Parables: The Pharisee and the Tax Collector

Good Morning and welcome to Journey Church.  My name is Phil Human and it’s a pleasure to worship with you.

Before we started Journey and I began in this role, I was a middle school youth pastor for many years which meant I was always on the search for people to recruit to work with us in the youth group.  And the number one reason I heard from people about why they didn’t think they could work with middle school students – do you know the number one reason?   They would say, “I’m too old.” “I’m too old!”

And I would have to tell them – listen to a middle school student you are either a college kid or your old.  I’m old.  You’re old.  And guess what – most middle school kids don’t care.

And that’s because I would tell them – middle school students aren’t looking for a buddy.  They just want to know, “Am I acceptable?  Am I lovable?  Do you like me?”

I used to say that high schoolers asked the question, “Do I like you?”  And college kids ask “Do I like what you stand for?”  But I’ve come to change my mind – I’ve come to believe that everybody is always asking – “Am I acceptable?  Am I lovable?  Am I okay?”

Human beings are hungry for a verdict.  We live our life and we want to hear someone say – you are doing great.  You are worthwhile.  You pass muster.  You are acceptable.  You are adequate as a child, a man or wife, a spouse, a parent.  You are not a bum from the neighborhood.

Am I lovable?  Am I acceptable?  Today we are going to read a parable – a short story – that Jesus tells and at the heart of it is a question – what makes me acceptable to God?

And Jesus is going to tell a story starring two men.  Two different prayers.  Two different corners.  Jesus is going to compare and contrast two ways to approach God.  One gets it right.  One gets it all wrong.  And at the end of the time we get to examine our own heart – and we get to ask – which corner am I in?

From Luke 18.   9 Then Jesus told this story to some who had great confidence in their own righteousness and scorned everyone else: 

10 “Two men went to the Temple to pray. One was a Pharisee, and the other was a despised tax collector. 11 The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed this prayer: ‘I thank you, God, that I am not a sinner like everyone else. For I don’t cheat, I don’t sin, and I don’t commit adultery. I’m certainly not like that tax collector! 12 I fast twice a week, and I give you a tenth of my income.’

 13 “But the tax collector stood at a distance and dared not even lift his eyes to heaven as he prayed. Instead, he beat his chest in sorrow, saying, ‘O God, be merciful to me, for I am a sinner.’ 14 I tell you, this sinner, not the Pharisee, returned home justified before God. For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

As we’ve studied Parables, one thing we find popping up over and over, is that the story progresses in such a way that the star of the parable often turns out to be the stinker by the end of the story.

The prodigal son?  One son runs away and parties and squanders his wealth and comes slinking home hungry and embarrassed.  While the other son is the good boy who stays home and works – and at the end of the story it’s the older brother who is left outside the party at odds with his father.

The Story of the Good Samaritan?  A priest comes by and a religious leader and they don’t do anything – but then a Samaritan?   The arch enemy of the Jew?  He ends up being the star of the show?

Here is another great example.

He starts with two people.  Two examples, or people praying to God.  The first guy is a religious professional.  Think of a Pharisee as a Pastor or a Priest.  He’s a professional paid member of the clergy.  In fact for the rest of the sermon I’ll all him the pastor.

The second guy is a tax collector.  And tax collectors worked for the Roman government taxing the Jewish people and were universally considered low life scum.  And as we approach tax day and pay our taxes – we will perhaps think – not much has changed.

And if anyone works for the IRS – don’t be offended- you are the star of the story.  You’ll be okay.  If you are still offended by the end of the morning we have a form for you to fill out – it’s 80 pages long.  And so long as you fill it out perfectly we will get back to you in 6-8 weeks.  If you prefer to call – I’ll put you on hold for 2-3 hours.

All that to say – this story is going to compare and contrast two people – the self righteous pastor – (Ouch!) and the humble, contrite tax collector.

Over and Over Jesus talks about faith being an internal affair, it’s not based on your credentials or your pedigree.  It’s about the heart.

And here we see two examples – one heart is right and one heart is not.  And it happens that the right heart was in the taxman.  And the wrong heart-attitude was in the pastor.

