SERVICE VIDEO (link)
TEXT: Matthew 6:16-18; Luke 18:9-14
Jesus told parables in order to make a point – often an unexpected point – to his listeners. In the parable in Luke 18 today, he tells a parable “to some people who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and viewed others with contempt.” (v.9)
Do you know anyone like that? Have you ever been like that?
Let me substitute a word and ask again. A very close synonym for ‘righteous’ is ‘right.’
Do you know someone who is sure that they are right and views others with contempt? Have you ever been like that?
Hmm… Jesus is meddlin’.
Two Men (Luke 18:9-14)
Two men went up into the Temple to pray. One was a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee was very public and loud, “praying” by thanking God how much better he was than other sinful people, even singling out the tax collector praying beside him. He also thanked God for his acts of fasting and tithing.
In contrast, the tax collector was some distance away with face down, praying, “God, be merciful to me, the sinner!”
In parables, there is often a surprise, a turning of the tables. It’s not particularly hidden in this parable. The Pharisee would have been expected to offer good and right prayers. The tax collector shouldn’t have even been in the Temple. But their behavior is not what the audience would expect. The Pharisee is believably over-righteous, over-confident, showy, clearly in the wrong, though fasting, tithing, and praying are all good activities. It is clear that his attitude is all wrong. The tax collector, outcast and spurned by good Jewish people, would not be expected to be in the Temple (or very welcome). But there he is aware of and confessing his sinfulness and pleading for God’s mercy.
So the tables have turned and the big ‘twist’ at the end is the reader being left pondering which character they more closely resemble. We are told in verse 9 that Jesus told the parable TO some people who trusted their own righteousness and viewed others with contempt. So, it’s clear where the twist primarily lands. But suppose there were tax collectors, prostitutes, sick, or Gentiles who heard this. They would also hear the twist, but in the other direction; if they were humble before the Lord, they would be lifted up. This parable has a double twist.
Wait, Are You Talking to Me?
Sometimes it’s easy to understand the teaching, but hard to find ourselves properly in the story. It’s safe to be the all-knowing reader and think, “Oh yeah, look at him working both sides of the crowd.” But where are we?
Let me go back to my original word-substitution. Do you know someone who is sure that they are right and views others with contempt? Have you ever been like that?
Hmm… maybe now I’m meddlin’!
My mind immediately goes to politics and the deep divisions in our country and even sometimes between family and friends. I know what I think about this or that… immigration, racism, the economy, the Republicans, the Democrats, and with only a few exceptions I am surrounded by people who think the same. I’m pretty convinced I’m right and those other people are wrong. It’s easy to slide into contempt and worse.
Imagine Jesus’ parable set in modern terms. And let’s substitute in both sides, because when it comes to this all have sinned.
“Lord, thank you that I am not like those other people: selfish, manipulative, deceived, or even like that [fill in the blank] over there.” I do this and I do that; I’m one of the good guys!
Have you been guilty of that kind of thinking? Even that kind of praying?! I admit that I have…
What does humility look like in our modern social and political context?
Wash Your Face (Matthew 6:16-18)
In the Matthew 6 passage, Jesus offers counsel regarding one of the practices the proud Pharisee mentions in his prayer in the parable. Jesus says, “Whenever you fast, do not put on a gloomy face… [to be noticed when fasting].” “But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face so that your fasting will not be noticed by others, but by your Father.” (vv.16-18)
This acting in order to be noticed, in order to draw attention to ourselves… sometimes we call it “tooting our own horn.” In the world of social media – Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, TikTok – it’s being “performative.” Do I change my profile picture to a flag or a color or a symbol because I care about a cause or because I want to be seen caring about a cause? Indeed, do I post memes and media bits about a political issue because I am passionate about that issue or because I want to be seen being passionate about that issue or distinguishing myself from others, like that ______ over there.
Jesus not only calls out this kind of performative speech and behavior, he also sets humility as the standard for what pleases the Lord, what is ‘justified’ before the Lord.
Humility is the attitude, the heart-posture, of the one who takes seriously the Great Commandment to love the Lord with all you are and all you’ve got, and to love your neighbor as yourself. Humility chooses to put others first, to love and serve and “see” them for the sake of Christ. If there is anything in our behavior to be seen, it should draw attention to God, not to ourselves.
Thinking about politics, beliefs, and that sort of thing, I remember some of debates and issues in our presbytery some years ago. It had become usual to have some topic or vote come onto the floor of presbytery and then have long lines of people at a ‘for’ and ‘against’ microphone, saying their bit, sometimes in great anger against the other side. I had an opportunity one of those times to set the tone with my friend Kate. We had different views on the issue and decided to meet together weekly for a number of weeks before kicking off the debate at presbytery. I call Kate my friend… it was actually that process that cemented our friendship. And here’s what came out of it… we were able to discuss the topic at hand much more deeply and with more comprehension of what was really at stake than any of a dozen or more of those line up at the microphone sessions. We added nuance to our own understanding and we came to deeply respect each other’s conviction, compassion, and humanity. And we shared that process and those insights with our presbytery. I’d like to think it changed the nature of discussion and debate at our presbytery.
I think what we did was grounded in humility and trying to live out the Great Commission, to serve one another and the others in the presbytery. It wasn’t about scoring points for “my side” or simply to be seen on one side or the other, but born out of a desire to serve the community. I hope it was honoring to the Lord!
What does humility that glorifies God look like in your speech and behavior? Are there ways that you are ‘performative’ when you could be serving and loving those you are in community with for Jesus’ sake?
Jesus meddles because he loves us. May we have ears to hear! Amen.
Some Music Used
- Prelude: Jesus Christ is the Way (Rick Bean, piano)
- Choir: I Want Jesus to Walk with me
- To God be the Glory
- Build My Life
- In My Life, Be Glorified
- Postlude: I’m Gonna Eat at the Welcome Table (Rick Bean, piano)