Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | October 27, 2013

2013.10.27 “A New Kind of Christian?” – Luke 18:9-14

Central United Methodist Church

A New Kind of Christian?

Pastor David L. Haley

October 27, 2013

Luke 18: 9 – 14

 

Jesus told his next story to some who were complacently pleased with themselves over their moral performance and looked down their noses at the common people: “Two men went up to the Temple to pray, one a Pharisee, the other a tax man. The Pharisee posed and prayed like this: ‘Oh, God, I thank you that I am not like other people — robbers, crooks, adulterers, or, heaven forbid, like this tax man. I fast twice a week and tithe on all my income.’

“Meanwhile the tax man, slumped in the shadows, his face in his hands, not daring to look up, said, ‘God, give mercy. Forgive me, a sinner.'”

Jesus commented, “This tax man, not the other, went home made right with God. If you walk around with your nose in the air, you’re going to end up flat on your face, but if you’re content to be simply yourself, you will become more than yourself.” – Luke 18: 9 – 14, The Message, by Eugene H. Peterson

 

If we call ourselves Christians, we may or may not want to hear what the younger generations think about Christians.

In a 2007 book, unChristian David Kinnaman documented how an overwhelming percentage of sixteen to twenty-nine year olds view Christians with hostility, resentment and disdain.

According to Kinnaman’s study, here are the percentages of people outside the church who think that the following words describe present-day Christianity:

* anti-homosexual 91%

* judgmental 87%

* hypocritical 85%

* old-fashioned 78%

* too political 75%

* out of touch with reality 72%

* insensitive to others 70%

* boring 68%

It would be hard to overestimate, says Kinnaman, “how firmly people reject — and feel rejected by — Christians” (19).  Or – he suggests – think about it this way: “When you introduce yourself as a Christian to a friend, neighbor, or business associate who is an outsider, you might as well have it tattooed on your arm: anti-homosexual, gay-hater, homophobic. I doubt you think of yourself in these terms, but that’s what outsiders think of you” (93).

Sadly, says Kinnaman, such negative views of Christians aren’t superficial stereotypes with no basis in reality. Nor are the critics people who’ve had no contact with churches or Christians. It would be a tragic mistake, he argues, for believers to protest that outsider outrage at Christians is a misperception. Rather, it’s based upon their real experiences with today’s Christians. In addition to statistical research, the book includes anecdotes from people who were interviewed, follow-on comments at the end of each chapter by some 30 Christian leaders, and reflections about how we’ve come to such a place and how we might make it better. (Dan Clendenin, The Journey with Jesus: Book Notes, a Review of UnChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity, David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons, 2007.)

Do you – like me – find this disturbing, to be thought of this way because of the attitudes and actions of others?  Not only that others might think of us this way, but – worst of all – that often it is true, Christians are this way. And, if it is true, what can we do to reverse the negative stereotypes?

What we might do to begin is to hear and heed the story Jesus tells us today, the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. Because in such stories as this, Jesus warned us about the dangers of spiritual arrogance, and judging ourselves better than others.

Initially, the story may sound like a joke, along the lines of the story about the Pastor, the Priest, and the Rabbi who walk into a bar. Except in this case, it’s the story of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector who go to the Temple to pray.  A tax collector, I know, you say, but tell me who a Pharisee is?

If you only read the Gospels, you might think that Pharisees were all bad guys, but in fact they were the good guys of the time.  The Pharisees were our kind of people. They lived devout lives, they read the Scriptures and prayed daily, they gave to the poor, they were the kind of people most of us want to be, when we say we want to be “Christian.”  As Fred Craddock observes, “The Pharisees were the faithful, dependable, tithing types who pay the salaries of ministers so they can preach on the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector.” No, not all of them were perfect, just as all of us Christians are not either. But going into the story, of the two, the Pharisee is the good guy.

There is somebody else praying in the temple on this day, over in the corner by himself, a tax collector. Ancient Palestinian tax collectors were not at all like contemporary IRS agents paid to enforce the law; rather, they were participants in a cruel and corrupt system, working for a foreign government, not only collecting taxes but extorting their own people. Politically they were traitors, religiously they were unclean. They were hated by everyone, and for that reason usually mentioned in the same breath with sinners. Again, before anything happens, the tax collector is a bad guy, his sins are real.  If you were the Pharisee, who tried to be good and live right, according to the Jewish Law, all his life, how would you feel? What if you were praying, and instead of a tax collector the other person in the room was a terrorist, a murderer, a child molester?  Then what?  How would you feel?  So the Pharisee is not a venomous villain and the tax collector is not generous Joe the bartender or Goldie the good-hearted hooker.

