A sermon on Luke 18:9-14
First Baptist Church of Lynchburg
October 27, 2019
By Paul Dakin
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in Your sight, o Lord our Strength and our Redeemer. Amen.
As one reads through the gospels, it is instructive to note all of the different ways in which Jesus couched his teachings. Jesus was a master teacher. (Honestly—we would not expect anything less from the Son of God, now would we?) Consequently our Lord used a wide range of teaching methods to proclaim the timeless truths of God’s Kingdom in lots of different ways. Let’s think about a few examples…
One method that he used was a simple response to a question. Once a man from the crowd came up to Jesus and asked him a straight-up question. The man asked, “Which is the greatest commandment?” And in response, Jesus gave him a straight-up answer. Our Lord told him that there were only two commandments that one need to follow: Love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength and love your neighbor as yourself. He said that everything else in the Old Testament law and prophets boiled down to just those two commandments. I think that our Lord did use that method from time to time, but not very often. More often than not, he resorted to other methods to make his point…
Another teaching method that Jesus used was hyperbole. Sometimes our Lord would say something that was utterly fantastic in order to get his listener’s attention—and once he got their attention, then to make his point. For example, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus told the crowd, “If your right eye causes you to sin, then gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, then cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.” By using those words, Jesus is not advocating self-mutilation for his followers when they sin. That is not his point at all. But what he is saying is that his followers must take care to keep their bodily appetites and desires in check if they are to be the kind of servants that the Lord is seeking…
Another method that Jesus used is metaphor. This was a favorite method of the Lord. You may remember that Jesus had a conversation with a Samaritan woman by Jacob’s Well as recorded in John 4. After asking the woman for a drink of water, our Lord told her, “If you knew who you were talking to, then you would ask me for a drink of living water.” After further banter back and forth about Jesus not having a bucket and the well being deep, Jesus tells her, “Whoever drinks of the water I give him will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up in him to eternal life.” Then it dawns on the woman what he is talking about. Jesus is not talking about ordinary H2O. Instead he is using water as a metaphor to talk about eternal life. This is a quality of life that
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satisfies the deepest longings of the human soul, just as water satisfies even the deepest physical thirst. It is a quality of life that he describes later on in John 10:10 as “the abundant life.”
And of course, everyone is familiar with one of his most famous methods of teaching—the parable. It is said that fully one third of all of Jesus’ words in the gospels are parables. These are short stories or illustrations that he told to communicate something of who God is and how the Kingdom of God works. The Parable of the Good Samaritan, The Parable of the Prodigal Son, The Parable of the Seeds—these are among some of our Lord’s most famous words. Those stories transcend church life and have entered into the common speech of even those who seldom darken the doors of the church. Everyone knows what a “Good Samaritan” is. Everyone knows what a “Prodigal” is.
Today we will be looking at another of Jesus’ parables. This one is not as well known as the others just mentioned—but it still has something important to say to us…
Luke sets up the parable by telling us the central truth that Jesus has in mind when he told the parable. He writes in verse 9, “He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.” There are two characters in this story…and they are a study in contrasts…To get a sense of how stark the contrast was between these two characters, let us take a few minutes to learn who they were…
The first character in the story is a Pharisee. The word “Pharisee” is derived from a Hebrew word which means “separated.” They were known as Pharisees because they had separated themselves to be strict followers of the Old Testament laws and the traditions of the elders. In Jesus’ day, they were highly regarded by all the people as being very learned and being very serious about their faith.
The Pharisee brings out his list of religious credentials for God—and anyone else—to take note of. He begins with a prayer of thanksgiving. Nothing wrong with prayers of thanksgiving. Certainly an important part of prayer is giving thank to God for his many blessing to us. We should always be giving thank to God. But the Pharisee’s prayer of thanks is—quite frankly—messed up.
He begins by thanking God for what he is not. (I do not know that I have ever prayed a prayer thanking God for what I wasn’t…) The Pharisee thanks God that he is not a thief, a swindler, or an adulterer. Now let’s tell the truth—those are all great things NOT to be, aren’t they? And then he says—probably in a voice loud enough for the tax collector to hear—that he is certainly thankful that he is not like that tax collector over there.
