A Parable On Being Right with God (Luke 18:9-14)

The Tax Collector and the Pharisee by Peter Gallen

To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’

“But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’

“I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” (New International Version)

There’s a lot to observe in Christ’s parable for today. Notice six observations of the story….

1. We Cannot Make Ourselves Right with God

I’m convinced that most Gentile Christians, standing two millennia apart from Christ’s telling of this parable, are much too hard on the Jewish Pharisees: “Well, I’m certainly glad that I am not like the Pharisee in this story!” so many tell themselves. It seems to me the Pharisees get a bad rap because of our own predilection to justify ourselves.

After all, we can only really criticize something we are already familiar with.

A temptation which every individual and community faces is the seduction toward self-justification, instead of being justified by God.

Way back in the day, when I made treadmill belts for a living, I was in charge of quality control. It was my job to make sure that the quality department provided the shipping department with a finished product, free of defects, and could stand the test of continual use. I justified the belt as being a treadmill belt of integrity; the belt did not, nor could not, justify itself, hide or fix its flaws, or make itself right.

To think that a treadmill belt could justify itself is in the same sort of crazy that believes we can make ourselves right. No, it is God alone who justifies the sinner.

The paradox of Christ’s parable is that the real sinners are those who claim to be righteous, while the truly righteous are those who recognize they cannot justify themselves and need God to make them right.

2. We Need to Be Honest about the Right Thing

In order to hear the good news about God’s ability to justify and make right, we must also hear the bad news about why we need justification to begin with. An honest look into the mirror reveals that we have been hiding behind a cosmetic façade of self-justification.

Our illusions and delusions need to be confronted and shattered. Because only then can we receive grace and realize the peace and harmony of God’s justification.

Since God justifies, I don’t have to!

I don’t need to defend myself, make myself look better than I am, nor fool myself into believing that the false façade is the true self.

The parable of Jesus is a contrast between the Pharisee who justifies himself, and the tax collector who looks to God alone for his justification.

3. The Put-Together Guy Wants to Make Himself Right

Jesus uses a Pharisee as a character in the parable because the guy represented someone who everyone else looks up to as the model of a spiritual and religious person. Christ is inviting his hearers to look beyond the façade of what we see with our physical eyes.           

We need to use our spiritual eyes to notice below the surface. Look at the attitude. The smug self-justifying disposition is flat-out sin. What’s more, self-justification is a root of all sorts of sins.

Judging ourselves to be right means that others are wrong. That attitude creates division, separates people into bad and good, fosters disharmony, and is an affront to God. 

To try and obtain what is already provided by grace is plain old-fashioned sin.

4. We’re Obsessed with the Right Lines

Adam and Eve were told by God that they could eat from any tree in the garden but were given strict instructions not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. (Genesis 2:15-17) So, why avoid that particular tree?

Because it was a tree which spiritually and socially blinds people. Adam and Eve ate from it and their eyes were “opened” to a different reality – which was actually a “closed” view of reality that changed the way humanity deals with one another. From that point forward, people began drawing lines down the middle and placing themselves on the “good” side while vilifying those on the other side, the “bad” side.

“Apple Picking,” the fall of Adam and Eve, by Vittorio Canta

Adam and Eve immediately began justifying their actions, their attitudes, and their behavior. (Genesis 3:8-13) Adam drew a line: “That woman, Eve, gave me the fruit; she’s on the other side; it’s her fault!” Eve drew a line: “The serpent made me do it; that wasn’t really me, I’m basically good….” And ever since, the quest of making ourselves right has never stopped….

Today, we draw all sorts of lines. A popular religious line is this: “We’re good; they’re bad. Our theology is right, everybody else’s is wrong. The Bible says….” (insert a kooky interpretation of Scripture, based in self-justification and separation of people into good and bad groups)

People draw class lines, race lines, gender lines, ethnic lines, economic lines. We want clean lines, vertical lines, horizontal lines, perpendicular lines, thick lines, thin lines, any kind of line; just give me a line! Let’s go line dancing. Maybe take an airline. There are offensive lines and defensive lines. By the way, what’s the line on the Packers? We even judge the lines themselves: Long lines, short lines, front lines, back lines, and DMV lines are clearly evil, right!?