But in parables, remember, nothing or no one are what they seem. One commentator compared parables to fishing lures:  they are full of attractive things such as feathers and bright colors, but inside each one is a sharp barb, on which we are caught.  (Marjorie Procter-Smith, Feasting on the Word, Year C. Volume 4, p. 213.)

Near the altar, the Pharisee prays: “Oh, God, I thank you that I am not like other people — robbers, crooks, adulterers, or, heaven forbid, like this – ugh! – tax man.” After all, I fast twice a week and tithe on all my income.’

Meanwhile, over the corner, the tax man, slumped in the shadows, his face in his hands, doesn’t dare look up. Under his breath he mumbles, barely audible: “Lord, have mercy. Forgive me, a sinner.”

And then comes the bombshell of the story, when Jesus says, “I tell you, this tax man, not the other, went home right with God. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” Or, as Eugene Peterson puts it: “If you walk around with your nose in the air, you’re going to end up flat on your face, but if you’re content to be simply yourself, you will become more than yourself.”

I know what you’re wondering, because I wonder the same thing: Which am I, the Pharisee or the tax collector?

To be honest, who of us has not felt a bit self-satisfied on a Sunday morning? “O Lord, I thank thee that I am not like other people: my next door neighbor who is enjoying a round of golf right now instead of attending worship; my friend in the other political party who does not understand your will for our nation; or that scruffy-looking worshipper two pews over from me.  After all, I am here every Sunday; I pray, I give faithfully, I sing in the choir, I serve on two church committees.”

And yes, we confess, sometimes we are arrogant and judgmental and condescending, and sometimes we say and do stupid things. The only difference between you and me is, I say and do them out loud here in church before a congregation of people, like the Pharisee, up here near the altar. Every pastor likely has a list of stupid things we have said and done in church, things we later regret and which we had not said.  (No, I will not share any I have said.) “Lord, have mercy.”

Sometimes, we are also like the tax collector, though most of the time we’d just as soon keep that part of ourselves hidden away. In reality, we may only manifest the humility of the tax collector, when we mess up in a big way, as they say in recovery programs, when we hit “rock bottom.”  Sadly, if you talk to people who feel that way – as we may feel sometimes, deep in our hearts – many find that church is not the place for this kind of honesty, and humility, and remorse. Our acceptance of the general idea that we are all sinners, does not always translate into our desire to hear about it in great personal detail, thank you very much. Which again, may have something to do with our lack of honesty and humility. (Laura S. Sugg, Feasting on the Word, Year C. Volume 4, p. 212.)

And yet the truth the Gospel reveals, through such stories as this, is that whether we have hit rock bottom like the tax collector, or whether we presume we are righteous like the Pharisee, whether our sins are carnal or spiritual, we all stand upon equal footing before God: without excuse, without pleading, without expectation, without a single claim, except on the love and mercy of God. As the old Gospel song, Rock of Ages, sings: “Nothing in my hand I bring, simply to thy cross I cling.” Whether Pharisee, Tax Collector, or somewhere in between, our right standing before God is determined not by anything we have done, good or bad, but by the goodness and grace of God. This was the difference, you see; the Tax Collector went home knowing this; the Pharisee didn’t.

As for what others think of us, sadly, often they are right.  What we need in our time is a new kind of Christian who will prove them wrong, by being honest and humble enough to admit that we are on one path among others, that we do not have all the answers, that we are sometimes judgmental and hypocritical, and that what we need more than anything else is not to be right, but to live as Jesus lived, in humility and sacrificial love.

The English Puritan poet, Richard Crashaw (1612 – 1649) summed up Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector this way:

Two went to pray? O rather say,

One went to brag, th’ other to pray:

One stands up close and treads on high,

Where th’ other dare not lend his eye.

One nearer to God’s altar trod,

The other to the altar’s God.

– Richard Crashaw (1612 – 1649)

Regardless of which one we are, I think we know which one we want to be.  By the grace of God, so may it be.  Amen.

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