Biography of Jesus #75
"Smart & stupid things people say to God"
Youíve seen the ad on television. A man invests in a stock that soars
to unexpected values. He runs down the hall and bursts into the bossís office
telling him that he quits. When he returns to his desk and checks his computer
he discovers that the stock he bought has dropped like a rock. Again he runs
down the hall shouting to his boss that he was just kidding.
Some people say some really stupid things. They joke about bombs when
going through airport security. They get upset with the power company and cancel
their electricity. They tell the police officer that he doesnít know how to
operate his radar gun. They call the IRS and request an audit.
Weíve all been there. Weíve all done that. Weíve all said some
really smart things and weíve all said some really stupid things.
Jesus told a story about two men talking to God in prayer. The first guy
said something really stupid and the second guy said something really smart.
To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on
everybody 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 up and
prayed about himself: 'God, I thank you that I am not like other men--robbers,
evildoers, adulterers--or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and
give a tenth of all I get.í
"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.í
"I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified
before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles
himself will be exalted."
Did you notice who Jesus was talking to? This isnít a parable for
everyone. It is targeted at a very special audience. If he wasnít talking to
you, youíre welcome to skip this part of Jesusí biography. If he had you in
mind, listen up. Jesus told this story to "some who were confident of
their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else." Wow, I
would hate for that to be me. I prefer to think of myself as tolerant and
humble, not self-righteous and flaunting a superiority complex. So, itís not
for me. And itís not for you, right? Well, letís not be too fast to pat
ourselves on the back. Maybe we need to think some more about what Jesus had to
say before our self-congratulations begin.
The story takes place at the Temple in Jerusalem. That Temple no longer
exists. It was destroyed by the army of the Roman general Titus in AD 70. All
that remains are parts of the foundation which are now called the "Wailing
Wall." Most of the mountain where the Temple once stood is now covered by a
famous Muslim mosque called the Dome of the Rock. But in Jesusí time the
Temple was all there, in full operation and the center of religious life for the
Religious people were required to come to the Temple and offer a sacrifice to
God once each year. Some came more often. Some came every day. For the daily
visitors the custom was to pray there three times every day. The prayer could be
private or public.
Frequent visitors were the Pharisees. They were the religious
conservatives of the time. They committed their lives to being as Jewish as they
could be, attempting to live by the law and do everything exactly right. Maybe
today we would call them orthodox Jews or fundamentalists of any religious
persuasion. They were very devout.
Infrequent visitors to the Temple were tax collectors. They usually werenít
very welcome. Tax collectors got their jobs by bidding for them with the Roman
government. Whoever promised to collect and pay the most was awarded the
position. The tax collectors made their living getting as much as they could
from the people and paying as little as they could to the Romans. The difference
was theirs to keep. Pretty much everyone hated them. The Romans hated them for
keeping money and getting rich. The Jews hated them for stealing their money and
paying the Roman army to occupy their country. It was a very lucrative and a
very unpopular profession. So, it would have been an unexpected surprise for a
tax collector to show up at the Temple to pray . . . sort of like the most
irreligious person you know coming to church and sitting in the front row.
Imagine yourself on a Temple tour hosted by Jesus. As we walk
through the Temple courtyard Jesus points out a Pharisee who " stood up
and prayed about himself: 'God, I thank you that I am not like other
men--robbers, evildoers, adulterers--or even like this tax collector. I fast
twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.í"
#1 The man with good deeds,
a bad attitude and the wrong comparison Luke 18:11-12
The Pharisee had a lot of good things that could be said about him.
Actually, he chose to say the good things about himself. When this guy prayed it
was more of an announcement to his neighbors than a conversation with God.
He prayed about himself. That doesnít seem too unusual to me. I pray
about myself every day. Most people I know pray about themselves on a regular
basis. It would seem strange to me for someone not to pray about herself or
himself. In fact, in the second half of Jesusí story he commends the prayer of
the tax collector and he prayed for himself as well.
Probably a better understanding of what happened is that the Pharisee prayed to
himself. His prayer was from him, about him and to him. The Pharisee was
full of himself.
It was an inappropriate way to pray. Prayer is supposed to be to God.
Prayer is about God. Prayer is for God. As often as we talk to God about our
needs and the needs of others, prayers should always be God-centered. As soon as
our prayers are more about us than they are about God there is something wrong
with the way we are praying. Our prayers should always place God first and seek
to honor God in all we pray about.
There is a warning here for us all. When we pray let us be sure that weíre
not just talking to ourselves.
Illustration: I often talk on my mobile phone. I try to use my
time wisely and seize opportunities to listen to voice mail and to return calls.
