The Message, October 23, 2022: "Be the Sinner!" Luke 18:9-14

The Message, October 23, 2022: "Be the Sinner!" Luke 18:9-14

Author: Rev. Scott W. Cousineau
October 25, 2022


“Be the Sinner!”
A Message by Rev. Scott W. Cousineau
Luke 18:9-14

            This is an unusual story. It does not fit our ear very well. It does not follow the familiar pattern to which we are accustomed. Who do you root for in the story? The characters are complex and flawed. There is no clear-cut hero or villain. We like for there to be a “good guy” and a “bad guy.”

            Jesus tells us that two people went up to the Temple to pray. A Pharisee and a tax collector. Jesus does not initially tell us anything more about them, but at first blush we want to “boo … hiss” for BOTH of them! We assign our own ideas and prejudices with us as Jesus begins the parable.

            Neither of them are especially likable characters.

            We have already been conditioned to dislike the Pharisees. Throughout our reading of the Gospels, we see and hear the Pharisees attack and criticize Jesus. We know that they have often plotted against him and tried to trick and trap him. So … right away we do not like him.

            Then there is the tax collector. Two thousand years later, we do not have any love for tax collectors. Even though we know that the Internal Revenue Service is just doing its job, we do not put the IRS agents on the top of our Christmas card lists.

            So then, what are we to do with them? Sometimes I watch a football game and wonder if it is possible for BOTH teams to lose. Is that the way that we approach this story?

            Let us take a closer look.

            Two men went up to the Temple to pray. The devout observed prayer three times per day: morning prayer at 9:00 AM, midday prayer at noon, then afternoon prayer at 3:00 PM. They could pray wherever they were, but prayers offered at the Temple were believed to be more efficacious.

            Two men went to the Temple to fulfill their obligation to pray. However, one man turned that religious observance into a contest. The Pharisee. He began his prayer as we begin our prayers, by thanking God. But he did not thank God in the way that one normally would. The Pharisee did not thank God for the blessings that he had received. Rather, he thanked God that he was not like THEM … those sinners, especially that tax collector over there.

            And as we heard, he went on to exalt himself. He listed all of his observances. He told God about how wonderful He, the Pharisee, was. “In case you had not noticed, O God, let me tell you how great I am! Are you impressed, O God?”

            As I said a moment ago, the characters in this story are complex. The Pharisee is not a BAD guy. He is exceedingly faithful.

            He observed his daily prayers.

            He fasted twice per week. Jewish Law prescribed only one absolutely obligatory fast on the Day of Atonement. Those who wished to gain special merit also fasted on Mondays and Thursdays. (It should be noted that Mondays and Thursdays also just happened to be the market days, so the city would be full of people. Those who were fasting often whitened their faces and wore disheveled clothing so that all would notice.)

            The Pharisee also tithed on everything. Again, Jewish Law only required that people tithe on their produce, but the Pharisee tithed all of his property. He was very generous in his giving!

            So, we see that on the surface, the Pharisee had the appearance of doing all the right things. He fulfilled all of the obligations of the Law and faith, and then some!

            Of course, the parable would not be a parable if there was not a twist, a lesson to be learned. The Pharisee’s public observances covered his true character. The Pharisee did not go to the Temple to pray to God. He went there to brag about how “good” he was. He prayed so that God … and others … could see and hear.

            What is more, the Pharisee asked nothing of God. He presumes that his “goodness” and his piety have him covered. He believes that he has no need of God’s grace of mercy. His works have taken care of his justification.

            The Pharisee stands away from others in order to maintain his purity, but also stands in a manner that all can see and speaks in a manner so that all can hear. “Look at me, O God. Ain’t I great!?”

            And we contrast that character with the Publican, the tax collector.

            For the First Century audience, he was a despicable character. He was working as an agent for a foreign, occupying government collecting taxes from his own people. He was a participant in a cruel and corrupt system. If we remember the story of Zaccheus, we recall that tax collectors often took an extra cut for themselves. Politically, the tax collector was a traitor, and religiously he was unclean. Overall, he was a reprehensible character.

            So, Jesus, are we supposed to cheer for him? We do not like him!

            Just like the Pharisee was not in totality a BAD guy, Jesus was not saying that the tax collector is really a GOOD guy either. He is still a tax collector, a cheater and a crook. But his prayer was more genuine.

            He humbled himself before God. He began with the familiar words from Psalm 51: “Have mercy on me, O God.” He prostrated himself before God and confessed his sin. He begged for God’s mercy upon him. He recognized his need for God’s grace.

            It is said that no one who is proud can enter into Heaven. The gate is low so that no one can enter into it unless they are on their knees.

            The two parables that we explored these past two Sundays, the Parable of the Persistent Widow and the Unjust Judge, and the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector are presented by Jesus as parables about prayer. Last week, we learned that we are to be persistent and determined in our prayers, encouraged and strengthened so as not to be discouraged when faced with the challenges and obstacles of the world.

            This week we learn about genuine prayer, true prayer. True prayer comes from setting ourselves and setting our lives beside the Way of God. The question that we are to consider is NOT: “Am I as good as my neighbor?” Rather, it is: “Am I as good as God would have me to be?”

            There is a cautionary lesson for us here.

            Were you tempted at any point to think to yourself, “Thank goodness that I am not a sinner like that Pharisee?”

            We know that humility is important for those who follow the Way of Jesus Christ. Yet achieving humility can be tricky. We often judge ourselves by comparing ourselves to others. “Well, I am more humble than so-and-so.” One cannot exalt themselves without criticizing, minimizing, or denigrating the other. It is hard to look our neighbor in the eye if we are looking down our noses at them. It is hard to serve our neighbors if down deep we believe that we are better than they are.

            When we set our lives beside the life and Way of Jesus Christ, when we set our lives beside the holiness of God, all that is left to say is, “God, in your grace, be merciful on me, a sinner.”

            We do not typically like to think of ourselves in that way. When Jesus is teaching and being critical or condemning, we tend to think that he is talking about someone else. “Surely not I, Lord. Look at that sinner over there!”

            The sermon title this morning, “Be the sinner!” are three words that I have never spoken to a congregation before. They are NOT an encouragement to go out and sin! They are the recognition, the acknowledgement that we do. It is the recognition that there are times when we fail to follow the Way of Christ as closely as we should … or could. And they are a reminder that we stand in need of God’s grace.

            “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions. Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin.” (Psalm 51:1)



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