I haven’t preached many sermons before, but when I do, even if it’s not for class, I like to manuscript them out because I’m more of a writer than a speaker. I don’t woodenly follow the manuscript, but writing it out helps someone like me crystallize my thoughts. To create more content on this blog, I figured I’d share a manuscript here, though that is risky because that might mean that I may have less opportunity to recycle this sermon later (and I preached it in class, so very few people have heard it other than a modified version in Sunday School). Still, while I don’t like listening to myself after sermons (and in fact, I’ve never done it, even though I have recordings), I will read what I have written in the past, which can be amusing because you can critique yourself and see yourself writing dumb things.
I’ll keep my critiques of my own sermon to myself for now, though I do think I got the main idea. It’s also funny to see how unlike this is from how I teach normally in Sunday School, where it is a lot less organized and tons more sarcastic. I admit I intentionally avoid letting too much of my sarcasm seep through in sermons since I’m also preaching to much older people, and in this case, this was for a seminary class so it has even less of my typical throw-away remarks. And maybe that is a good thing :). I really respect the professors at my seminary, but many of them tend to be pretty old-fashioned, so I’d prefer not to get on their bad side by making smart-aleck remarks throughout a sermon.
Anyway, on to the sermon. I like this one not because I think I did a great job but because I think it’s a very profound parable, even though it’s a short one. I think the warning against self-righteousness and the reminder of grace is something conservative Christians need to hear regularly, not just nonbelievers who need salvation.
I have what many may consider a “boring” testimony. I am a pastor’s kid who grew up in the church and never did anything too crazy. I accepted Christ when I was nine, was baptized, and taught Bible class from an early age. This relatively simple Christian life continued in college; I found a church and I began to serve there. One day, during my sophomore year of college, I felt this pain in the upper left part of my chest that would not go away. I had a hard time breathing, and I went from being able to run five miles just days before to being unable to walk to the bus stop. I learned I had something called spontaneous pneumothorax, which is basically a condition where a bubble bursts on the surface of your lung and leaks air into your chest cavity, causing the lung itself to collapse because of the air pressure. No one knows exactly why this happens, though it is prevalent among young, skinny, tall, and physically active males (I was everything but tall). This condition would come and go for the next year and a half, until one day, it became serious enough that I had to go the emergency room and get surgery. I spent ten days and a half days in the hospital before I was released, and as you can imagine, I earned myself a mountain of medical bills. It seemed like every other month I would get a new bill from somebody: the radiologist, the anesthesiologist, the surgeon, and others I forget. That was the toughest semester I had in college; I took fifteen hours of difficult classes, I continued to be active in church, and I was working about 30 hours per week to try to pay off a bunch of bills. Then came the big bill, from the hospital itself, and it totaled over $31,000. Now, for most college kids, that might as well have had one or two more zeros; in other words, you’re not paying that off anytime soon. I continued to work, knowing full well the futility of trying to pay what I owed. (note: Ironically, I would go to the hospital again for the same exact condition just a few months after this sermon was preached, and I earned a $40,000 bill. Ha! New sermon illustration.)
While I would never say this out loud because I was quite adept at Sunday School platitudes, in my heart, both lying on the hospital bed as well as throughout the following semester, I would shake my fist at God, “How dare you.” I began to compare myself with others around me, my righteousness versus theirs. “Do I smoke and get wasted like these other idiots? Do I go mess around with random girls? Do I go downtown to 6th Street and lose it?” I remember one day, my roommate came home completely wasted late at night. We talked briefly, and I bet him twenty dollars he would not remember our conversation. The next morning (actually, afternoon), when he awoke, he came to me and asked incredulously, “Isak… what happened last night? How did I get home?” Easy twenty bucks. See, I didn’t do anything like this. In fact, not only did I not do such things, I worked out and kept myself healthy. Yet I’m the one who has to go to the hospital for something I could not control? I enumerated to God the many things I did for him; I taught, I served, and I was well-equipped in apologetics. Before I went to Austin and before I entered the philosophy department, people would warn me about how dangerous and liberal the University of Texas is. I would confidently tell them that I was prepared to fend off any liberal argument they could muster at me. And in many ways, I was. Such was my resume that I presented to God.