Why are we so obsessed with drawing lines? So that we can take self-justifying sides. Violence, war, and most every other sin of the world comes from the original sin project of trying to make ourselves right: “I’m okay; you’re not.”

The Pharisee (really a representative of us all) drew a very clear line between himself and the despised sinful tax collector. Notice that self-justification always compares itself with others. Those who obsessively draw lines are compulsively concerned about other people; they believe they have a right to know what’s going on with them. They remain vigilant to keep the lines drawn and distinguish themselves from those on the other side.

5. God Is On the Other Side of the Right Line

The Pharisee found that every time he drew a line, God was on the other side with the “sinners.” That makes perfect biblical sense. If God alone justifies sinners and makes them right; and if Jesus identifies with them in his life, death, and resurrection; then God is to be found on the other side of our line-drawing.  

A self-justified person sees no need for God’s justification. Therefore, God is not on their side; God is on the other side, justifying sinners by making them right.

6. The Unraveled Guy Wants To Be Made Right

“O God, Be Merciful To Me, A Sinner,” by Ronald Raab

The tax collector’s only concern was for God to show him mercy because he is a sinner. In contrast to the proud attitude of the Pharisee, the tax collector, a sinner by anyone’s definition, humbled himself and sought justification from God alone.

  • Justification by God makes us right and:
  • Lifts the curse upon humanity and reverts everything back to its original design. (Revelation 22:1-5)
  • Erases the lines. (Romans 4:7-8)
  • Restores our souls are and strengthens our faith. (Acts 16:5; Romans 4:20)
  • Enables us to rest in Christ’s finished work. (John 19:28-30)
  • Does not condemn us. (Romans 8:1-2)
  • Eliminates comparisons because Christ is sufficient for us. (Colossians 2:13-14)
  • Replaces the anxiety and fear about how we look to others with the contentment and satisfaction of God’s love in Christ. (1 John 4:16-18)

Conclusion

Self-justification separates us from people and creates distance and division. But God’s justification connects people in love and crosses the arbitrary lines created by others.

The bad news: Many religious folk, when confronted with their self-justifying attitudes, do not change. Instead, they label the person as bad and place the offending person on the other side of their line so that they can maintain their façade of righteousness.

The good news: Jesus can be found on the other side of the line because justification is a gift. Yet, until we go to him, outside our little camp, we will continue in vain to make ourselves look good and be on the right side of everything while making others look bad.

The good and the right is to humbly – and with much flavor – cry out to God for mercy because only the Lord can save us from our plight.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner. 

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner. 

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner, and grant me your peace.

Just and right God, by your mercy we were created, and by your mercy you redeemed us through your Son, the Lord Jesus. Your mercy is the light by which all people – both sinner and saint – return to you. Your divine justice and your divine mercy exist together so that you refuse to punish us as we deserve.

Lord Jesus, it was not enough for you to take on our humanity; you died for us as well. So, we humbly and gratefully receive your gracious deliverance from sin, death, and hell. Amen.

The Parables of the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin (Luke 15:1-10)

By Sieger Koder (1925-2015)

Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

Then Jesus told them this parable: “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.“

Or suppose a woman has ten silver coins and loses one. Doesn’t she light a lamp, sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it? And when she finds it, she calls her friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost coin.’ In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” (New International Version)

Lost people matter to God… a lot. They matter so much to the Lord that one lost soul who is found is the grounds for a big celestial party. 

Note a simple observation of today’s Gospel lesson: If there is rejoicing in the presence of angels over one sinner who repents, then it is God who is doing the rejoicing. The Lord is absolutely giddy with joy over a lost person being found.

Jesus told two short stories, each teaching the same thing, so that we will be absolutely sure to get it: A loving God has unbounded joy over lost people being found. These parables of Jesus give us a glimpse of God’s own heart. The Lord would do anything to find a lost person, to restore and reconcile that person to right relationships. 

The Lost Sheep by Jorge Cocco Santángelo

God would go dumpster diving and wade through stinky nasty garbage to find just one lost valuable person.

Restoring lost people is such a high priority to God that the Father sent the Son to this earth. Jesus paid the ultimate price of a cruel death on a cross to reconcile a broken lost relationship between people and God.

I have not always been a devoted follower of Christ. I still remember what it felt like to be separated from God and estranged from the Church – it was lonely and awful, like being in a deep black hole with no way of getting out and no one around to help. 

