For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.
I think we’d all agree that English is a funny language. Every region of the country has its own idioms, its own phrases, things that makes sense to us but sound ridiculous to people from other countries. In English, we have phrases like “a dime a dozen” to refer to something that is common. Or “too big for his britches” doesn’t speak at all to the size of one’s jeans. Rather it refers to someone who is over-confident or full of self-importance. Or if something is not complicated, we say, “It’s not rocket science!” Every language has its own idioms that make perfect sense to its own people.
I found two, what I would call, unusual idioms, one from China and one from Spain, which apply to our scripture lesson for today. The one from Chinese is translated, “A crane among a flock of chickens.” It refers to someone who is better than those around them. So, if you are ever in China and someone refers to you as a crane among a flock of chickens, you should take that as a compliment. Unless they say, He just thinks he’s a crane among a flock of chickens. Then they’re saying you’re too big for your britches.
The Spanish idiom is more modern, and its literal translation is, “you think you’re the last Coca Cola in the desert”. It refers to someone who is proud, someone who acts superior to everybody around them.
That’s the kind of people Jesus is speaking to in today’s scripture lesson: people who think they’re the last Coca Cola in the desert. It’s tempting to think this story isn’t about us. But what if it is? As I’ve said before, Jesus’ stories are always a glimpse into the heart of God. And Jesus’ stories are meant to change our life. Not just to inspire us. Not just to challenge us. Jesus’ stories expose our true character and motivations and challenge us to follow Christ with a fearless commitment. That kind of commitment will change our life. So, unless we really are the last Coca Cola in the desert, then this story is definitely for everyone in this room.
Our story begins with these challenging words: 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. This is a man who thinks he’s the last Coca Cola in the desert.
There’s an old joke about a psychiatrist who is seeing a new patient for the first time. The psychiatrist says, I’m not aware of your issue, so maybe you should start at the beginning. The patient rolls his eyes and sighs, Alright. In the beginning, I created the heavens and the earth.
The Pharisee in our story seems to think he’s God’s gift to . . . God. And, let’s face it, according to conventional values, he’s an upright guy. He’s not a robber, nor an evildoer, nor an adulterer. Surely Jesus is holding him up as an example of how we should all live, not how we shouldn’t. But Jesus began this story by saying two men went up to the temple to pray, a Pharisee and a tax collector. The Pharisee was the polar opposite of the tax collector.
Tax collectors were hated by the Jewish people of Jesus’ day. They were often Jewish citizens who were hired by the Roman government to collect taxes from their fellow Jews. And Rome looked the other way if the tax collector added a few extra surcharges on top of the already-high taxes.
The tax collectors were held in such contempt that they weren’t allowed to testify in court. They were considered social outcasts, and disgraces to their families. Such men were considered the lowest of the low, so much so that they were excommunicated from the synagogue.
Now let’s listen in on the tax collector’s prayer. Jesus continues in verse 13, 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.’ Wow! At least this man knows what he is, a sinner in need of God’s mercy. Then Jesus gives the punch line to this story:
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.
Why, why does Jesus do this? Why is He so controversial? Why does He criticize the fine, upstanding religious leader and praise the worthless tax collector? Of course, we know the answer: with every story He told, Jesus was trying to reveal the character of God and the nature of God’s kingdom. His goal is never to shame us, but to show us what we’re missing out on when we don’t understand the heart of God. So, what does Jesus want us to learn from these two men and their prayers?
Notice that one man stood before God in his self-righteousness; the other man stood before God in his brokenness. Which did God prefer?
Over 1600 years ago, the theologian and philosopher St. Augustine wrote to one of his students about what it takes to understand the truth of God. He said it requires three qualities. The first is humility; the second is humility; the third, humility . . .
The reason some people can’t move on to positive change in their spiritual lives is because they’ve never experienced real brokenness. As a pastor, I’ll ask people who are going through a life changing time in their lives, have you cried about it? Because this is the point where most of us walk away. This is the point where we retreat into our comfortable lives and miss out on the joy of confession and repentance.
We avoid brokenness as much as possible. We try to protect our ego, our image, our self-sufficiency as much as possible. I’m a good person, especially compared to them! Look at all the good things I’ve done. Look at how I’ve played by the rules. We’re still trying to earn God’s approval. And there’s an inverse relationship between earning God’s approval and receiving God’s mercy. The tax collector stood before God in his brokenness.
Two men went up to the temple to pray. One thought he was the last Coca Cola in the desert. The other knew he was a sinner and the only chance he had was God’s mercy. There are five words used to express the idea of mercy, compassion or pity in the New Testament. In our story today, when the tax collector prays, God, have mercy on me, a sinner, he uses an unusual word for mercy. He uses a Greek word that refers to pardoning a criminal or making atonement for another’s sin. Atonement in the Hebrew Bible is translated as “to cover.” God instituted the practice among the Hebrew people of making an animal sacrifice to cover their sins. This was an atoning sacrifice. When the tax collector pleads for mercy in this prayer, he’s saying, God, I’m a sinner. I’ll never be good enough to deserve your forgiveness. I need you to take my place and be my atoning sacrifice. And, of course, Christ Himself became that atoning sacrifice.
Two men went up to the temple to pray. One man exalted himself and left unchanged; the other man humbled himself and left justified. What did you expect when you came to worship today? Did you expect to enter into the presence of the living God, the Creator of the universe, the Almighty? Did you expect God to meet you here? More importantly, did you expect God to change your life?
It’s astounding to me how little we expect from God. We expect to walk out these church doors exactly the same people as we came in. And that’s the tragic outcome of our self-righteousness. I’m good enough. I’m comfortable with my current priorities and agenda and good deeds. Nothing in me is broken. Nothing in me needs to die. If that’s true, then why did Jesus say, whoever wants to be My disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow Me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. (Matt. 16: 24-25)?
The tax collector stood in the presence of the holy God and didn’t try to hide his sin and his brokenness and his shame. He recognized God’s holiness and his own helplessness. So, he confessed his sin and cried out for mercy, and he received the fullness of God’s love, the pardoning of all his sins, justification by God’s grace. Not because he deserved it, simply because that’s who God is and what God offers to those who humble themselves and seek Him with all their heart.
Dutch Catholic priest and author Henri Nouwen seemed to understand our struggle with self-righteousness and humility when he wrote this beautiful prayer:
I am so afraid to open my clenched fists!
Who will I be when I have nothing left to hold on to?
Who will I be when I stand before You with empty hands?
Please help me to gradually open my hands
and to discover that I am not what I own,
but what You want to give me.
Two men went up to the temple to pray. Only one of them left there pardoned, changed, set free from the burden of his sin. What made the difference? One man showed up with empty hands and asked God to do for him what he couldn’t do for himself. And God did the rest. I don’t know what you were expecting when you came to church this morning. I hope you were expecting to draw closer to God and be changed. If so, then come to God with honest confession, humility and empty hands. And leave here changed by the mercy of the God who gave His own life on the cross to save us and give us eternal life.