Sermon Commentary for Sunday, October 23, 2016
Luke 18:9-14 Commentary
“I am so glad that Jesus loves me, Jesus loves me, Jesus loves ME!”
“How vast the benefits divine which WE in Christ possess!”
“Blessed assurance, Jesus is MINE!”
We sing such sentiments in church all the time. So before we get all squinty-eyed in regarding the Pharisee in Luke 18 as the quintessential spiritual bad guy, we’d best take a long, hard look at how we regard our own spiritual status—yes, how we regard it even vis-à-vis other people.
Consider: Suppose it is your sweet little old grandmother praying over the turkey dinner on Thanksgiving. “Dear God, we are grateful that we are not like other families we know: people who don’t know you enough to offer thanks to you, families that have fallen apart and so they never gather around the table anymore. We rejoice that we went to church this morning to do what all people should do: render thanks to you as the Giver of all good gifts.”
So this is Grandma now, not the bad-guy Pharisee (in the all-black ten-gallon cowboy hat as the late Robert Farrar Capon once depicted the Pharisees). What, if anything, keeps her prayer from falling into the error of the Pharisee? Or does nothing keep it from that error? Is it the same mistake all over again? When and how does gratitude go bad, and what can we do to make sure it doesn’t happen to us?
To the original hearers of Jesus’ parable in Luke 18, there was nothing startling in this parable–nothing even vaguely unsettling–until Jesus got to the end when he said it was the tax collector, not the Pharisee, who went home under the blanket of God’s favor. Because up until that point, the Pharisee was simply being pious. Scholars suggest that the prayer that Jesus places onto the man’s lips was not a caricature of a prayer but appears to have been a standard Jewish prayer of thanksgiving at that time. To those who listened to Jesus’ parable, this prayer was as familiar to them as “Now I lay me down to sleep” or “Our Father, who art in heaven” is familiar to most of us.
It is only right, fitting, and proper to give thanks to God. So if there is something awry here, it must be more in the attitude motivating the prayer than in the prayer proper, and just that is the key.
The Pharisee was not so much grateful to God as he was grateful only when he compared himself to others. Because the moment we begin to stack up our lives against the lives of those around us, it doesn’t take long before the focus becomes what we do, how we act, what we perform. The shape of our lives, and the myriad of activities in which we engage that gives our lives that shape, becomes the taking-off point in our assessment of life.
What we forget when that happens is, of course, nothing less than the grace of God in Christ Jesus. It’s always a balancing act. Should you be grateful that you find prayer not only possible but deeply meaningful? Should you be glad that you have opportunity to engage in ministry projects that benefit the needy in our community? If you are able in your life to avoid committing crimes or cheating on your spouse, should you be thankful for the strength of character that prevents you from walking down certain sordid paths? Of course on all counts! But we must never forget that each of those things is a FRUIT of God’s prior grace at work in us.
A sermon on Luke 18 can help people parse proper Christian gratitude by distinguishing the nature of the Pharisee’s gratitude (which goes off the rails) and the proper, deep-down gratitude for grace that we all rightly nourish as followers of Jesus Christ.
The structure of this parable is striking. When describing the Pharisee, the language all hints at height (as images for pride always do): the Pharisee stands, he (by implication at least) looks up to heaven as he prays, and his very language spirals upward as well as he heaps up a list of all that he does. By contrast the tax collector has all downward words associated with him: he is afar off, he will not look up to heaven, he beats down on his breast, etc.
But it is also interesting to note the set-up for this parable in verse 9: Jesus is said not to tell this parable in the abstract for just anyone and everyone but rather very specifically is said to tell the parable to those who were confident in their own righteousness. That makes you wonder: did a crowd of the self-righteous gather and so prompted this parable or was Jesus so keenly aware of this tendency to self-righteousness that he knew that no matter when he spoke this parable, it would be heard by plenty of people who fit the bill?! I suspect it is the latter! And therein lies a lesson for us also today!
What is one of the most common tendencies of Christians? It is the tendency to mix up roots and fruits. If the Christian life is like a tree that bears the fruit of the Spirit, we have a tendency to turn the tree upside-down. The production of spiritual fruit–the very kinds of things for which we Christians are properly thankful to God–grow OUT OF God’s gracious love. They don’t attract God’s love, they flow from God’s love.
As C.S. Lewis says, the roof of a greenhouse shines brightly because the sun shines on it. The roof doesn’t attract the sun by virtue of being bright to begin with, however! Or, in another Lewis analogy, suppose a six-year-old little girl says, “Daddy, may I have $5 to buy you a Christmas present?” Well, any decent father will give the child the money and, come Christmas morning, will exclaim loudly and gleefully over whatever bauble the child bought. But only a fool would say that by virtue of the gift, the father came out $5 ahead on the deal!
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