Whether I wanted to admit it or not, I had become self-righteous in my approach towards God, and Jesus has some words for those who are confident in their own righteousness. Turn with me to Luke 18:9-14, the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector. This is a short parable, spanning only six verses, but it is profound one that challenges stereotypes and presumptions and ultimately highlights the gracious character of God as well as the danger of arrogant self-righteousness.
I. Do not be confident in your own righteousness.
Begin with me in verse 10: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.” It sounds like the beginning of a joke, “A Pharisee and a tax collector went into a bar…” but Jesus here is deadly serious. Immediately, Jesus is presenting two characters whose reputations would be well-known to his audience. For his first century Jewish audience, the Pharisee would be seen as an educated, disciplined religious person that deserves respect, even if other Jewish sects disagreed with them. The tax collector, on the other hand, would be viewed as one of the worst of sinners. While nobody particularly likes the IRS, the hostility towards modern day tax agencies has little in common with the scorn Jews had for their fellow tax collectors. Tax collectors were seen as traitors for not only collecting funds for the Romans but for often collecting more than they needed to. It is similar to how Jews viewed the Jewish Gestapo in Nazi Germany, Jews who had abandoned their countrymen for the prestige of the heathen lords. Tax collectors, therefore, were not exactly popular figures.
Both men are going to the temple to pray. What Jesus has in mind is likely the normal afternoon time of prayer, so there would be many people there praying, although the focus is on these two. In verse 11, the Pharisee stands tall and thanks God that he is not like the sinners around him. The word for “stood” here is used only by the author Luke in his Gospel as well as his book of Acts, and it commonly carries the meaning of someone who stands firm in what he believes, such as when Peter stood to declare the Gospel in Acts 2:14 and 17:22 and when Paul rebukes the sailors he is with for ignoring his advice in 27:21. Thus, we have a picture of the Pharisee standing confidently before God, convinced that he is living righteously. Let me warn you quite clearly: Do not be confident in your own righteousness. There are two ways in this text to avoid being confident in your own righteousness: Do not compare your righteousness with others, and do not boast in your religious accomplishments.
Regarding the former, we can see the Pharisee readily compares his life with that of “sinners” in 11: robbers, unjust men, adulterers, and ultimately the tax collector. Here’s the thing: He might be right that he is better off than they are. There are many Christians who argue that all sins are equally off the mark from God’s standard; for example, some Christians have argued that the sins of former Penn State defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky, facing charges of sexually abusing little boys, is the same as stealing a Snickers bar from the local convenient store. I respectfully disagree; some sins are worse than others, which is why we see God punishing sins differently in Scripture and which is why the Church also deals with certain sins differently. Nonetheless, even if this is the case, it is ultimately irrelevant when it comes to our final justification because our peers are not the standard on which we will be measured. The standard is God’s righteousness, and everyone fails that one as stated in Romans 3:23: “For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” Think of it this way: I love basketball, and let’s say I wanted to prove that I am a great player. So I engineer a meeting with Kevin Durant and Lebron James, and I tell them, “You know, I can obliterate my sister one-on-one. She can’t even score on me.” Of course, if they were to probe a little, they’d find out my sister is a shade over 5 feet tall and would get blown over by a gust of wind. It is perfectly true that I am better than my sister at basketball; it is also negligible and irrelevant to those who play at the highest level of the NBA. How much sillier is it to prove your righteousness to God, who is perfect and holy, by comparing yourself to others?
