A sermon by Michael Cheuk, Pastor, University Baptist Church, Charlottesville, Va., on October 27, 2013.
Imagine Jesus was here at UBC this morning, and imagine him telling this story:
Once upon a time – well closer to the year 2008 – on a sunny and cold December morning, three individuals walked up the steps of a church to attend Sunday morning service.
The first individual was a striking woman in her thirties. As she walked up the steps of the church, the ushers also greeted her warmly. “Hi, Phyllis!” they said. “Glad to see you this morning!” Everyone at the church knew Phyllis. She was a popular Sunday School teacher in the youth department. She sang in the choir. In addition to her financial contribution to the church, she gave generously of her finances and time to other community organizations. She was raised in a well-to-do family, but her volunteer involvement with Head Start opened her eyes to the harsh realities that the poor lived under. She believed in social justice, that there shouldn’t be such an income gap between the haves and the have-nots. She was concerned with the direction the country was going . . . big corporations rigging the economic system in their favor, at the expense of the poor and the disenfranchised. She believed that government had the responsibility to maintain a safety net for the most vulnerable in society. “Social justice and equality” was Phyllis’s mantra.
Several steps behind Phyllis was distinguished man in his early sixties, dressed in a suit. As he walked up the steps of the church, the ushers greeted him warmly. “Hi, Phil!” they said. “Glad to see you this morning!” Everyone at the church knew Phil. He held almost every leadership position at the church. He attended church every Sunday morning and Wednesday night, and he tithed. He was raised in a poor household, but he worked long and hard to become a successful small business owner who created many jobs in the community. Phil believed in personal responsibility, and he preached that to his children. He was concerned with the direction the country was going . . . big government programs that were taking away personal responsibility and creating a sense of entitlement and dependency among the citizens. “Personal responsibility and morality” was Phil’s mantra.
Trailing behind the first two was a seventy-year-old man. As he slowly walked up the steps of the church, the ushers didn’t seem to recognize his face. He wore an expensive suit, but he had his head down, trying to avoid making eye contact with anyone else. One of the ushers went over with an outstretched hand.
“Hello! I’m John. Welcome to Every Baptist Church. Pardon me for not recognizing you; I’m guessing this is your first time here?”
“Yes,” said the man, still gazing down without making eye contact.
“And your name . . .?”
“Bernard,” replied the guest.
“Well, Bernard, welcome!” replied John as he handed the man a worship bulletin.
To John the usher, there was something familiar about this guest’s face, but he couldn’t place it. Bernard was the CEO of an investment securities firm. He started his firm in 1960 as a penny stock trader with $5,000, earned from working as a lifeguard and a sprinkler installer. His firm developed an innovative computer information technology that eventually became the NASDAQ stock market, where Bernard served as the non-executive Chairman.
While John the usher couldn’t place Bernard, Phyllis and Phil immediately recognized him. They couldn’t believe that he would show up in church! In their separate ways, Phil and Phyllis knew about this man, not as “Bernard,” but as “Bernie,” as in Bernie Madoff, the former NASDAQ chairman, who had just been accused of operating a Ponzi scheme that is considered to be the largest financial fraud in U.S. history. In other words, Bernie got filthy rich – filthy because he got rich by swindling the savings of thousands of individuals and institutions.
As the worship service proceeded to a prayer time, Phyllis offered this prayer: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people. . . . I teach Sunday School every week, and not only do I give of my time and talents to the church, I also volunteer in my community. Even though I was born into wealth, I work hard on behalf of justice for the poor and the vulnerable in our society. I’m not like those who blame the victims for their problems, and who think that an unregulated market can solve anything. Just look at Bernie Madoff, he’s just the latest poster boy of how our economic system can lead to fraud and is the source of many of our societal problems.”
While Phyllis was praying, Phil silently prayed: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people. . . . I worship you every Sunday, I’ve paid my dues serving in leadership positions, and I give a tenth of my money to the church. I work hard and I take personal responsibility for my actions. I’ve pulled myself up from my bootstraps, and I’m not like those who are too lazy to work or who expect other people and the government to take care of them. I’m certainly not like that Bernie Madoff who defrauded thousands of investors of billions of dollars.”