Then he continues by telling God what a good guy he has been. He begins by telling God that he fasts twice a week. Now the Old Testament law did not proscribe fasting except one day a year—the Day of Atonement, a holy day we know as “Yom Kippur.” But it was common in Jesus’ day for particularly devout Jews to fast twice a week—on Mondays and Thursdays. And the Pharisee reminds God that he does that…
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The Pharisee then goes on to remind God that he gives away 10% of all his income. This is what a Godly Jew would do. The Old Testament law stipulated that all of the people were to give a tithe of their income in order that worship in the house of God could be maintained. And the Pharisee lets God know that he has been scrupulous in tithing. Whatever else his failings may have been, this Pharisee was no hypocrite in obeying the Old Testament laws. He may have been talking the talk, but he was also walking the walk. He backed up his words with actions…
Over the centuries, the Pharisees have earned a harsh reputation. Nowadays no one wants to be labeled as “a Pharisee”—someone who is self-righteously uptight. In many ways, that reputation has been well-deserved. Pharisees are mentioned 88 times in the New Testament, and in the majority of cases, it is in a negative light. They are often rightly portrayed as Jesus’ adversaries. Both Jesus and John the Baptist called them “a generation of vipers.” Not very flattering to say the least…but in the final analysis, the Pharisees were no doubt zealous and sincere in their beliefs. Their problem lie in that most of them were sincerely wrong when it came to understanding who Jesus was…
The hero in today’s parable—if you can call him a hero—is a tax collector. Growing up in church, I never really understood why so many people in the gospels despised tax collectors. I mean, let’s just tell the truth—sure, nobody much likes to pay taxes. But while tax collectors are seldom very popular in our day either, the hatred toward tax collectors in First Century Palestine took it to a whole new level. It took me a while and some theological study to understand why…
You see, this is how it was. In Jesus day, the Roman Empire controlled all of Palestine and had for over a century. Everywhere they went, the Roman government collected taxes in order to fund the government and to support the army that was occupying the land.
The collection of taxes went like this: each conquered region was divided up into provinces. Then contracts to collect taxes were auctioned off to the highest bidders in each province. The people who were awarded the contracts were required to collect a certain amount of money each year. This amount was then sent on to Rome. Any amount that the tax collector could collect in excess of that amount was his. That is how the tax collector earned his living—by keeping whatever extra he could collect from the people. It was a very cost-effective method of collecting taxes for the Romans. But it was also a system that was fraught with potential for fraud and extortion.
Consequently tax collectors in Palestine were looked upon as traitors to their people. They were thought of as collaborators with the enemy—the same enemy that had killed their husbands and fathers in battle and had taken their land away from them. Tax collectors were also considered as traitors to the Jewish religion. That is because the money that was collected was now being sent out of the country to support a godless foreign government and fostered a false religion. They had betrayed the Jewish hope of a descendant of King David sitting on the throne and ruling over them.
Furthermore, tax collectors were hated because they were invariably wealthy—and they had gotten that way off the backs of their fellow Jews. They were known to be dishonest and unscrupulous
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in their dealings with others. For all these reasons and more, tax collectors were considered in Jesus’ day to be the lowest of the low…
So Jesus told this story about how these two men went into the Temple to pray. He could not have picked two more dissimilar characters. One of them was considered to be a paragon of virtue that everyone respected and looked up to. The other one was a traitorous bottom-feeding sleaze ball. And then our Lord defied the expectations of his listeners. He flipped the script. He declared that it was the tax collector who went home having been justified by God instead of the righteous Pharisee. That must have shocked his listeners to their core…
As I see it, here is the point of why Jesus told this story…and here’s what it has to say to us today…
When it was all said and done, the Pharisee in this story went back to his home the same way that he was before he entered the Temple. He had gone to the Temple with the intention of praying and doing his religious duty. He did this all the while believing himself to be a righteous man. And when he left the Temple after his prayer, he was still exactly the same person that he was before—a man with virtuous deeds on display for all the world to see.