So this morning let’s study these two characters, and we’ll simply ask,  What did the Pastor get wrong, and what did the Tax collector get right about what makes a person acceptable to God?

What did the Pastor get wrong? It’s a common error – but the Pastor thought God’s approval was based on his performance.  And so he worked really hard to put on a good show for God.  And he expected God to review him on google – five stars.  Bravo!

We have a dog that we adopted in December and his name is Kirby and he’s a good dog and we’re training him, right?  And so we at any point in the day you might hear one of us telling Kirby – “You’re a good boy.  Yes you are.  You’re a good boy!”

Pat on the head.  Scratch of the belly.  Dog treat.  Great for dogs – thankfully, God doesn’t treat us like dogs.  The pastor was a good boy.  He really was.  He’s the kind of guy you want for a neighbor.  He’d dig out your driveway for you and that kind of thing.

But his problem was that he was under the false impression that God accepted him because he was a good boy.  Rather than becoming a good person because he was accepted by God.  (Back to the other slide)

I mean listen, I want to hear God tell me- well done, good and faithful servant.  I want to hear God say that, but listen – there is a big difference.  And the difference is the order.

The order is everything.  The order is the difference between being a Christian and being a moralist.  The Moralists are good people and think – God must therefore approve of me.  Christianity says, because God loves us and accepts us – we can become the kind of people who naturally and easily love others without strings and obey God without looking for a treat.

It’s inside out – God changes me inside and I can live differently outside.  But the Pastor thought – he would show God how good he was on the outside, and that would translate into being accepted by Him – and it doesn’t ever work.

You know – there is an interesting theme Jesus hits rather regularly in his teaching – and that is that there is more than one way to stiff-arm God.  One way to stiff him is to be as rebellious as you can – like the prodigal son who waved God away.

But the other way?  Be really really good.  You can stiff arm God by thinking of yourself as a really really good person.  One says get away from me – the other says, “Look at me” And both, unless something changes, will hear God say – away from me, I never knew you.

Self righteous and Unrighteous and both ultimately the same – the elevations of the kingdom of self.

The pastor here – listen to the way he prays…  Actually, where it says he prayed by himself, a better translation is that he prayed about himself.  He mentions God once, Dear God, I, I, I, I, I, am awesome, you’re welcome.

But notice something here –  the Pharisee spent time talking up his game in order to try to elevate himself above others – but he couldn’t quite elevate himself high enough so instead he lowers the status of others.  Not only am I great – but that guy is wreck!  What a sinner!

There is something about the Self-centered soul – it’s never satisfied just trying to inflate itself – it also tries to make itself look better by tearing others down and treating them with respect.

Now listen – you might not want to hear this but you need to hear it – if you find yourself regularly tearing others down – treating people scornfully, disrespectfully – if you degrade people in your mind as morons idiots and buffoons -If you struggle with Gossip – these things are all symptomatic of a self centered heart – a heart that knows that not only do I need to puff up my resume, but it wouldn’t hurt to tear others down.

But God does not operate on a performance basis.  And can we just take a moment and say, Thank God, that God doesn’t judge me based on a performance?  I mean… how miserable would that make us?

I was watching America’s got Talent once, and there was this guy who climbed 40 feet in the air and belly flopped into a pool filled with twelve inches of water.  And the British judge jumped to his feet in applause an astonishment.  And when it came time to interview the guy, you know what the judge said?

What will you do next week to top this performance?  One minute after the amazing feat, the judge is bored with is performance.  How will you top it?  The poor guy said, Fire.  I’m going to jump on fire, through fire into fire.  And I’m guaranteeing the judges will say, then what?

Let me tell you a secret.  There is nothing you can do that will make God stand up and say, now that was a performance. Here’s our golden ticket to heaven!

Not going to happen.  I’m telling you that it didn’t happen with the Pharisee, and I’m guessing no one is topping his performance.  He fasted twice a week.  No food twice a week.  Prayer instead.  He gave a tenth of everything away.  He didn’t steal. And in the end, it didn’t work.

