Humble

Luke 18:9-14 – April 1, 2020

Jesus Loves Me

INTRODUCTION TO LUKE 18:9=14There’s an old “Calvin and Hobbes” comic strip in which Calvin is talking to his stuffed tiger Hobbes (whom he imagines to be real and his best friend). He says: “People are so self-centered.”

Then he adds philosophically, “The world would be a better place if people would stop thinking about themselves and focus on others for a change.”

Hobbes sort of rolls his eyes and thinks aloud, “Gee, I wonder who that might apply to.”

Calvin answers, “Me!. Everyone should focus on me!” (1

Bill Watterson’s cartoon character Calvin could have been the poster child for the Pharisee in tonight’s passage from Luke. Let’s look at that passage and you’ll see what I mean.

***

I used to have a red 1968 Dodge panel van.  I covered it with Jesus bumper stickers.  On one side I got a giant logo for Humble Oil.  I cut the letters B and E off of another logo and put it above the word Humble.  So I drove around town commanding everyone who saw me coming to “BE HUMBLE.”

Through this morning’s parable Jesus paints a picture of two very different kinds of men and two very different kinds of prayer and two different kinds of …humble.

One of the men was a deeply religious man.  The Pharisee stood up and prayed in a voice just barely loud enough to be heard across the street,  He used prayer as a means of getting public recognition, not to seek to commune with God. In fact, he stops just short of congratulating God on what a great job God did in creating him! He sets himself apart, not just from the tax collector, but from all other men!

What we are to understand is this. When he prayed he was telling the truth. When he said, “Lord, you’re lucky to have a guy like me, because I’m one of the best guys I know,” it was really true. He really was a wonderful guy.

For instance, when he says, “I thank you that I am not like other men,” indeed he wasn’t like other men. He had a standard of morality that was far above the standard of that day. When he said, “I fast twice a week;” it happens to be literally true. The Pharisees fasted on Monday and Thursday of every week. When he says, “I give tithes of all I possess,” he means he tithes on the gross and not on the net. He went beyond the Law of Moses. That’s no big deal; all the Pharisees did that. And when he says, “I am not a crook,” he really isn’t a crook. When he says, “I am not like this filthy tax collector,” he’s really not like that guy. When he says, “I do not commit adultery,” he really doesn’t commit adultery. He is faithful to his wife. When he says, “I am honest, I am faithful, I am zealous for my religion,” he means it and every word of it is true. He truly is a genuinely good man. When I read his prayer, I am reminded of that country song that says, “Oh, Lord, it’s hard to be humble, when you’re perfect in every way.”

While he prayed, people would be standing around watching. And they would say, “He’s a fine man.” While he prayed, they probably applauded. He was the kind of guy you’d want living next door to you.–a good citizen, a law-abiding man, a good, religious kind of person. If he were to come to this church today we’d love him because he would be faithful, loyal, and give us a lot of money.

The other man was a tax collector.  Have any of you ever been audited?  Very few folks greet and IRS audit with enthusiasm.  They wonder if they did anything

wrong.  They wonder if their records will adequately support their audited tax returns.  They wonder how much more money they will have to pay to Uncle Sam as a result of the audit. Let’s just say that a tax audit is not exactly one of the blessings of living in the USA for which we will be offering thanks come the last Thursday next month.

Now I want you to imagine the person behind the desk at the IRS, the one who will be conducting your audit.  Imagine that he is not only intimidating and distrustful, but also dishonest (I know it’s stretch, but try to imagine that). Imagine that he will receive a percentage of the corrected amount resulting from the audit, and that he will do or say almost anything to prove that what you paid was not enough.

Now I certainly don’t want to imply that this is the way the IRS works in America, but that IS the way tax collectors operated in the time of Jesus.  Tax collectors were among the most corrupt and despised and feared people in society in those days. They were out to get not just a few, selected people here and there, but EVERYBODY!  They frequently operated beyond the law with no fear of punishment, changed the rules wherever they wanted to, collecting taxes from people in heartless and dishonest ways. 

This is the kind of man Jesus is talking about when he says, “But the tax collector stood at a distance.  He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and whispered, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’  Jesus said, “but this man, rather than the other, went away justified before God.”  To quote Lil’ Jon I’d say, “ What?????” 

I suppose this is a question we could ask about a lot of Luke’s stories about the words and actions of Jesus. What’s going on when God sends His only Son to be born of a peasant girl in a stable in Bethlehem? What’s going on when Jesus talks to the Samaritan woman at the well? What’s going on when Jesus invites Zacchaeus (another tax collector) down out of the sycamore tree and goes to his house for dinner?

