christians, we might wonder whether Christianity has a public relations problem. We might worry whether all these notoriously bad people who now claim to be Christians are giving Christianity a bad name! I know from Marketing 101 that you want to associate your “brand” with beautiful, successful winners, not a bunch of losers like this sorry lot! Is it good marketing for the Christian way of life that so many sincere, outspoken Christians also happen to be such notoriously bad people? Are they harming the reputation of Christ that Christ seems so willing to embrace people like Mark David Chapman?

Isn’t there something scandalous about the fact that Christ saves even those kinds of people?

But hold on… Not so fast… This tax collector—in the eyes of most people who originally heard this parable and certainly in the eyes of the Pharisee—was one of those kinds of people.

And if we’re honest with ourselves… if we know our hearts… if we know just how much sin God has had to forgive within us in order for us to be in a right relationship with God, then we shouldn’t be too embarrassed to say that we, too, are those kinds of people too!

One of the most powerful and influential preachers of the 20th-century—in Britain—was a former medical doctor from Wales named Martin Lloyd-Jones. Even in Lloyd-Jones’s day, British society, like our own today, was saturated with nominal Christianity. Plenty of people in England identified as Christians… except when you interrogated their lives and their professed faith, it became clear that they didn’t really have a saving relationship with God. 

So Martin Lloyd-Jones had a test to help him determine whether someone was an authentic Christian: He would ask them, “Are you a Christian?” And often people would get defensive: “Of course I am! It’s hard work but I’m doing it. Why do you ask?” 

Because for most people, then as now, Christianity was mostly about things you had to do: go to church, believe in certain doctrines, live a certain kind of life. Christianity was mostly something done by you. If that’s the case, there’s no astonishment about being a Christian. 

True Christianity, by contrast, is something done for you, and to you, and in you. And Lloyd-Jones said that when you understand that, there should be a constant note of surprise and wonder and joy. 1 After all, if we’re Christians, that means before the foundation of the world, God knew us, God elected us, God wanted us to be with him for eternity. And God put into motion a plan to make that happen!

Who are we that God would do that for us? Who am I? What have I done to deserve all of this? Nothing!

So Martin Lloyd-Jones’s point is, “If someone asks you if you’re a Christian, you shouldn’t say, ‘Of course!’ There should be no ‘of course-ness’ about it. It would be more appropriate to say, “Yes, I am a Christian, and that’s a miracle, isn’t it? Me! A Christian! Who would have ever thought it? Yet God did all this for me, and I’m his.” 2

Well, this tax collector, to his credit, would never say, “Of course I’m a Christian.” He could only be astonished that God accepted him, forgave him, saved him.

Are we astonished, or do we say “of course”? Friends, the difference between those two responses is the difference between the Tax Collector and the Pharisee; it’s nothing less than the difference between eternal life and eternal condemnation, the difference between heaven and hell.

There may be someone right now, in this room, in this sanctuary, who’s thinking about that future moment when you’ll stand before God in Final Judgment. If so, on what basis do you believe you’ll be accepted by God into his kingdom? On what basis do you think God our Judge will declare you not guilty of your sins. 

Maybe—like the Pharisee in the parable—you’re planning on presenting to God your spiritual résumé: “Here are my achievements, Lord! Look at what a good person I’ve been! Let me give you all the reasons why I should be granted eternal life! Sure, I’m not perfect, but I’m not nearly as bad as fill-in-the-blank.”

Is that what you’re counting on? 

Or, like the Tax Collector, do you realize that you have nothing, that you have done nothing? Are you prepared to say, “My only hope is Jesus, and what he’s done for me through his atoning death and resurrection. He is the only basis on which I could ever have eternal life. He’s done everything necessary to make that life possible for me. I had done nothing to earn it, to deserve it, to pay for it. All I did—through faith—was to receive it.”

