Sermon: Thank God I am Not Like…

Thank God I am Not Like…
Luke 18:9-14
23 October 2016

Situations are not always what they seem. A long time ago, there was a man named Girolamo Savonarola who was a great preacher at the cathedral in Florence, Italy.  Inside the church sanctuary was a marble statue of Mary, the mother of Jesus.  After Savonarola had been there for some time, he noticed an elderly woman who would come every day and spend some time in prayer before this statue.  Savonarola was so impressed with this woman’s devotion; he pointed it out to an elderly priest.  Savonarola said, “Look how devoted this woman is.  Every day she comes and offers prayers.  What a marvelous act of faith.”  Then the priest replied, “Do not be deceived by what you see.  Many years ago, when the sculptor needed a model to pose for this statue, he hired a beautiful young woman to sit for him.  This devout worshipper you now see is that woman.  She worships what she used to be.

You see pride comes in different forms and it does affect how and what we worship. My text is Luke 18:9-14. It is the parable of the Tax man and the Pharisee.   

He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: 10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ 13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ 14 I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
This is the Word of God.

In Biblical times, the Pharisees were seen as the good guys. They were the ones who attended all the temple and synagogue services.  They kept the commands of scripture and faithfully followed other Jewish traditions.  On the other hand, the tax collectors were considered the bad guys. They were the villains.  Hired by pagan Rome, they charged their fellow Jews exorbitant fees and in the process became wealthy.  Because of this, the tax collectors were considered the worst of the worst.

So when Jesus first mentioned the Pharisee, people must have thought, “Hooray for the good guy!” And when he mentioned the tax collector, the people would have muttered under their breath, “Scum of the earth!”  Yet when Jesus finished the story, the good guy had become the bad guy, and the bad guy had become the good guy. When you look at this story, it is not just the prayers that make the difference; it is the attitude which reeks of pride.  Humility is a quality that pleases God.

Many years ago, in a convent near Rome, there was a nun who seemed to have the rare gift of spiritual inspiration and prophecy. Her abbess was so impressed with the nun under her care that she sent glowing reports to the pope.  There was a man who lived at the time named Philip Neri.  He was nicknamed the “Apostle of Rome” and was known for his shrewd wit.  Neri heard the pope talk about this extraordinary nun; he was intrigued and volunteered to find out the truth of these reports.  Neri got on his mule and rode through the mud and mire to this distant convent.  When he finally arrived, he asked the abbess if he could speak with the nun.  The nun was sent for and when she came into the reception room, Neri stretched out his leg which was covered with mud and asked her to help him take off his boots.  The young nun recoiled in disgust and refused.  Shortly after that, Neri left the convent, mounted his mule, and returned to the Vatican.  He told the pope, “Give yourself no concern; where there is no humility, there is no miracle.”

St. Augustine said that it was pride that changed angels into devils and it is humility that makes men as angels. Lighthouses don’t ring bells they shine on.

I have three scriptures that deal with humility along these lines.

  • 2 Chronicles 7:14 “If my people who are called by my name humble themselves, pray, seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land.”
  • Matthew 23:11 “And whoever exalts himself shall be humbled; and whoever humbles himself shall be exalted.”
  • James 4:6 But he gives all the more grace; therefore it says, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.”

Let me share with you a modernized version of this familiar parable: Two men came to church one Sunday morning.  The first man, a respected individual in small town USA was a devoted member of the First Christian Church.  He had a good reputation as a faithful husband and father.  Very rarely did he ever miss a Sunday worship service and was very influential on the church council.  As a model citizen, he served on the local school board.  The second man is a small business owner and occasionally attended the First Christian church, but he was known for the wrong reasons.  A lot of the people of the church would not buy from him because of his well-known shady business practices.  He did not have much of a family life, and with a prickly personality, he had embarrassed himself in civic events.  So now it is prayer time at the First Christian church and the well-respected church member bows his head and after a time looked up at the stain glass window which he donated and prays.  “God, everything is well.  My family is healthy, my job couldn’t be better and people in this church listen to me.”  Then he looked to the side and noticed the small business owner.  He doesn’t pray, but thought, “Thank God I am not like him.”  Then he joined everyone, “Our Father who art in heaven…”The second man during the same prayer kept his head down and said, “Lord, I am not sure you will listen to me and I do feel guilty about a lot of things.  Forgive me.”  Then he joins everyone, “Our Father who art in heaven.”  The respectful church member seemed okay in his own eyes, but didn’t appear to touch heaven.  The small business owner felt badly about himself, and tried to make things right with God.  In his simple prayer, he touched the heart of God.

As I have meditated on this scripture, I have had to question my own life and I would like to think my prayers are in the spirit of the Tax Collector or the small business owner. But humility is a funny thing.  Once you think you have it, you have lost it.  As a pastor, I still have to come to the Lord for the forgiveness of my sins, and I never want to get away from that.

Even in the Roman Catholic tradition, the Pope in Rome confesses his sins. Pope Francis has a personal confessor whom he kneels before in confession every two weeks.

James 5:16 Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed.

1 John 1:9 If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.

It is not easy to admit our mistakes and wrongs. Or to say I am sorry or forgive me, but it keeps us humble and tender towards God.

Here is a quote:
Andrew Murray-“Pride must die in you or nothing from heaven can live in you.”

When it comes to prayer, we need to be honest and sober.  To approach the holy one with reverence.  I would encourage all of us to rekindle our relationship with the Lord.  When we come into the house of the Lord, let it not be just a ritual, but a heart filled experience.

Let me close, our Heavenly Father delights to hear from us. So in this coming week, may we stay close to the Lord and live in the present, not in the past like the older woman who worshipped herself at the statue of Mary.  May we never be like that nun who had such an important sense about herself that she refused to perform a lowly task, but have the humility of the prayers of the tax collector.