We continue to ask that question in many circumstances today.  What’s going on is this story? What’s going on is life. What’s going on is humanity, immortality, the limits and frailties and brokenness of human existence. It’s the reality that every one of us falls short of living a loving, faithful life. It’s the reality that every one of us struggles with the hollowness and emptiness that creeps in as we try to cope with the secret sorrows of our lives.

As we hear the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector, we hear the gospel theme of reversal. The one we expect to be judged faithful is not. The one we expect – or maybe even secretly WISH – to be condemned is redeemed.

Albert Schweitzer was laboring one day, under the hot African sun, building his hospital at Lambarene. A large timber had to be raised into place, and try as he might, Schweitzer couldn’t manage it alone.  He looked up and saw a well-dressed African man standing in the shade of a building, and asked him to lend a hand.   “O, no,” the man said, “I don’t do that kind of work. I am an intellectual.” Albert Schweitzer, with five earned doctor’s degrees, said, “I used to be an intellectual, but I couldn’t live up to it.”    That’s humble.

It’s so easy for our best-intentioned prayers of thanksgiving to slip into self-congratulation, even as our best acts of charity can become subtle ways of making ourselves look good.

In Jesus’ parable, two men went to worship before the altar. One was a good, Bible-believing, faith practicing, tithing Pharisee. The other was a money-grabbing, immoral, corrupt tax collector. The two men went back home after worship. One, the tax collector, went home forgiven, justified, blessed. The other was not.  

Neither the Pharisee nor the tax collector is the hero of this parable. Both of the characters in the story are sinners.   One sins knowingly and the other unknowingly, but both come to the altar of prayer as sinners, just like us.


The hard truth of prayer is that you quite often get exactly what you ask for. The Pharisee sinner didn’t seek God’s mercy in his kind of prayer.  He came with his hands full, so he went back home empty. Like the Pharisee, we don’t always ask for God’s mercy, so we don’t get it. 

Now understand that the tax collector is NOT a good person. Jesus doesn’t say that. The tax collector is a sinner, a man who has been dishonest and sometimes cruel. But he had a realistic assessment of his own wretchedness.  He acknowledged his shortcomings and his need for forgiveness. 
 What’s going on in this parable is that God is transforming reality, changing our expectations. God is being God, loving and embracing everyone who falls short, everyone who stumbles, everyone who knows the frustrations of life.

This is a parable about a typical Sunday morning worship service in every church every where. Jesus says that before any altar of God, in any service of worship, whether it’s in a magnificent cathedral or a storefront church in a shopping center, you mainly find two sorts of folks: Pharisees and Tax Collectors.  

Very few of us are one or the other ALL the time, but most of us are sort of like one or the other some of the time.

There are times when we come to worship as good, Bible-believing, righteous Pharisees who ask for nothing and get exactly that. We are so pleased with ourselves, so competent, so well-liked in the community. And yet we go home to Sunday dinner with a gnawing emptiness which we sometimes blame on the preacher, (sometimes rightfully so) but most often because we were so full when we got to church that nothing else would fit.

But there are other times, when we enter a house of worship like tax collectors

needing everything, empty, lost, painfully aware of our sinfulness and our need of God’s mercy. And we go home with even more than we dared to ask for.

God’s love extends to sinners of all shapes, sizes, and colors, ages and stages in life whether we agree with the choices they have made or not, whether they have memorized the great prayers of the saints of the church and can quote them on demand or whether the best they can muster is “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

William Beebe, the naturalist, used to tell this story about President Teddy Roosevelt.  At Sagamore Hill, after an evening of talk, the two would go out on the lawn and search the skies for a certain spot of star-like light near the lower left-hand corner of the Great Square of Pegasus. Then Roosevelt would recite:

“That is the Spiral Galaxy in Andromeda. It is as large as our Milky Way. It is one of a hundred million galaxies. It consists of one hundred billion suns, each larger than our sun.” 

Then Roosevelt would grin and say, “Now I think we are small enough! Let’s go to bed.”  

Thanks be to God, that there is enough mercy for all us SINNNERS, Pharisees and Tax Collectors, me AND Kanye …and ALL who, every now and then need to know what it takes to BE HUMBLE.  

Let’s Pray, Lord have mercy on us, sinners all.  Forgive us and give us a renewed sense of your presence with us and in us as we strive to make a difference in our world by expressing the difference you have made in our lives.   Thank you that there is nothing we can do to make you love us any more.  And nothing we can to do make you love us any less.  We Love you Lord.  Thank you for your mercy and grace.  In Jesus’ name.

Last Laugh 

1)  Billy Strayhorn

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