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.