Sermon: Campfire Stories: People Whom God Doesn’t Like
Scripture: Luke 18:9-14
Date: June 21, 2015
When telling stories, Jesus often liked to talk in extremes. And so to understand this story we need to move beyond our Christian prejudice against the Pharisees because of their complicity in taking Jesus to the Cross. Because it was not the same in Jesus day. If a Jewish crowd had been asked to think of the most pious and righteous persons they know, nine out of ten would have named a Pharisee. They held an even higher place of esteem than the priests because by the time Jesus came on the scene there was already a growing uneasiness about the honesty and integrity of the priests. The Pharisees however were considered to be exemplary in their conduct and character. They were admired for their piety, but they were disliked because of their advanced attitude of self righteousness. And so when Jesus began talking about one who was secure in his own righteousness, the disciples would have naturally thought about the Pharisees. And so, in telling this story, Jesus presents this Pharisee as the most righteous of a group that was already viewed as the standard of righteousness by the Disciples. And just in case, we miss the point he contrasts the goodness of the Pharisees, with those the Disciples would have considered the worst of the worst. Like the robbers who lay in wait along side the roadside, watching for passersby and then sprang out and beat them and robbed them and left them for dead, laying on the side of the road, like the man that the Good Samaritan found. And the thing was, that these robbers were mostly Jewish themselves, and their favorite place to lay in wait was along the road from Jericho to Jerusalem, where all Jewish Pilgrims had to pass as they made their way to worship in the Temple. And then there were the evildoers. And the Pharisee was certainly not like the “evil doers.” Probably by injecting the evil doers into the story, Jesus had in mind all of those who came to Him who were identified as being possessed by an evil spirit or often evil spirits. Demon possession would have been a great fear of the Disciples because those whom they had encountered who were possessed by evil spirits had usually acted in such bizarre even violent ways. Evil was a strong force once it got hold of you. They had witnessed that first hand. Just think how pious the Pharisee must have looked in comparison to the wild man they had encountered in Gerasene, who lived isolated in the cemetery and was possessed by 2000 evil spirits. And then Jesus talks about adulterers. Now by singling out adulterers, Jesus is not saying that all other sins are okay. But in Jesus day, adultery was considered the ultimate act of betrayal against God and against one another. The law still prescribed death by stoning for those who were found acting in an adulterous way. Even the tendency that the people had exhibited down through their history to embrace other gods, in addition to Yahweh was often equated with adultery in the teaching of the Rabbis. So by mentioning it specifically in this story, Jesus is comparing and contrasting the loyalty and faithfulness of the Pharisee with the betrayal of the adulterer. So, in Jesus’ telling, not only was the Pharisees character and faith beyond reproach, but so too His practice of his faith. In fact he did more than was required of him. He fasted twice a week. Now I was surprised to learn that the law of Moses only required fasting once a year on the the Day of Atonement. Some religious Jews would fast in preparation for the other High Feast Days, like Passover. But the Pharisees fasted every Monday and Thursday, way beyond the requirement of the law. And this Pharisee practiced the Tithe. But he did not get drawn into the debate about what exactly the tithe should be based on – He tithed on everything – “all I get” He said. So in telling this story Jesus goes to extremes and presents an example of the most pious, religious person the Disciples could even imagine. Elsworth Kalas in his book “Parables From The Backside” contends that “On the surface, the people admired the Pharisees. They were in awe of their public righteousness, but they seldom liked them.” So in Jesus’ story, the Pharisee is a Pharisee above all Pharisees, a Jew above all Jews.
And then in contrast to that he presents the Tax Collector. Now as admired as the Pharisee was, that’s how hated this tax collector was. In fact, Jesus indicates that the tax collector is considered to be the lowest of the low. Lower even then the robbers, and the evildoers and adulterers. Dr. Kalas characterizes them in this way: They were collaborating with a despised foreign government, the Romans. Not only were they collecting taxes – a burdensome calling at best – but also they were violating their ties with their own people and their own religious heritage each day they did so.
Now, although we don’t like to pay taxes today, anymore than the people in Jesus day did, we certainly don’t loathe the tax collectors like they did. But there are modern day counterparts when it comes to the lowest of the low, I think. Perhaps those who abuse children? Rapists? Human Traffickers? Terrorists? Or those who go to a church Bible study and kill nine people. Who is on your list? If they came in to the church this morning to pray how would we react to them?
Jesus intended this story as an extreme contrast between the best of the best and the worst of the worst. And so the Disciples were probably thinking, Ok, Jesus is going to tell us about the rewards we’ll get if we live a life of righteousness. Right? Well not so fast.
You see, by making the contrast so dramatic, so exaggerated, Jesus is pointing to the truth that by the judgements the Disciples were making concerning people that they were communicating that there are some people God likes and values, who are welcome in the Temple but there are some people He just doesn’t like, who aren’t really welcome in His House. Think about the people that the Disciples tried to deny access to Jesus. Lepers and beggars and children. Most of us, like the Pharisee, favor certain people or groups of people, show partiality to people, based upon our own value systems. We have our favorites. Maybe our favoritism is based upon economic class. We prefer to be around people who fall generally within our own means. Sometimes we feel inferior to those who have more than we do, and superior to those who have less. Or maybe our favoritism is based upon skin color. Or ethnic origin. Or body type. Or the frequency of times people bath. Or the clubs we’re involved in. Or the schools we attend.