But God mercifully sent people into my life to share good news with me and help me out of my prodigal way of life. I once was lost. But now I am found. When I turned from my path of destruction and embraced Jesus Christ, there was a big party in heaven.

God gathering wayward and lost persons is a gracious activity, seemingly free from criticism. But there was. The rightful Judge of the universe got judged by a group of spiritual simpletons. And because there were complaints leveled at Jesus for purposely going after the lost, it therefore needs to be asked: 

Where do we locate ourselves in these parables? 

The two stories were downright offensive to many of Christ’s original hearers. Those upset with Jesus were so inwardly focused that they believed ministry ought to revolve around them and their needs.

And, what’s more, the religious leaders were offended because they thought all the fuss about sinners would only highlight their sin. In other words, there ought to be no party and no rejoicing for people who have lived an ethically and morally dubious life.

Preaching grace is always offensive to people who work for their salvation. It is scandalous to such persons to hear that Jesus did not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance. 

If we hear Christ’s parables and the concern for lost sinners who don’t know Jesus and say, “Well, all this talk about outreach is well and good, but what about us?  What about me? After all, I never went down a path of immorality or hurt anyone. I’m a good person. Where’s my party?” Then, we must locate ourselves as the lost persons in need of being found by God’s grace.

Consider for a moment the worst sinner you can think of – a person for whom you would label as being akin to the devil…. Now picture that person being found by God and becoming a follower of Christ….

Would you attend the party to celebrate that person’s repentance, reconciliation, and recovery? 

If any of us feels justified in our hate, then we are the lost one in need of turning from our sin.

In leaving the ninety-nine sheep in the flock and going after the one sheep, God gave preferential attention to the lost….

Can you live with that? 

These parables of Jesus have significant meaning for church programs, budgets, and committees. By most estimations, only one-in-five lost people in America even knows one Christian. Statistics like that are what keep me up at night; it deeply saddens me. It drives me to prayer.

God’s unconditional mercy and amazing grace is what makes all the difference. 

If we lose the sense of awe and appreciation for what God has done for us in Christ, then there will be no outreach. Finding lost people is not dependent on completing a class on evangelism or getting training in how to answer every question.

Outreach is fueled by passion and desire. Healthy Christians reproduce themselves. I assume you didn’t take a class on how to procreate – you just had the desire and the willingness; and then, you celebrated nine-months later, the birth of new life.

New life always needs to be celebrated because that’s what God does. Yet, the party cannot commence until the lost are found….

O God – blessed Father, Son, and Spirit – sanctify all believers everywhere with your abiding presence. Enlighten the minds of your people more and more with the light of the Gospel. Bring lost people to the knowledge of our Savior Jesus Christ; and those who are walking in the way of life, keep steadfast to the end. Guard those who are strong and prosperous from forgetting you and straying from the flock. Increase in us your grace and love so that we may participate with you in finding the lost. Amen.

Luke 5:1-11 – Surprised by Generosity

The Miraculous Catch of Fish by Patrick J. Murphy

One day Jesus was standing beside Lake Gennesaret when the crowd pressed in around him to hear God’s word. Jesus saw two boats sitting by the lake. The fishermen had gone ashore and were washing their nets. Jesus boarded one of the boats, the one that belonged to Simon, then asked him to row out a little distance from the shore. Jesus sat down and taught the crowds from the boat. When he finished speaking to the crowds, he said to Simon, “Row out farther, into the deep water, and drop your nets for a catch.”

Simon replied, “Master, we’ve worked hard all night and caught nothing. But because you say so, I’ll drop the nets.”

So, they dropped the nets, and their catch was so huge that their nets were splitting. They signaled for their partners in the other boat to come and help them. They filled both boats so full that they were about to sink. When Simon Peter saw the catch, he fell at Jesus’ knees and said, “Leave me, Lord, for I’m a sinner!” Peter and those with him were overcome with amazement because of the number of fish they caught. James and John, Zebedee’s sons, were Simon’s partners and they were amazed too.

Jesus said to Simon, “Don’t be afraid. From now on, you will be fishing for people.” As soon as they brought the boats to the shore, they left everything and followed Jesus. (Common English Bible)

One of the most fundamental characteristics of God is generosity. God’s benevolent nature defines the divine stance toward humanity. This may not seem overly remarkable. Yet, when the infinite holiness of God intersects with the prideful arrogance of sinful people, gracious generosity is the unpredictable and amazing result.

