“Word for Today” – Luke 18 – www.concordialutheranchurch.com

September 10, 2009 at 4:45 am Leave a comment

Plaid Shorts 1It was in the middle of our record-breaking long, hot, dry summer. And although I don’t usually do this, the temperature that day was racing toward 105 degrees and so I figured, “Why not? It’s hot outside. It’s a slow day at work. I’m going to wear shorts to the office today!” And so, without a lot of forethought, I threw on some black and white plaid shorts with a black and white striped shirt. I was so proud of myself. I managed to color coordinate on the fly.

I thought I was a regular fashionista until I arrived home that evening. My wife Melody’s jaw slacked open. “Umm,” she said, “You didn’t wear that to work, did you?” “Well, yes, I did wear this to work,” I responded defensively. “What’s wrong with it?” “You’re wearing plaid shorts with a striped shirt,” my wife informed me. “You can wear a solid with a pattern, but not a pattern with a pattern. Don’t ever wear that again!”

I thought I had dressed acceptably, and even stylishly. But it took the fashion conscious eye of my wife to inform me otherwise.

In our reading for today from Luke 18, Jesus tells this parable:

Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: “God, I thank you that I am not like other men – robbers, evildoers, adulterers – or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.” But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted. (verses 10-14)

Far too often, far too many Christians read Jesus’ parable and reflexively respond, “Wow, I sure am glad I’m not like that Pharisee. I’m not arrogant. I’m not self-righteous. After all, I would never treat a ‘lesser’ tax collector the way that Pharisee did. I’m so much better than that Pharisee.” Hmmm. Perhaps we’re more like that Pharisee than we first care to admit. We may think we are more spiritually coordinated, even more spiritually stylish, than that Pharisee. But it takes the spiritually discerning eye of Jesus to inform us otherwise.

Indeed, in order to understand the true import of this parable, we need to first understand the audience for Jesus’ story. He was not telling this story humble and humiliated tax collectors; rather, he was telling it to self-righteous religious elites: “To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable” (verse 9). Thus, in order to hear this parable, we need to first recognize that we are part of Jesus’ audience – we are part of the mob of self-righteous religious snobs. That is why we need this parable. That is why it is in the Bible. It is not there for those other self-righteous people who are spiritually worse off than we are. It is there for us.

At the heart of the Pharisee’s self-righteousness is the preposition that Jesus uses to describe the Pharisee’s prayer: “The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself” (verse 11). The Greek word for “about” is pros, often meaning “to,” or “toward.” The sense is that this Pharisee is far less interested in praying to God as he in talking to himself about all of his laudable accomplishments: “God, I thank you that I am not like other men – robbers, evildoers, adulterers – or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get” (verses 11-12). Notice that while using God’s name only once, he uses the pronoun “I” four times. This prayer is clearly all about him. The tax collector, on the other hand, is not nearly so narcissistic. He prays, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner” (verse 13). And he, Jesus says, is the one who goes “home justified before God” (verse 14).

The fact of the matter is we live in a world of Pharisees, not of tax collectors. We lust after accolades, accomplishment, and adoration. We read books like The Power of Positive Thinking and How To Win Friends and Influence People which encourage us to believe in our own potential rather than to lean on the grace of God. And when we pray, our pronouns echo those of a Pharisee rather than those of a tax collector: “God, I need this and I need that. I want you to help me with this and I want you to give me that.”

If you would indulge me, allow me offer some very simple guidance for your praying today. As you pray, begin each prayer with words not of request, but with words of confession: “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” For this simple confession is also an expression of our deepest need: our need for forgiveness. And this, finally, is the difference between a Pharisee and a tax-collector: one asks for forgiveness and the other does not. And that is why, by the end of this parable, we are allowed to identify with the tax collector. Not because we’re better than the Pharisee and would never treat anyone like the Pharisee treated the tax collector, but because, like the tax collector, we have been forgiven by God. For God’s grace turns former self-righteous Pharisees into newly forgiven tax collectors. And that’s why I’m happy to be a tax collector. I hope you are too.

Entry filed under: Word for Today.

“Word for Today” – Luke 17 – www.concordialutheranchurch.com “Word for Today” – Luke 19 – www.concordialutheranchurch.com

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