Pastor Bill Hybels writes:
Want to know an unsavory little secret about everybody? Almost all of us walk around with an unpublished list in our minds of certain kinds of people we tend to like and certain kinds of people we could do without. We have a
list of desirables and a list of undesirables.
And too often, like the pharisee, we place the justification for this in our faith.
Surely God would not expect us to embrace the child abuser, the murderer, the derelict. Our choices then are often based upon righteous indignation. Disdain for the sin can’t help but place some judgement on the sinner too. And so we flee from sin, but in doing so we often leave the sinner behind too. Well I think perhaps the Disciple James was remembering this story around the campfire when he wrote in his letter to the churches these words:
My brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show favoritism. Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in filthy old clothes also comes in. If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, “Here’s a good seat for you,” but say to the poor man, “You stand there” or “Sit on the floor by my feet,” have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?
Listen, my dear brothers and sisters: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him? If you really keep the law found in Scripture, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing right. But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers. For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it. Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment.
In his introduction to the Letter of James in The Message, Eugene Peterson writes:
Just as a hospital collects the sick under one roof and labels them as such, the church collects sinners. So Christian churches are not, as a rule, model communities of good behavior.They are, rather, places where human misbehavior is brought out in the open, faced and dealt with.
James can’t make it any clearer than this. There is no place for favoritism, or partiality, or prejudice in Christ’s church. Sometimes you hear people make the statement, “I love so and so, but there are times when I don’t like them very much.” Well, when I read James I often get the feeling that God is saying, “Mark, I love you, but there are times when I don’t like you very much.” God loves us because of who we are, but I suspect it’s often what we do or don’t do that makes Him not like us very much. I confess that I struggle everyday with the sin of partiality.
And I know that my behavior and my attitude grieves God. You see, perhaps more than any other sin, Jesus went after this one, in every form that it reared it’s ugly head. He broke down the barriers we erect through our prejudices and partialities.
So Jesus broke through the barriers we erect because of physical difficulties and challenges.
For example, recall one day when Jesus was in the synagogue preaching and the religious leaders were looking for a way to trap him and discredit him. Catch him in a violation of the law. Now it was the Sabbath and so they went out and found a man with a handicap, a withered hand, and they say to him,
Jesus, the miracle worker is preaching in the synagogue today. Perhaps if you come with us to the meeting, He will heal your withered hand
And so they bring him to the meeting, and they put him right on the front row, probably make a big show of their compassion for this poor wretch, and then they sit back and watch to see how Jesus is going to handle this. Now Jesus is not fooled. In fact, he is moved to tears over their hardened hearts towards this man. And, of course, He heals him. And the Pharisees jump to their feet. “Lawbreaker. It is a violation to heal on the Sabbath.” They didn’t care about the man or the fact that he was disabled. He was just one of the poor wretches that sat on the fringes of faith. What difference did it make to the church whether he was healed or not. And what does Jesus say, “In God’s eyes, this one man matters more than the church and the law.” Where the church erected barriers, Jesus came storming through and knocked them down. Barriers based upon physical characteristics like withered hands and leprous skins. When the church pushed them away, Jesus embraced them. When the church proclaimed them unclean, Jesus’ touch made them clean.
And Jesus breaks through the barriers erected by our prejudices. He said to those who were hated and considered of little worth, in God’s eyes you matter. Consider that one day He was passing through Samaria with His disciples. They were hungry and thirsty and they stopped at a well to refresh themselves when a Samaritan woman came to draw water from the well. The disciples were anxious to move on. Their prejudices wouldn’t allow them to speak with a Samaritan or a woman. But Jesus wants to stay little longer. “Why”, the disciples ask, “there is nothing to keep us here.”
“There is this woman,” Jesus says.
“But,” the disciples protest, “she doesn’t matter.”
“She matters to me,” Jesus told them.
And so while the rest went to town for food, Jesus broke the bread of life with her.
Our prejudices blind us to the worth of all people. We start thinking those tax collectors are not one of us. They are from another country. They’re skin is a different color. They speak a different language.They wear different clothes then we do. They look dirty. They’re out of place.
Prejudice erects barriers that Jesus comes to break down. In our hearts and in the church. Prejudice, leads us to the sin of partiality. And when we do that, God loves us, but, I’m afraid He doesn’t like us very much. This Pharisee led an exemplary life, but he is still a sinner in need of forgiveness and grace, the same as the tax collector. He is guilty of the sin of partiality. Elsworth Kalas makes this observation:
The tax collectors did have one appealing virtue. It isn’t one we like to mention, but it’s there all the same. They played a key role in the world of moral values by being someone everyone else could look down on. Everyone except the true saints look for someone to whom he or she can point and say: “Hey, that one’s worse than I am.”
