Text: Luke 18: 9-14
Imagine, if you will, praying the following prayer. If it is helpful, please close your eyes and bow your heads.
Thank you God for loving me. Thank you God for the way your grace works in my life. Thank you God for my health. May I always abide within your love and may I always follow in your ways. For I am faithful in the way that I serve you. I read my Bible every day Lord and I pray to you every day. I offer to you what is required. You know that I am honest and good. You know my heart, you know that I am not like other people. I have a good family and we gather around the table and offer you thanks. Not like those others who do not appreciate you. Unlike others we worship you as is only appropriate. Amen.
If you are feeling uncomfortable right now, you should be. This prayer starts off well enough. It is a prayer of thanksgiving and praise. However, it quickly moves into territory which is perhaps a little suspect. It moves from a prayer which praises God and turns into a prayer which celebrates the individual making the prayer.
We see this going on in our parable today in Luke’s gospel. In many ways this is a continuation from last weeks parable about the unjust judge and the widow. Jesus is once again talk to us about prayer. However, this is not just a parable about praying is it? We see the theme of humility being played out as well. In fact, from the get go this morning Jesus has let us know what the message he has for us is.
We should pay very close attention to the opening sentence of our passage today. We read, “Jesus also told this parable to people who were sure of their own goodness and despised everybody else…” The NRSV translates it as, “who trusted in themselves that they were righteous…”
Jesus is speaking to a specific audience. Though the disciples might be around they are not the primary audience of this parable. Jesus is speaking to ‘people who were sure of their own goodness’ or as the NRSV puts it ‘who trusted in themselves.’ This is a parable about prayer and about trust.
If Jesus is unapologetically pointing out people who trust in themselves as the audience of the parable, who should we be putting our trust in? God. God is who we should be placing out trust in.
Our parable begins by highlighting individuals who trust in themselves and not God. Our parable ends by reminding us that the values of the kingdom of God are not the values of this world. In God’s kingdom the humble are exalted.
It is a reminder that God loves us no matter what we do, but God is interested in honest reflection and humble confession. God’s mercy is a free gift, but the values of the Kingdom of God are grounded in humility and honest reflection. Recognition that we need God in our lives.
Of course it isn’t just about us. You may have heard the phrase ‘Do you have a personal relationship with Jesus.’ While this is important, if perhaps an over simplification of the relationship, we need to remember that we do not have an exclusive relationship with Jesus. God isn’t just your creator; God is everyone’s creator!
This is what the Pharisee seems to forget. In elevating himself over the others that he lists he thinks he is putting himself at the front of the line. His attitude of superiority doesn’t generate a desire to help, rather it creates a barrier between the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. God would rather have us work through humility with the understanding that each of us is loved equally by God. When we view the ‘other’ through this light it becomes easier to help.
The other issue with the Pharisee is his inability to confess. This goes back to the setup Jesus has prepared for us. The Pharisee is only concerned about his own justification. He feels vindicated through his own pious actions that what he has done is correct. Further he is the one who has done this, there is no reliance or trust in God. If we had to list his sin, we might say he suffers from the sin of pride.
What the Pharisee really lacks is an understanding towards the heart of God. By trusting in himself the Pharisee forgets that God is the source of mercy, justice and righteousness. We cannot be righteous without God.
When it comes to the tax collector, no specific sin is mentioned. As commentator Laura Sugg notes, “Our comfort with the idea that we are all sinful does not translate into the wish to hear in detail about any particular sin.” If I asked you to start naming your sins out loud in public, we would be met with deafening silence. We all know we sin, but it is something that we keep between ourselves and God. Nor does the Pharisee name his sins. However, the Pharisee props himself up before God. Boasting at his good deeds the Pharisee does not admit to any sin. The tax collector submits before God and confesses that he is a sinner.
There is a clear difference between the way the two individuals present themselves before God and Jesus is clear about which posture God prefers. God prefers humility. Not because God seeks to degrade us or humiliate us. No, God is interested in a genuine relationship with us. That relationship can’t be achieved if we are constantly puffing our chests out saying look at me! Look what I’ve done! It just doesn’t work. As C. S. Lewis writes, “Humility is not thinking less of yourself, it is thinking of yourself less.” You should think well of yourself, you should be proud of the things you’ve done.
However, you shouldn’t cause the dignity of others around you to suffer because of your accomplishments. This is where the Pharisee in the parable stumbles. The problem is not his devotion to God. It is not his lack of ability to pray or to confess. The problem is the Pharisees inability to recognize his dependence on God and his need to elevate himself before others.
Confessing our sin and walking in humbleness does not mean that we pity ourselves or that we loathe ourselves. We admit that which we have done wrong and in doing so free ourselves from its power over us through God’s affirming love. Recognizing that our sinful behaviour is hurtful towards God and others, we seek to live better lives.
We pray to God with humility. We pray not trusting in our own righteousness, but in God’s perfect mercy. We do not exalt ourselves above others, but instead we humble confess and ask God for mercy, for we are sinners. Amen.