Christians often look upon the Pharisees with contempt at their “obvious” stupidity. However, if we are honest, we frequently behave like they do. Particularly for those of us in seminary, it is easy to acquire a holier-than-thou attitude and look down upon those who do not know as much as we do and who do not behave in a so-called “Christian” manner, which is often just cultural Christianity rather than biblical anyway. And you know what? Maybe you are right. You aren’t the abusive alcoholic or the addicted gambler. You have somehow avoided those destructive sins. However, instead of this spurring us on in love towards those who are suffering, praying and weeping for them, we stand tall like the Pharisee and triumphantly believe that we are so much better than they are, which is ironically a sin that is as blinding as any sin we can think of. Do not compare yourselves to one another, but to God.
Again, the second way to avoid this is do not boast in your religious accomplishments. The Pharisee lists a couple of things he does very well in verse 12: fasting and tithing. Not only does he follow the Law here, he goes beyond the law. Fasting was only commanded on certain annual occasions, with additional fasting to be decided by individuals. This guy is fasting twice a week, which is much better than I’ve ever done; I can barely last a day without feeling like I’m dying. Also, the tithe, giving one-tenth of what you gain, was commanded of only certain kinds of income and not all, while this Pharisee is giving one-tenth of everything. He is not just a law-keeper, he is a law-surpasser.
However, this too is foolishness. We’ve already discussed Romans 3:23; another pertinent verse is James 2:10, which states that just one sin makes you a lawbreaker. The Pharisee thinks that doing well in a couple of aspects of the law proves his righteousness, but he has left out a mountain of other commandments, and an obvious one would be “Love your neighbor as yourself.” It is informative to see that the two activities listed here are public. Basically, he looks good, but only to other people. Do his actions look good in God’s eyes? Is. 64:6 calls all of Israel’s righteous acts at the time “filthy rags,” which can be translated more helpfully as “bloody menstrual rags.” Yes, that is disgusting, and that is exactly how the Pharisee’s righteous acts look to God.
Many of us serve, teach preach, counsel, tithe, sing in praise bands, etc. Some of the things we do are very public, and the rest of the church can see them. However, if we do not view ourselves with humility and do these in service for others, as taught in passages such as Romans 12:3-8, and instead boast about our accomplishments, we delude ourselves into thinking we have somehow earned the favor of God when we have not. If you preach, teach, sing, fast, or whatever, realize that the ability to do that is a gift from the grace of God and not something you should be boasting about to the one who gave it to you, nor is it for yourself. Do not boast about your religious accomplishments and do not compare yourself with others, so that you will not be confident in your own righteousness.
II. Realize the severity of your sin.
We’ve talked about what we shouldn’t do to avoid self-righteousness. What then can we do? The picture of the tax collector is very different and tells us to realize the severity of our sinful nature. Look with me at verse 13. The first thing to notice is that he stands far away from everyone else who is praying. If there is one thing that the Pharisee got right, it’s that the tax collector is indeed an egregious sinner… and he knows it. This truth shames him so much that he is aware that he is unworthy to stand in the presence of his fellow praying Jews, much less God himself. Furthermore, he cannot even bring his eyes up to heaven because he knows he is guilty before God. I had two little dogs growing up, and when they got into trouble with my father, he would tell them to come and they would approach, slowly, with eyes and ears downcast, unable to look up at him. They knew they were in trouble and they were scared and ashamed. Similarly, this tax collector realizes that he has sinned greatly and is therefore ashamed.
Sin should shame us, and it should also cause us to mourn. In the next part of verse 13, the tax collector beats his chest and cries out to God. This action signifies mourning, such as in Isaiah 32:12 and Nahum 2:7. The tax collector mourns because of his sin. Unlike the Pharisee, who is gleefully ignoring his own sin, the tax collector is terribly aware of it and it crushes him. There is no sense of self-righteousness in him; he realizes his sin is severe and he cannot help but be ashamed and feel remorse.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer coined an interesting phrase, “cheap grace,” which he used to describe a kind of Christianity that does not take sin seriously. Many Christians believe the grace of God enables them to sin without a thought, but this is surely backward; only those who take sin seriously truly know that they need God’s grace. When was the last time you genuinely mourned for sin? I’m not talking about just getting caught; some people are only sorry when that happens, so they are sorrier that they got busted than their action. Regardless if anyone knows, do you feel remorse for the sins you commit against God everyday? I am not advocating feeling guilty all the time; if you are saved, you can live confidently in the Lord. However, there is difference between living freely in Christ and treating sin flippantly. Sin should make us feel remorse and regret. We must realize the severity of our sin.
