31/8/03 BCP Trinity 11 : Luke 18:9-14
9 And he spake this parable unto certain which trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others: 10 Two men went up into the temple to pray; the one a Pharisee, and the other a publican. 11 The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican. 12 I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess. 13 And the publican, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner. 14 I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other: for every one that exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.
Today's reading is about how we get close to God, or the question, "What is a Christian?"
People have many opinions of this.
Some people think that God works things out like scales or an exam paper. If the good outweighs the bad, or if you get over 50% then you pass. But this is not the case. The Pharisee was a good, moral, religious person, yet was separated from God.
Some people think it is like a race. The winner is someone who is better than others. There was a shock at the World Athletics Championship in Edmonton recently when Marion Jones was defeated in the 100 metres for the first time in about four years. The problem with this idea is that none of us are good enough for long enough to meet God's perfect standards.
Some people think that it is about where you are born. Someone once told me that they were a Christian because they were born in England. They sincerely believed this ! God loves everyone and wouldn't favour someone because they just happened to be born in a particular place.
If we are honest we would like to believe that God would chose people, especially ourselves, because we are attractive, charming, intelligent, honest, moral, generous, witty, hard-working, and talented. After all, isn't that the type of person that we would want admitted to heaven if we had the job of letting people in ?
A man dies and goes to heaven. St. Peter meets him at the pearly gates and says, "Here's how it works. You need 100 points to make it into heaven. You tell me all the good things you've done, and I give you a certain number of points for each item, depending on how good it was. When you reach 100 points, you get in."
"Okay," the man says, "I was married to the same woman for 50 years and never cheated on her, even in my heart."
"That's wonderful," says St. Peter, "that's worth three points!"
"Three points?" he says. "Well, I attended church all my life and supported its ministry with my tithe and service."
"Terrific!" says St. Peter, "that's certainly worth a point."
"One point? Golly. How about this: I started a soup kitchen in my city and worked in a shelter for homeless veterans."
"Fantastic, that's good for two more points," he says.
"TWO POINTS!!" the man cries, "At this rate the only way I get into heaven is by the grace of God!"
"Come on in!" aid Peter.
Copyright 1999 Gibson Productions
In Jesus' time a tax collector was considered the lowest of the low. He worked for the Roman's, which was considered treason. He made his money by charging more than was needed from his own countrymen, which was theft.
The Pharisee proudly stood before God and everyone in his own strength. He wanted to be seen and admired. It was this pride and strength that separated him from God, and from people.
The tax collector was at a distance and didn't even dare to stand. But he was standing... on the grace, the mercy, the undeserved favour that God freely gives to those who turn to him in humility. Humility doesn't mean thinking that we are worthless, but realising that none of us are good enough for God so we need to rely upon his mercy to us.
A former lifeguard wrote, "one of the things that all lifeguards know is that you can't save anybody as long as they're trying to save themselves, because they'll take you under the water with them. You swim out to them, and they're flailing around in the water until finally they just give up and collapse. Once they give up, it's really easy, you just put your arm over their shoulder and swim back to shore. There's nothing to it. But you can't save them as long as they're trying to save themselves."
The Pharisee focused on himself. The tax-collector focused on God. Let us spend less time in thinking about what we have done for God, and more about thinking about what he has done for us.