While Phil and Phyllis were praying, Bernie stood at a distance. He would not even look up, but kept his head down and said repeatedly, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
Imagine now Jesus ending this parable by saying, “I tell you that Bernie, rather than the others, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
If Jesus told this parable today, I imagine that some of us would be scandalized. “What?! Bernie went home justified and right in the eyes of God, and not the good and faithful members of Every Baptist Church?” I imagine that two thousand years ago, Jesus’ listeners were just as scandalized when he first told this parable about a Pharisee and a tax collector.
In Jesus’ day, the Pharisees were highly respected lay people who took their faith very seriously. They believed that religion extended beyond Temple worship, and they applied Jewish law to their everyday activities in order to show that all of life belonged to God. They held to a high standard for personal morality and they were committed to social justice.
On the other hand, back in the days of the Roman Empire, tax collectors were despised. Tax collectors were seen as robbers who got rich by overtaxing their neighbors and skimming off the top. They were seen as evildoers because they worked for the oppressive Roman Empire occupying Palestine at that time. While they might not have been adulterers in the strict sense of the word, there was no denying that they were in bed with the enemies of the Jewish people.
In Jesus’ parable, we are forced to face the fact that we are more like the Pharisee than we would like to admit, especially anytime when we might feel outraged that God’s grace and mercy is freely offered even to the most despicable of sinners. Like Phyllis and Phil the Pharisees, we are tempted to think that our respectability and our religiosity will earn God’s favor. And every time we use the “us vs. them” language to exalt ourselves and denigrate others, we’ve prayed the Pharisee’s prayer. We may not have had the nerve to pray it aloud, but perhaps many of us have had these thoughts: “Oh sure, I’m not perfect, but I’m not like those people. You can fill in the blank for who “those people” are to you. At certain moments in our lives, we’re tempted to think, “At least I go to church, I vote the right way, I’m faithful to my spouse, I work hard, pay taxes, and provide for my children. Thank God!” Like the Pharisees, we are confident of our own righteousness and we look down on everyone else.
But no matter how good we might try to come across to others, we all have areas in our lives that are not pretty, both in our past and in our present. We make bad decisions and we are exposed in our sins and failings. We don’t measure up both in our own eyes and in the eyes of others. Whether through our own sin, and/or whether through our very existence in a broken world, we find ourselves in the position of the “sinner” in this parable.
The truth is, we are always the sinner in this parable, and we are invited to adopt the posture of the tax collector. Instead of getting defensive and combative, instead of blaming others or justifying ourselves, the tax collector drops all pretense of respectability and righteousness, and in seven words, he petitions a humble request for mercy followed by an honest and profound assessment of himself. In the Greek, he literally prays: “God, have mercy on me, the sinner.” Not a sinner, one among many. But the sinner. In this sinner’s prayer, there are no comparisons with other sinners. There is only a simple prayer between him and God. It is the prayer of a person not confident of his own self-righteousness. In that prayer, he did not look up to heaven demanding his rights nor did he look down on others demeaning their wrongs. He looked into his own troubled breast and humbly offered his heart to God. Jesus said in response to that prayer: “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God.”
Here, we see the scandal of God’s grace. It is a grace that humbles those who exalt themselves, and exalts those who are humble. In this parable, Jesus reminds us once again that we are never so righteous as to be beyond the need for God’s mercy, and we are never so wretched as to be beyond the reach of God’s grace.
In our Baptist tradition, there is a great emphasis on saying the “sinner’s prayer” to “invite Jesus into our hearts” to be saved from our sin. But after that, we often forget to continue praying a sinner’s prayer confessing our sins either corporately or privately. While our “sinner’s prayer” has only been around for about fifty years, a version of the sinner’s prayer that the tax collector prayed in Luke 18:13 has been used by Christians since the fifth century. Eastern Orthodox Christians would pray this prayer repeatedly to achieve an inner stillness in order to experience the presence of Christ. This prayer, called the “Jesus Prayer” is still widely practiced in the Eastern Orthodox churches, and it can be said deliberately with the rhythm of one’s breathing: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
During this week, when you feel a need to justify yourself, when you are tempted to look down on others, when you feel that you’re at the end of your rope, let’s ask ourselves: “Is there anything of the Pharisee in me? Where do I need most God’s mercy?” As you look into your heart, may you also say the Jesus Prayer, and allow God’s grace and mercy to justify and make you right in God’s eyes. Amen.
 N. T. Wright, Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense (HarperSanFrancisco, 2006), p.168.
Leadership coach and church consultant at MichaelKCheuk.com. He is a Good Faith Media governing board member, who lives in Charlottesville, Virginia.