Sermon for Sunday October 23rd, 2016, the Twenty-second Sunday after Trinity
The Lessons: Ps. 65; Joel 2:23-32; Luke 18:9-14
Text: Luke 18:9-14, the Parable of the Pharisee and the Publican
Topic: Prayer from a humble heart is acceptable to God
“The more humble a man is in himself, and the more obedient towards God, the wiser will he be in all things, and the more shall his soul be at peace.” (Thomas à Kempis)
On the other hand, pride is one of the seven deadly sins, and there is a warning in the Book of Proverbs about it:
“Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall” (Prov. 16:18, KJV).
C.S. Lewis wrote:
Pride is essentially competitive…Pride gets no pleasure out of having something, only out of having more of it than the next man.
(p. 95, Mere Christianity. New York: MacMillan, 1958)
THE PARABLE OF THE PHARISEE AND THE PUBLICAN
In the Parable that comprises our Second (or Gospel) Lesson today, the Lord Jesus Christ takes aim at the prayer that arises from pride and commends the prayer that proceeds from a humble heart. The Pharisees were proud of their zealous observance of the Jewish Law. Tithing was a requirement, but the Pharisee in this Parable was proud of all that he was doing that was righteous, and more than the Law required. Fasting twice a week, for example, was a tradition, but not demanded by the Law. The very effort needed to stay out of trouble, and to live a holy and righteous life, uncontaminated by sin, had become a source of pride. The Pharisee thanked God that he was not an extortioner, or unjust, or an adulterer, or even like the publican, or tax-collector, in the temple with him.
The tax-collector, whose profession was generally viewed by the Pharisees as sinful and covetous, does not even lift his eyes to heaven, but beats his breast and prays for God to have mercy on him, a sinner. Jesus points out that this man, rather than the Pharisee, receives God’s forgiveness, or is justified, since the one who exalts himself will be brought low, and the one who humbles himself will be lifted up. The Parable itself is an example in story form of Jesus’ paradoxical saying, “Everyone that exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted” (Luke 18:14, KJV).
The Parable is introduced with the comment that Jesus directed it against those who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, while despising others (Luke 18:9).
Now some might argue, that if the tax-collector’s prayer was heard, and not the Pharisee’s, there is no use in attempting to live a righteous life, since really it can lead to the pride of the Pharisee, and to the consequent rejection of his prayer because of its pride. However, the Parable is not presenting a contrast between sin and righteousness and preferring sin when it is committed without pride. The contrast is rather between pride and humility. The publican’s attitude of humility in prayer is commended, and his sins are forgiven, simply because he realizes his need for God’s mercy, while the Pharisee’s prayer is rejected because of his pride in his own righteousness and zeal. He is not forgiven by God, since he hasn’t realized his sinfulness or confessed it before God. He is not aware that even his righteous deeds are not good enough to save his soul eternally.
Christians are prone to pride, since our religion requires us to make progress in godliness, and it becomes tempting to measure our progress against the progress either of other Christians or of people who do not know or believe in Christ. St. Paul reminds us of the danger of comparing ourselves to one another when he claims, “We dare not…compare ourselves with some that commend themselves: but they, measuring themselves by themselves, and comparing themselves among themselves, are not wise.” (2 Cor. 10:12, KJV)
Instead, Christians must regularly examine themselves in comparison to Christ, to see if they are conforming to the standards set by Christ and embodied in his example (2 Cor. 13:5). Of course, we shall find that we continually “fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). The fact that we do, means we continually need to ask God to have mercy on us, forgive us our sins, and firmly resolve to live righteously. All honest Christians, on examining their consciences properly, will find themselves in the position of needing God’s forgiveness and mercy. For however much progress we think we have made in living the Christian way, we are found to come short of God’s standard. This means that we can only receive Christ’s righteousness by faith in Him, and not by our own efforts. We are always in the place of the Publican in this Parable, since we always need God’s mercy. Yet being in that place of the sinner relying on God’s mercy does not excuse us from persevering in doing what is right and good, according to God’s will, and ensuring that we have turned away from sin. But all the time we must be aware of the danger of pride, which so easily tempts those very Christians who feel that they have made spiritual progress. When pride takes over, a person becomes like the frog in this story:
Two ducks and a frog developed a friendship. When their pond dried up, the ducks knew they could easily fly to another location, but what of their friend the frog? Finally they decided to fly with a stick between their two bills, and with the frog hanging onto the stick by his mouth. All went well until a man looked up and saw them in the sky. “What a clever idea,” said the man. “I wonder who thought of that?”
“I did,” said the frog.
CONCLUSION AND APPLICATION
What about you? Are you comparing yourself to others, and thanking God for your superiority to them, or does a humble reliance on God’s mercy lead you to effective prayer and more grace?