Gaining God’s Favor? – Luke 18:9-14

As a parent, I often find myself encountering a situation I’d like to use as a learning example of “what-not-to-do-when-this-happens”.  Maybe you, too, know of similar situations, using the actions of others as a teaching example.

Touching a hot stove can be dangerous to your child’s health.  Please don’t let your children touch hot objects.

If you touch the hot stove you will get burned.” This style of trial-and-error suited me well in my growing years.  I’m one who learns through experiences – positive and negative.   Those days are over, at least in this stage of life, and now I certainly learn more for negative situation than those that reward.

Yet, even still, as I’ve mature in my many facets of life, I learned to question what I’ve held onto to be true.   Particularly has I’ve grown to understand that:

  • The world doesn’t revolve around me.
  • Other people’s experience is just as important to my self-understanding as my own

What is regarded as truth for me might not exactly ring true for the other.

Jesus tells a parable about folks who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others as being wrong. Two men, one a Pharisee, the other a tax collector are in the temple to pray.

The Pharisee and the tax collector praying in the temple.

This is a parable from which we can glean much.  WE all have some well protected pocket of self-righteousness deep down in our self that reassures us of our personal worth and merit.  A certain level of ego is healthy, but when we are true self is shadowed by the mask of our ego, life becomes false and untrue.  Not wrong, but untrue.

So this parable is attractive because Jesus shares a rejection of the absolutes by which the Pharisee is defined. The Pharisee displays a one-dimensional spirituality expressed through the obedience to the Law, and at the opposite side of the scale is the tax collector, a person who admits he has fallen short of the glory of his creator and prays for God’s mercy as he is a shamed sinner.

As much as we are conditioned to understand the Pharisee as the one who will be rejected, it is really the tax collect we should expect Jesus to condemn. Even though he was despised and considered low on the morality scale of Jews, as a fellow Jew he would have every right to be in the temple that day.

Jesus parable illustrates that God commends people who come to God for forgiveness. And that a surprise, because we, the readers, assume that it would be the Pharisee who is the righteous one, and Jesus shocks us we he explains that the despised tax collector is the one who, through his prayer of mercy, displays an attitude of humility and gratitude towards the Lord.

I saw a meme on Facebook this week that said, “People come to worship every week to see Jesus and we give them religion.”  The problem with religion is that it is based on figuring out how we good we are when we try to measure ourselves with the Law.   We try to prove how good we are by using a negative index.  “Thou shall not do this… or that”.


Lutheran don’t understand the Law in this regard, we know the Law points us to our Savior– Jesus Christ, but Lutherans would never suggest we should self-justify ourselves by the Law, but only to the Light of Jesus Christ.

So then we attempt, like the Pharisee, to show how good we are by a positive index.   We examine our week by the good things we’ve done like:  I gave money to the Boy Scout, I helped hold the door for someone who was physically impaired, or…. Some other good dead. I mean, come on Jesus, for me to be right (or righteous) doesn’t someone else have to be wrong (or wretched)? I go to church, I put something in the offering plate most weeks, I serve on a committee or two, and when I have extra time I volunteer to serve those less fortunate. I clean up pretty well compared to most folks, don’t I? Surely I pass the righteousness sniff test in a world filled people who complain and don’t offer much.

And then we can judge our character by comparing ourselves to those who appear sinful.  We tell ourselves, “Well, I would never say such things about him.”  Or, “Can you believe she runs her mouth like that?”

But here’s Jesus’ point in the parable about being justified… Jesus says, “all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exulted.”  To receive God’s mercy requires that we can’t make it alone, regardless of how “religious” we might be.  We need Jesus.  Plain and simple.

Jesus rejoices in the very worst of us who reach out in humility for God’s forgiveness. To be affirmed as good we must act with humility, otherwise the opposite of what we hope for will happen.

‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’

I mentioned to you that when you come to worship God you should see Jesus.  So, what might this parable look like tomorrow (Monday morning) when you go back to work?   First of all, Jesus says we don’t need to be perfect by putting on airs or falsities.  You are created by God for a purpose and know that we are all with faults.  There’s not a single one of us who are perfect.  Stop trying to be!  Admit that you are standing in the need of God to help pilot your life. Be honest to yourself about who you are and your own need to repent for living a false life. It’s ok to take off your mask, God knows who you are and still loves you!

God’s upside down kingdom requires that to be affirmed to others we must act with humility.  Draw the circle wider to include those “other people”—thieves, rogues, adulterers, and tax collectors.

Prepare to be amazed at how God can redeem and exalt the brokenness of others (and you!).  Amen.





“The Rabbi’s Gift” A Sermon on Humility and Exaltation– Luke 14:7-14


In July I took a continuing education class on Emotional Intelligence, which is a sort of fancy study about how one’s emotions, and ability to understand one’s emotions, and the emotions of others influences one’s capacity to succeed in many areas of life including many important relationships.