Because he thought a relationship with God was based on performance.  And it led to a prideful person – standing all alone in a corner praying to, be, about himself.

But the taxman gets it right?  Because the Taxman knows a relationship with God is NOT based on performance but rather on pity.

Jesus uses words in the story to describe the man, like humble and honest about his situation. He was sorrowful about it.  He asked for mercy.

But I want to use a word to describe the man today that might make you squirm a bit.  And the word is Pity.  The tax man was in touch with his need for pity.

Let’s talk about this word Pity.  Pity is what you have when you feel sorry for someone and want to do something good for them.

And God has pity on us.  You don’t like that word, do you?  We like words like mercy or compassion.  We don’t like to think that we are pitiable.  It feels beneath us.

But the Bible is clear that God looks at us with pity – we are so broken, so injured, so damaged by sin that God looks at us with pity.  We find it in the words Mercy, Compassion and Pity.  But usually, translators go with compassion.

Because the word Pity makes us wince.  The very core of us feels that there certainly are plenty of good things in me to make me – not pitiable.  I don’t need pity – I just need a break.

The real problem with us trying to stack our good deeds in front of God and expect to be rewarded, like the pastor in the story was doing – was that there must be a flip side – if we want to be rewarded – credited – for our good works, then mustn’t we also expect to be punished for our sins?

We want to be rewarded for our good things.  But the best the bible can offer is that God is the kind of God who will not make us suffer for our sins.

He does not treat us as our sins deserve
or repay us according to our iniquities.
11 For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
so great is his love for those who fear him;
12 as far as the east is from the west,
so far has he removed our transgressions from us.

13 As a father has compassion on his children,
so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him;
14 for he knows how we are formed,
he remembers that we are dust.

James 5:11  The Lord is bursting with compassion and is full of pity.

Compassion, Mercy, Pity.  Does the word Pity make you wince?  Why do we prefer the word compassion or mercy?  Why?  Does it feel more dignified to say God is compassionate toward you?  Merciful?  Why does our soul want to be protected from the truth that we want and need God’s pity.

It is only because God saw the real state of our souls, and decided to do something about them, that we are not consumed in our sins.

See the Pharisee – the Pastor – he wanted to be rewarded for what he did.  But the tax collector knew that he needed to be pitied for who he was.

In Mark 9 we come across a story of a man who brings his son to Jesus to be healed – and he tells Jesus – can you do anything for my son?  He is filled with an evil spirit – that often causes the boy to throw himself into the fire.  And the man says – please Jesus, have Pity on us.

And you know – I can’t help but think – you know – there’s plenty of things in this world that people keep throwing themselves into that make about as much sense as throwing yourself into a fire.

Is there anything in your life that keeps haunting you – it keeps pulling you in – maybe it’s reckless use of alcohol or drugs.  Maybe it’s the thought that all you really need is lots of sex or money or entertainment or prestige or status – or like the pastor in this story – a good reputation…

And all we get in return is burned.

When we realize all the things we keep grabbing and shoving into our souls in an effort to feel satiated – to feel significant – to feel acceptable…  no wonder the bible says that Jesus looked at the crowd and was moved with pity.

But praise the Lord – he was moved with pity.  He did something to rescue us.

Jesus came to rescue us.  To sacrifice himself to save us from the fire.   He was moved by his pity for us.  And he came to earth to swap places with us – he took the punishment – he became pitiful for us on the cross.  Naked – abuses hurled at him from a callous crowd.

Out of his pity for us – He took it all.  Why?  Because he loved us.  Because he loved us.  While we were sinners Christ died for us.  God so loved the world, that he sent his one and only son – that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish but be delivered to an eternal life.

The story Jesus tells – is the story about two pitiful people.  One was standing in a corner doing tricks for God to get God to pat him on the head and stick a treat in his mouth.  He was pitiful and didn’t know it.

The other guy was in a corner and he knew it.  And he approached God on a basis of God’s mercy and compassion and pity.  Lord have pity on me a sinner.

Which corner are you in?

This week I’ve been intentional about using the word pity in my prayers.  Lord have pity on me.