Many people on planet earth have been raised with a god who is aloof and something of an old cranky curmudgeon. Such a god gets easily angry and zaps people with lightning or some natural disaster. It is no wonder so many persons have fled from belief in God.

Can we, however, entertain the notion that the Creator God of the universe is quite the opposite of the perpetually upset deity?

In Jesus, we have displayed for us what the basic disposition of the Divine truly is.

On one occasion, Peter (a guy who could raise the ire of most gods) was going about his business, fishing in the Sea of Galilee. Having not yet encountered Jesus, yet stopping to listen to his words, Peter ended up having this uninvited stranger literally get in the boat with him.

There was something remarkably different and compelling about Jesus since Peter did not immediately toss him out. Such a calm, confident, and gracious nature – nothing like Peter had expected. So, here is this ordinary fisherman face-to-face with the Christ of God. 

Jesus told Peter to put the boat out and cast the nets. Peter, an experienced fisherman and knowledgeable about the water, knew for certain that he would not catch anything. But, out of deference to Jesus, he did so, anyway. The result was such a large catch of fish that the nets nearly broke from the weight.

The Great Catch by John August Swanson (1938-2021)

Peter’s response is instructive. He fell at the feet of Jesus in a profound sense of his own smallness and sinfulness. Next to Jesus. Peter saw how little faith he really had. He rightly discerned that he did not deserve such generosity from Jesus, an overflowing abundance given to him despite his unbelief. 

In the face of such grace, in the vortex of an incredible mercy, having seen the generosity of God directed squarely at him, Peter left it all behind to follow Jesus.

So, here we have the nature and character of God before us. No perturbed deity. No exasperated god ready to raise a storm and toss the boat over with Peter in it. No, Jesus, the Son of God, does not operate that way. There is no strong-arming people into faith. God’s tactics steer clear of base manipulation through guilt, or mind-twisting others through shaming them. 

Instead, God is beautifully and simply present with people – showing grace and generosity in places where one would least expect to find it. 

If confronted with such love, what would you do?

Early in my life, I viewed God as some eternally bored deity who would occasionally get out his divine BB gun and shoot people in the rear, just for something to do. God, in my understanding, cared nothing for the real lived experiences of people on earth.

But much like Peter of old, Jesus showed up unannounced in my life. And what I found was like Peter – a kind, benevolent Being who showered such generous love on me that my heart was immediately captured. I have never looked back since.

We intuitively know, down deep in our gut, in the very marrow of our bones, when genuine Love is among us. Generously true Love immediately connects with the deepest needs of our lives. No evangelist must convince us with offering free gold crosses or promised blessings. None of that matters when Love incarnate is present, when the great God of all is among us.

Peace, hope, and faith are the results of the divine loving presence. They cannot be conjured or ginned up through excessive asceticism or extreme discipline. Love is a gift. Love is a person. And it is given generously and graciously from the One whose very nature is charitable and hospitable.

Praise be to God!

Gracious God, you sent your Son to me even though I was neither looking for him nor expecting anything from him. Thank you for breaking-in to my life so that I could break-out for you with glory, honor, and praise.  Amen

Psalm 1 – Two Different Ways

Oh, the joys of those who do not
    follow the advice of the wicked,
    or stand around with sinners,
    or join in with mockers.
But they delight in the law of the Lord,
    meditating on it day and night.
They are like trees planted along the riverbank,
    bearing fruit each season.
Their leaves never wither,
    and they prosper in all they do.

But not the wicked!
    They are like worthless chaff, scattered by the wind.
They will be condemned at the time of judgment.
    Sinners will have no place among the godly.
For the Lord watches over the path of the godly,
    but the path of the wicked leads to destruction. (New Living Translation)

Today’s psalm presents us with two differing ways we can choose to shape our lives: The way of the upright and virtuous, or the way of the unethical and depraved. 

The way of the right and just person leads to human flourishing and life – whereas the way of the wicked and unjust person leads to human degradation and death. 

Distinguishing between the righteous and the wicked is not always as easy as it looks.

Only at the end of the age, when the Day of Judgment comes, will we know for certain the righteous and the wicked.