By the way, this is the point of the last three verses in today’s scripture. Notice people are bringing infants to Jesus. These are babies, in other words, for Jesus to bless and hold, not children for Jesus to play with. These infants are completely helpless… They have nothing to offer… They are completely dependent on their parents for survival… They have nothing to give in exchange for anything that they receive—all they “give” is a lot of trouble to the parents in exchange for keeping them alive. It’s totally worth it, of course, but babies are a lot of work! And notice Jesus says in verse 17, “Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.”

Notice the word “receive.” That word is at the heart of the meaning of the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. The Tax Collector only receives from God. And that’s what he gets right. And that’s Point Number Two!

Point Number Three: How does it apply to us? Let me share two ways…

First… I’m talking to those of you haven’t received this gift of eternal life. Now is the time to empty your hands of all those “good works” you’re counting on and receive for yourself what Christ has done for you. Become like the tax collector and receive this gift. Don’t leave this place this morning without doing that. 

Theologian John Gerstner said, many years ago, “The problem between us and God is not so much our sins; it’s our damnable good works.” The problem between us and God is not so much our sins; it’s our damnable good works. That was the Pharisee’s problem; don’t let it be your problem! Your good works will play no role in your salvation. And if you think they will, then like the Pharisee in the parable, you will go to hell. Don’t be like him!

And, second, for the rest of us… those of us who are already Christians, who are already saved.

Our relationship with God, even after we become Christians, is always one of receiving from God, not giving. In case you doubt it, consider this: anything we “give to God” comes to us first as a gift from him in the first place. So we can only give to God what God has first given to us!

But not only that… Think about this… Every single person in this room is going through a crisis of some kind. Or if you’re not at the moment, don’t worry… you will be soon enough. And when I say “crisis,” I mean that you are facing, or you will soon be facing, something over which you have no control. Or on your own, left to your own devices, you do not possess what you need to solve the crisis. You feel helpless. You feel powerless. You might even feel embarrassed or ashamed to even talk about it. You probably feel afraid. You feel like, “I can’t do this. I don’t know what to do. I don’t know what I’m doing. I don’t know how to solve this problem.”

Every single one of us is feeling something like that right now, or we will soon be feeling it.

With all that in mind, listen: “You’re not smart enough or clever enough to solve this crisis. You’re not strong enough or wealthy enough to solve this crisis. You simply don’t possess what you need to solve this crisis. And that’s okay. This scripture is telling us that that’s okay. This tax collector, for instance, did not have what he needed to come through his crisis, and yet God gives him the help he needs. The Pharisee, on the other hand, believes that he is self-sufficient, and he has what he needs—and obviously he’s the one who’s in trouble.”

So… Being in a place of weakness, of powerlessness, of helplessness, is a good place to be. Because when you call on God the way the tax collector does, God will give you what you need—he’ll give you the strength you need, the power you need, the guidance you need, the grace you need—whatever it is—he will give it to you. This is the way God works!

When we are in a place of emptiness, that is when God wants to fill us up!

2 Corinthians 12:10 proves it. Paul says, “For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” Those are five problems in life that pretty much cover the whole gamut of problems that we human beings face. Wouldn’t you say? “Weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities.” What does that leave out when it comes to the trouble that you and I are so often facing? Nothing at all.

So… Be like the tax collector, be like the apostle Paul, and say, “I’m not powerful enough, I’m not strong enough, I’m not smart enough, I’m not rich enough, I’m not whatever enough… But God is… And his power, his strength, is going to get me through this. I’m going to depend on him.”

God loves to help us when we come to him with empty hands and desperate prayers!

  1.  Timothy Keller, Hidden Christmas (New York: Viking, 2016), 89.
  2.  Ibid., 90. I’m paraphrasing Keller.

One Response to “Sermon 10-23-2022: “The Scandal of Grace””

  1. Tom Harkins Says:

    Very interesting. I will be like Mary and hide this in my heart and ponder it. I am excerpting from it and will send that excerpt to my friend I have spoken of previously who certainly thinks we have to do something to receive salvation (though still partly a matter of grace since we are not perfect).

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