III. Humble rather than exalt yourself before God, and he will deliver you.
Let’s complete the passage starting in verse 14, “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” This parable is essentially teaching us this: Humble rather than exalt yourself before God, and he will deliver you. This turn of events would have raised some eyebrows in Jesus’ audience. The tax collector, rather than the Pharisee, is the one who is justified, when all he did was cry in a corner like a wimp? How did that happen? The reason is because the tax collector realized his status and humbled himself before God, and God therefore exalted him. The Pharisee persisted in a delusion that he had attained a certain status with God when he did not, and the passage promises that God will bring him down at some point.
At the end of the day, God is not interested in the righteous acts or offerings one can bring him; they can never cleanse one from sin, and they can never measure up to the standard of God. What is God looking for? Let’s look briefly at Psalms 51:16-17, the great Psalm of repentance from David.
16 For You do not delight in sacrifice, otherwise I would give it;
You are not pleased with burnt offering.
17 The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit;
A broken and a contrite heart, O God, You will not despise.
God wants humble hearts who turn to him in repentance, and he will freely give forgiveness. God knows we cannot meet his standard, so he met it for us through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ his Son. Romans 5:8 states that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. God did for us what we could never do, and he calls everyone to repentance and salvation. David, as well as the tax collector, did not have confidence in his own righteousness. He had confidence in the gracious and loving character of God, and he threw his life upon that. This is why the tax collector begged God for mercy, and this is why he went home justified. Humble yourself before God, not exalt, and God will deliver you in his mercy. This is the central point in this parable.
As I approached the end of that semester, I was pretty exhausted. Despite working many long hours and a couple of very charitable fundraisers and gifts from my church, I was barely staying afloat financially. I received an envelope in the mail, and it was from the hospital. I had applied for financial aid from the hospital, and the letter was to tell me how much I was going to receive. I was hoping for something, and since one of my majors in college was accounting, I carefully read every line item in the letter telling me what I still owed. It turned out, my bill was reduced to a grand total of zero. Thirty-one thousand dollars, gone. I am ashamed to say that my first reaction was not thankfulness; it was merely irritated relief: “Finally, something goes my way.” Not long later, as I reflected upon things, I was convicted of my pride and my self-righteousness by the Spirit. Here I was, thinking that I deserved something from God because of my righteous acts and my good behavior compared to others, when in reality, I deserved nothing. Obviously, I did nothing to earn a $31,000 debt forgiveness. As remarkable as that is, that is nothing compared to the price Jesus bought me for. $31k is a lot, but it is not inconceivable to pay off. It is utterly impossible to pay the wages of sin except through eternal death, and to rescue us from this fate, Jesus ransomed us. What a lesson of God’s grace as well as a condemnation of my self-righteousness. I had nowhere to turn but to repent to God for my sin and be grateful for his mercy.
If we truly grasp the Gospel, illusions of righteousness quickly disappear. It is about a holy God who humbled himself and came to us. In Philippians 2, in one of the great Christological passages in Scripture, it talks about how Jesus, although equal with God, did not view it as a thing to be grasped but humbled himself and became a man, to die for us. Now that is pretty mind-boggling. If that is how the Son of God operates, how can we be proud and self-righteous? We must humble ourselves, not exalt ourselves, before God by not trusting in our own righteousness and realizing the severity of our sin. If a man does so and comes to Jesus, Jesus will not turn him away (John 6:37).
Bow with me in prayer. For those who know Christ, let us repent of our self-righteousness and humble ourselves before the Lord. For those who do not, you do not have to feel like you have to be good enough to earn God’s favor. He is waiting for you now, if you would come humbly with a broken spirit and contrite heart. Turn to Christ and you will be delivered.