Sermon for the Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost
October 23, 2016, St. Paul Lutheran Church, Wallis, Texas
Sermon Text: Luke 18:9-17
Sermon Theme: “Actions Flow from Attitudes”
(Sources: Anderson’s Cycle C Preaching Workbook; original ideas; Online Jokes about Self-Righteousness, cybersalt.org; Online Emphasis Illustrations and Commentaries; Online Evangelical Outpost; Harper’s Bible Dictionary; footnotes, Life Application Study Bible)
Grace, mercy and peace to you from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ.
Two elderly Southern women, attending their Full-Gospel church, were sitting together in the front pew of the church, listening to a very fiery preacher. When this preacher condemned the sin of stealing, these two ladies cried out at the top of their lungs, “AMEN, PREACHER!”
When this preacher condemned the sin of lust, they yelled again, “PREACH IT, REVEREND!”
And when the preacher condemned the sin of lying, they jumped to their feet and screamed, “RIGHT ON, BROTHER! TELL IT LIKE IT IS! AMEN!”
But when the preacher condemned the sin of gossip, the two got very quiet. One turned to the other and said, “He’s quit preaching and now he’s meddlin’!”
The attitude of these two faithful, church-going women is similar to the attitude of many folks when they read or hear the parable in today’s sermon text. It’s a familiar parable, but in its familiarity, people miss the twist that Jesus intended. If folks go away thinking that the Pharisee is the villain in the story and the Tax Collector is the hero, they missed Jesus’ intent.
In the parable, a Pharisee and a tax collector walk into a temple. The Pharisee stands before the altar and prays, no doubt with palms lifted up to heaven and raised eyes. The Pharisee prays, “God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.”
In contrast, the tax collector, standing off to the side, looking down, not able to lift his eyes up toward God, and beating his breast, prays, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” Jesus of course says that the tax collector is the one of the two justified. No doubt, those listening to Jesus tell this story, were staring at the Pharisee and thinking, “What a self-righteous group of men, those Pharisees are! They are wicked! Thank God I’m not a Pharisee!” Before we go any further, let’s make sure we understand why the people felt the way they did about tax collectors and Pharisees.
These tax collectors were known as “petty tax collectors”; they were not the main tax collectors in the Roman Empire. They were hated by their fellow Jews because they worked for Rome, the hated foreign government which subjugated Judah, and because they squeezed all they could get out of the people. They erected toll gates on roads and at bridges and harbors, and they collected duty on goods being taken to market, and they even taxed common articles like salt.
Of the three Jewish sects, — the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and the Essenes, — the Pharisees were the most extreme in their scrupulous observance of the Levitical Laws and Temple rituals. In war, they would choose to die rather than defend themselves on the Sabbath. Outwardly, they were pious; inwardly, they were empty tombs, lacking true righteousness. They were generally regarded as hypocrites.
Neither Pharisees nor tax-collectors had a very high “goodness” rating, but in the parable, Jesus thought more highly of the tax-collector. Yet, the moment we condemn the Pharisees, we condemn ourselves with as much certainty as the Pharisee did when he judged the tax collector, or anyone else considered less pious than he. You see the twist? Doing so makes us self-righteous.
Here’s the problem. The Pharisee did what he did, not out of love for and obedience to God, but in an effort to justify himself before God and mankind. His blatant attitude was an affront to God. We have to assume that the tax-collector had been true to his reputation of immoral and irresponsible behavior, especially when it came to bilking people out of money, and thus violating the 7th Commandment. Both the Pharisee and the tax collector had failed God.
Many actions of the Pharisee were done in the image of God, — such as he fasted, he tithed, he worshipped, he prayed, and he did more than what was called for. Those are Godly actions. But his actions are offset by his attitude, — which is self-righteous and holier-than-thou, and doing things for the wrong reasons.
The actions of the tax collector which were commendable and Godly were his humility, his honesty, and his sincere contrition. Jesus approved his actions because they came out of a sincere need for God’s love and forgiveness. To reflect the image of God, you would have to wed the attitude of the tax collector to the actions of the Pharisee. If we
criticize the attitude of the Pharisee and approve the attitude of the tax collector, while not considering our own attitude, we are in danger of being self-righteous.
That’s why it always bothered me when preachers pointed their finger at the congregation, and said, “you,” rather than “we.” Because it bothered me as a church member, now as a pastor, I have always attempted to use the pronoun “we” rather than “you.” “YOU need to hear this, YOU need to do that, YOU are responsible for your actions, YOU must have true sorrow for YOUR sins. No, WE need to hear this, WE need to do that, WE are responsible for our actions.
It is a fact that our lives contain two ingredients, — attitudes and actions, — and these determine our lives. Actions flow from attitudes. Good attitudes often lead to good actions, and bad attitudes often lead to destructive actions.
However, this is not always true. Take the case of the Pharisee. He led a good life, but his attitude toward God was way off track. The tax collector showed a humble attitude toward God, but he hadn’t yet learned how to translate attitude into action.
Which comes first? Does attitude change action or does action change attitude? Actually, it goes both ways; but the former is more true than the latter. Neither of these two men lived up to the image of God within them. To be whole in relationship to God, the attitude of the tax collector must be combined with the actions of the Pharisee. When that happens, a person is approaching the image of God.
Keep in mind how Luke began this parable. He said, “To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable.” You see, self-righteousness is dangerous. It leads to pride, causes a person to despise others, and can prevent him or her from learning anything from God. Jesus wanted people to be able to recognize this sin in themselves.
There’s an old fable that’s been told so many times there must be two dozen variations on it. In it, someone dies, goes to the gates of heaven, and either an angel or St. Peter, depending on which version is told, tells him he has to have a thousand points to enter heaven through the gates. “Did you earn any points while on earth?” the gatekeeper asks.
The person then starts listing such things as, ‘I went to church regularly, I read the Bible every week, I taught Sunday School, I gave ten percent of my income to the church, and I took food to feed the street people.’ The gatekeeper took out his calculator and said he would allow ten points for each one of those.
‘That gives you a total of 60 points; you have 940 points to go.’ The person listed more earthly things he did that weren’t as good as the previous ones, so he was given 5 points each for them. He wasn’t even half way to the thousand points when he ran out of good stuff he did, so the gatekeeper asked, ‘Do you think you’ll ever get into heaven?’
‘Only be the grace of God will I be able to make it,’ he responded. ‘Exactly,’ said the gatekeeper, and he flung the gate to heaven wide open.
You see, the real message of the parable, and the real message of the New Testament is that we are saved by grace through faith alone. Jesus gave up His life for us on the cross so that we could be reconciled to the Father in Heaven. There is nothing we can do to earn salvation; it is a free gift. The gift is the shed blood of Christ which opens wide the gates of heaven for us! Amen.
The peace of God which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.