The magisterial Reformer, Martin Luther, contrasted these two ways with his Heidelberg Disputation of 1518. Luther called the way of the wicked a theology of glory – and described the way of the righteous as the theology of the cross.

The cross of Christ, as expressed by Luther, is God’s attack on human sin. Christ’s death is central to Christianity, and one must embrace the cross and rely completely and totally upon Christ’s finished work on the cross to handle human sin. Through being crucified with Christ, we find the way to human flourishing and life. In other words, righteousness is gained by grace through faith in Christ.

Conversely, the theology of glory is the opposing way of the cross. For Luther, the wicked person, and the vilest offender of God, is not the person who has done all kinds of outward sinning and heinous acts. The worst of sinners do good works.

Specifically, the wicked person is the one who does all kinds of nice things – yet does them disconnected from God by wanting others to see their good actions. Another way of putting this: The wicked person is one who seeks to gain glory for self, rather than giving glory to God.

Our good works can be the greatest hindrance to righteousness.

It is far too easy to place faith in our good works done apart from God, rather than having a naked trust in Christ alone. And it is far too easy to do good things for the primary purpose of having others observe our goodness, rather than do them out of the good soil of being planted in God’s Word. 

The remedy for sin is the cross, and the sinner is one who lives apart from that cross, trusting in self so that people can recognize and give them their perceived due respect and accolades.

“It is impossible for a person not to be puffed by his good works unless he has first been deflated and destroyed by suffering and evil until he knows that he is worthless and that his works are not his but God’s.”

Martin Luther

We are not to avoid good works but do them from the good soil of being planted in the law of God and connected to the vine of Christ. When the psalmist uses the term “law” he is referring to Scripture as a whole, to all the acquired wisdom about how life is supposed to be lived in God’s big world.

The righteous are those who immerse themselves in the law; secretly rise early to meditate on God’s Word; privately pour over Scripture’s message and pray to put it into practice because they want to delight in God. Their fruit will be abundant and sweet.  

The wicked, however, are simply too busy to take note what the law says; only serve to be seen; and publicly desire to be recognized for their charity and works. Such works will not stand when Judgment Day comes.

You’re nothing but show-offs. You’re like tombs that have been whitewashed. On the outside they are beautiful, but inside they are full of bones and filth. (Matthew 23:27, CEV)

Truly righteous people have a humble sense that they could easily drift from God, if not staying connected and rooted in Jesus and the way of the cross. 

The wicked, in contrast, are like chaff – worthless, and not adding value to anything. They are arrogant and annoying – wanting all the attention that God rightly deserves. The wicked have nothing to contribute to God’s kingdom. They hinder the harvest of souls God is working toward with their irritating attitudes.

Generosity marks the righteous because God is generous. Grace defines the righteous because God is gracious.  Gentleness is the way of the righteous because Christ is gentle. Spiritual prosperity is the result of a righteous relationship cultivated with Jesus Christ. The Lord watches over the way of such persons.

The way of the wicked will perish.

We have sixteen prophetic books in the Old Testament, all given to a single message: Judgment is coming because of wickedness.  And the wicked turn out to be God’s covenant people, because they selectively did their good works to gain glory for themselves. They withheld the good they could have done because it did not add any value to their reputation or their personal goals.

God desires genuine spiritual growth for us. That will only happen if we avoid the theology of glory and embrace a theology of the cross – delighting in God and the law.

Every day, we have a choice to make: The way of connection and life, or the way of disconnection and death. 

Look here! Today I’ve set before you, life and what’s good versus death and what’s wrong. If you obey the Lord your God’s commandments that I’m commanding you right now by loving the Lord your God, by walking in his ways, and by keeping his commandments, his regulations, and his case laws, then you will live and thrive, and the Lord your God will bless you…. But if your heart turns away and you refuse to listen, and so are misled, worshipping other gods and serving them,I’m telling you right now that you will definitely die…. I have set life and death, blessing and curse before you. Now choose life—so that you and your descendants will live—by loving the Lord your God, by obeying his voice, and by clinging to him. That’s how you will survive and live long…. (Deuteronomy 30:15-20, CEB)

The idols of our hearts can so easily draw us away from God so that our own good works are done for an audience who will recognize and affirm. Instead, our daily choice must be to love God supremely and give God glory for everything good in our lives. 

What will you choose this day?