You know, it is kind of ironic to say this, but the truth is that God had actually answered the Pharisee’s prayer. God gave him exactly what he asked for. Which was… NOTHING. Did you notice that? The Pharisee did not ask God for anything in his prayer. Frankly, he did not feel as if he needed to ask anything of God. He was confident in his faith and apparently did not feel any need in his life that he needed to bring before the Lord. He and God were doing just fine. The Pharisee believed that he was being and doing all which God expected of him to be and to do. He showed up at the Temple figuring that God had nothing new to teach him, nothing new to reveal to him, no new ways to lead him to grow in his spiritual life. And so, the Pharisee left the Temple in exactly the same spiritual condition as when he arrived.
Contrast the Pharisee’s experience in the Temple with that of the tax collector. The tax collector made no pretense of being anything other than what he was—a sinner in need of grace. He made no sacrifice for his sins. He made no restitution to those he had wronged. And yet, Jesus concludes the parable by saying that it was the tax collector who returned home justified instead of the Pharisee. Why? Was it because the tax collector was the better man of the two? No, not really. Anyone would have told you that he wasn’t the better man.
Instead, it was because the tax collector approached God with a right spirit—the spirit of humility. Regardless of anything else, he understood how much he had fallen short of being a godly person. He admitted his shortcomings, and he was ashamed of what he had done. He knew that he was not yet who God wanted him to be. So he approached God with the simple humble prayer, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” He recognized God for who he was—and who he was by comparison. And
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because of that, he is the one who left the Temple changed—for he had been forgiven solely by God’s actions…and not because of anything he had done or anything that he could do…
When we come to worship here each Sunday at First Baptist, what are our expectations? Do we come expecting to hear a word from God? Or not? Are we open to hearing something that maybe even will be life-changing for us?…Or are our expectations much more modest. Maybe we hope to hear a few encouraging words to help us get through the coming week. Or maybe not even that— perhaps we come to worship without any expectations at all…
Perhaps the most important thing that this passage teaches us is that humility is the key to connecting with God. When we come to God in prayer and worship, a humble spirit is what God is interested in seeing in us. God is not primarily interested so much in how good we have been this week or how many good deeds that we have done. Make no mistake about it—good deeds are important in the life of faith. They are proof of the indwelling Holy Spirit working in our lives. But they are not the most important thing in connecting with God.
That was the mistake that the Pharisee made. He thought that God was mostly interested in hearing him recount all his virtues. And when he had done that, then he figured that the Lord would appropriately bless him. But that was not what God was interested in. God wanted to hear more from the Pharisee than just a list of good deeds. God wanted to hear a humble spirit from deep within his heart. God wanted him to acknowledge that it only through his grace that he could ever be right with him. Jesus makes this plain by the words which conclude today’s passage when he said, “All who exalt themselves will be humbled…but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Of course, our example in approaching God in humility is our Lord Jesus himself. In Matthew 11:29, Jesus tells his disciples, “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble of heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” The Apostle Paul tells us in Romans 12: 3, “Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the measure of faith that God has given you.” And in the book that bears his name, the Apostle James writes, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble…Humble yourselves before the Lord and he will lift you up.”1
The sermon closes this morning with some words from the 5th Century theologian, Augustine. Augustine was one of the most influential leaders and thinkers in the history of the church and he continues to be some 1500 years after his death. I do not know if he had today’s gospel text in mind when he wrote this…but it seems to me that he very well could have. Augustine wrote:
The way to Christ is first through humility, second through humility, and third through humility. If humility does not precede and accompany and follow every good work we do, if it is not before us to
1 James 4:8, 10.
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focus on, if it is not beside us to lean upon, if it is not behind us to fence us in, then pride will wrench from our hand every good deed we do at the very moment that we do it.2
May God grant us all the grace to pray as the tax collector did in the parable: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” Now and always…
To God alone be the glory! Amen.

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