Scott Peck’s “Stages of Community Building” from “The Different Drum” 

Part of the class was a study on community building and the different phase of a theory about how communities develop.  A Christian Psychologist, Scott Peck, whose writings were fairly influential in the secular world, wrote a book in the 1980’s about community building.  It’s a sort of class book on the study of community relations.  The title of Peck’s book was, “The Different Drum” and, in the book , a theory is laid out on the different stages of community development.


Peck uses a story written many, many years ago.  No one is exactly sure who wrote the story, but the story fits well with today’s Gospel reading.  It’s call the “Rabbi’s Gift.

The story concerns a monastery that had fallen upon hard times. It was once a great order, but because of persecution, all its branch houses were lost and there were only five monks left in the decaying house: the abbot and four others, all over seventy in age. Clearly it was a dying order.


In the deep woods surrounding the monastery there was a little hut that a rabbi occasionally used for a hermitage. The old monks had become a bit psychic, so they could always sense when the rabbi was in his hermitage. “The rabbi is in the woods, the rabbi is in the woods” they would whisper. It occurred to the abbot that a visit the rabbi might result in some advice to save his monastery.

The rabbi welcomed the abbot to his hut. But when the abbot explained his visit, the rabbi could say, “I know how it is” . “The spirit has gone out of the people. It is the same in my town. Almost no one comes to the synagogue anymore.” So the old abbot and the old rabbi wept together. Then they read parts of the Torah and spoke of deep things. When the abbot had to leave, they embraced each other. “It has been a wonderful that we should meet after all these years,” the abbot said, “but I have failed in my purpose for coming here. Is there nothing you can tell me that would help me save my dying order?”

desert spirituality

“No, I am sorry,” the rabbi responded. “I have no advice to give. But, I can tell you that the Messiah is one of you.”

When the abbot returned to the monastery his fellow monks gathered around him to ask, “Well what did the rabbi say?”

“The rabbi said something very mysterious, it was something cryptic. He said that the Messiah is one of us. I don’t know what he meant?”

In the time that followed, the old monks wondered whether the significance to the rabbi’s words. The Messiah is one of us? Could he possibly have meant one of us monks? If so, which one?

Do you suppose he meant the abbot? Yes, if he meant anyone, he probably meant Father Abbot. He has been our leader for more than a generation. On the other hand, he might have meant Brother Thomas. Certainly Brother Thomas is a holy man. Everyone knows that Thomas is a man of light. Certainly he could not have meant Brother Elred! Elred gets crotchety at times. But come to think of it, even though he is a thorn in people’s sides, when you look back on it, Elred is virtually always right. Often very right. Maybe the rabbi did mean Brother Elred. But surely not Brother Phillip. Phillip is so passive, a real nobody. But then, almost mysteriously, he has a gift for always being there when you need him. He just magically appears. Maybe Phillip is the Messiah.

Of course the rabbi didn’t mean me. He couldn’t possibly have meant me. I’m just an ordinary person. Yet supposing he did? Suppose I am the Messiah? O God, not me. I couldn’t be that much for You, could I?

As they contemplated, the old monks began to treat each other with extraordinary respect on the chance that one among them might be the Messiah. And they began to treat themselves with extraordinary respect.

People still occasionally came to visit the monastery in its beautiful forest to picnic on its tiny lawn, to wander along some of its paths, even to meditate in the dilapidated chapel. As they did so, they sensed the aura of extraordinary respect that began to surround the five old monks and seemed to radiate out from them and permeate the atmosphere of the place. There was something strangely compelling, about it. Hardly knowing why, they began to come back to the monastery to picnic, to play, to pray. They brought their friends to this special place. And their friends brought their friends.

Then some of the younger men who came to visit the monastery started to talk more and more with the old monks. After a while one asked if he could join them. Then another, and another. So within a few years the monastery had once again become a thriving order and, thanks to the rabbi’s gift, a vibrant center of light and spirituality in the realm.[1]


The parable we have from Jesus this morning uses the image of a wedding feast where he is an invited guest. And to his host, Jesus gives advice to invite those he probably never thought of inviting, because they could never repay the favor.  In fact, perhaps, to see for the first time people he had never seen.  Such an act of kindness will not go unnoticed.  Jesus tells us that God notices such things.


In God’s economy, the great banquet is more likely to be like a potluck than a fancy meal.  Everyone is invited to bring along a “dish”.  Humbling ourselves we try new ways of ministry and sample different “foods” that are served at the banquet table.


God invites us to take a risk, try a new dish, explore new treasures and talents as a methaphor for trying new ministries.


The invitation has been extended.  “Let us go now to the banquet.  To the feast of the universe! The table is set and a place is waiting; come, everyone with your gifts to share!Evangelical Lutheran Worship # 523

Cause we are invited to the banquet. So, show up, pull up  a chair, and join in on the conversation.  Doesn’t matter who you are, what shady background you, or what you’ve doing with your time.  We’ve all been invited to sit at the table.   Will join in God’s great “grace” list?   Amen.


[1] The Different Drum was written by Scott Peck. He did not write this story. The author is unknown.