And then Jesus breaks down the barriers erected by false piety. Right after this story, Luke tells the story of another tax collector, Zacchaeus. Remember he climbed up into a tree just to catch a glimpse of Jesus, not because he was seeking Jesus out, but more out of curiosity. But Jesus seeks him out, and invites Himself to Zacchaeus’ house for dinner. And seeing this transpire, Luke tells us that the people (probably mostly pharisees) start to mutter under their breath (can’t you just picture it): “He’s going to eat in the house of a sinner.” And Jesus responds in the midst of this sin of partiality: “This man is a Jew and every time I eat in a Jewish household, even your households, I eat with sinners. I came to seek and save the sinner.” In God’s Kingdom, tax collectors matter just as much as the most Pharisee of all Pharisees. Disciples, he’s saying, lost people might not matter much to you, but lost people matter to God.
You see, The difference between the Pharisee and the tax collector in Jesus story was that the Pharisee, as righteous as he was, could not see his sin. I wonder if Jesus had seen this same tendency in some of the Disciples. Because in that way, the sin of partiality, of self – righteousness, may be the most insidious sin of all. It blinds us to our sinfulness because it focuses so intensely on the sinfulness of others. Look how great I look in comparison to that tax collector. Or another way to express it, and I find myself doing this all too often – I may have done some bad things but they are nothing in comparison with the sin of another. But with this story, Jesus is saying that sin knows no quantity or quality. Sin is sin. And the reason that in the end, it is the tax collector who experiences God’s grace and is “exalted” is because he recognized his sin for what it was, but the Pharisee did not. One writer once commented that “the church is the only institution in the world whose membership is based upon unworthiness to be a member.” The great preacher Samuel Shoemaker once said: “A person must come to church not as a gentleman in search of religion, but as a sinner in search of salvation.” The Pharisee stood up where everyone could see and said: “Look at me God, look how good I am, especially in comparison to that tax collector over there.”
While the Tax Collector hid in the darkest corner of the Temple and said: “After the life I’ve led, it’s only through eyes of Mercy and Grace that you would ever see me.” And it was his prayer that God heard.
If we aren’t careful we in the church suffer from the same malady that the
Pharisee suffered from, more concerned with those inside the church then the people who live and move in the shadows outside the church. But Jesus’ heart lay with the lost. And so he called a rag tag group of outsiders, even a tax collector, rather than priests and Pharisees to be His disciples. Jesus was very hard on the church, not because he didn’t love the scribes and pharisees and priests, but because at times He didn’t like them much. They should have known better. They should have known that everyone mattered to God, so much so that He sent His own Son to save them all. Hybels goes on to say:
you have never looked in the eyes of someone who does not matter to God.
Every person you lock eyes with – matters to God.
With this story Jesus is asking the Disciples the question: (Do they matter to you?) They are people for whom Christ died. They deserve .. respect. They deserve . . honor. And they deserve .. love. Because they, because all of us, matter to God.
What wondrous love! Love that embraces the tax collector as well as the Pharisee
In 1994, Princess Diana was one of the most beloved women in the world. The press followed her every move. The outpouring of grief at her death a few years later would be a testimony to how much she mattered to so many people around the world. One day in 1994, she was driving with a friend in the English countryside when they saw a van swerve in front of them and go off the road into the river next to it. The van began to quickly sink. Diana and her friend stopped, and the crown princess of England, the most glamorous woman in the world, jumped into the river and pulled one of the men in the van to safety. It was later discovered that the man she rescued was a homeless, vagrant who had been picked up while hitchhiking. And the press later asked Diana if she would have risked her life to save him had she known who he was. And Diana paused for a moment and then said, “All I saw was a drowning man who needed to be saved.”
James said “The kingdom is promised to anyone who loves God.” And Jesus said that anyone who loves God, loves their neighbor, because your neighbor, no matter who they are, matter to God.” And what the Pharisee, and apparently the disciples were struggling to understand is that all of us are drowning people who need to be saved. And that the appearance of righteousness is not determined by how we look in comparison to others, but rather how we look in comparison to Christ. William Barclay once wrote that everything depends on what we compare ourselves with. When we set ourselves alongside the life of our Lord, our best human efforts fall far short. And he told about a train trip he took from Scotland to England. On the way, just outside a little English village, he was struck by a little whitewashed cottage surrounded by green fields. He said it nearly glowed with it’s shiny whiteness. But on his way back he said it had snowed and the fields were all blanketed in white. And when they came to the cottage, Dr. Barclay said he was struck by how drab and gray the cottage now looked in comparison to the fresh whiteness of the new fallen snow. Jesus is telling us that when we set our lives beside the lives of others, they may look good, they may shine with righteousness. But when we set our lives alongside Jesus, then our best human efforts will look gray and dim. But praise God, that He is looking for inward truth and not outward show. And that through his great love He continues to call us from the shadows of sin and despair, into the joy of exaltation. And that through his love he makes each one of us pure and white as new fallen snow. Now it seems to me that that’s a story worth telling and that there are a lot of tax collectors in our life, that need to hear it.