Several times recently Iíve lost the connection. Once Charleen was driving the
car while I was engaged in a conversation where I talked for several minutes
before I realized that no one was listening. I was talking to myself. It was a
little embarrassing and frustrating on the phone but it is a major mistake in
prayer. There is no point to prayer that does not connect to God.
The only way for prayer to connect to God is for that prayer to first be
about God and not about ourselves. Our first priority should be him. Our
goal should be to please him. God first. Us second.
"The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: 'God, I thank you that
I am not like other men--robbers, evildoers, adulterers--or even like this tax
collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.í"
God already knew all this about him. It almost seems that he was trying to tell
everyone else who would listen. He was bragging.
Lest we beat up too much on this Pharisee, I am impressed. He did a lot
of good and avoided a lot of bad. He didnít steal from othersóthat is good.
He did not do bad things to other people ñthatís good. He was faithful to
his wifeóalso good. He fasted twice a weekógood. He donated 10% of his
possessions to religion and charityóterrific. You canít help but be
impressed with this man. He was serious about his religion and worked really
hard to do what was right.
How to you compare?
… Do you steal? Do you take things that donít
belong to you from your employer? Do you cheat a little on your income tax
returns? Do you steal time at work by doing personal business on company time?
… Do you do evil? How about mean-spirited
treatment of people you donít like? Lies that help you but hurt others? What
about racial jokes that put other people down?
… Do you commit adultery or other sexual sins?
We live in a society that increasingly encourages and condones behavior that God
says is wrong? Do you excuse immorality by claiming your right to personal
… What about fasting? When is the last time
you deliberately gave up food for a half day or a day or longer so that you
could fully focus on God and prayer? Fasting is a special spiritual discipline
that can physically engage us in worship and better focus our minds and souls on
the Lord. Have you fasted for spiritual purposes in the past week?
… Have you been giving away 10%? It is called
tithingógiving to God 10% of personal income on an ongoing basis. It is an act
of worship and expression of faith in God, but it is also a means of helping the
poor and supporting Godís work on earth. This Pharisee not only donated 10% of
his income but 10% of his net worth. He tithed everything he had.
How do you compare? I hope you compare well. I hope we can all
acknowledge that we avoid the sins the Pharisee avoided and we all do the good
things the Pharisee did. The truth is that many of us donít come close. We
know to avoid sin but we choose to sin anyway. We know the good we should do but
we choose not to do it. The Pharisee was a better person than many of us.
His problem isnít with what he did and didnít do. His problem was in
his attitude. He thought he was better than everyone else was and he took
special pride in comparing himself to others. It was a deep defect in his
character. It was a serious sin in his soul. How sad. He so much wanted to do
what was right and he so far missed the mark.
It is an easy mistake to make. It is easy to find fault with others and
try to build ourselves up by tearing others down. It is easy to feel superior
when comparing ourselves to others who donít measure up to our standards and
behavior. We like to point out that we have more money, more education, a newer
car, a better race, a superior job or a greater spirituality. We like to compete
and we like to win. It can feel very good to label others as losers and
ourselves as winners.
#2 The man with serious sin, deep remorse
and a prayer that worked Luke 18:13-14
Next on our Jesus-led tour of the Temple we pass a tax collector. He is
harder to see because " 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.í"
Tax collectors were not as common at the Temple as were Pharisees. Maybe
thatís why he prayed in a corner, although I suspect that there was probably
another reasonóhe had come to talk to God and really didnít want anyone else
There were two common prayer positions for ancient Jewsóstanding up and
lying down. Kneeling to pray would have been unusual and sitting to pray was
probably unheard of. Those who stood lifted their heads upward as if looking
toward God. Those who laid on the ground kept their faces down in deference and
We donít known the position of the tax collectorís body, but we are told
the direction of his eyes. He looked down. Perhaps his eyes were closed. It
was the body language of a humble, broken person. He knew he was not worthy of
God. He agreed with the Pharisee that the Pharisee was the better man. He was
keenly aware of his sins and overwhelmed by them. He was sorry, sad and probably
scared. He couldnít think of one good reason why God should listen to anything
he would pray.
His sense of unworthiness was so profound that he literally beat up on
himself. While the Pharisee symbolically beat up on everyone else, the tax
collector literally beat up on himself.
The tax collector prayed the only prayer he dared prayó"God, have
mercy on me, a sinner." This man really was praying. He was
connecting to God. He saw Godís holiness and greatness and obviously didnít
measure up. The Pharisee compared himself to others and came out pretty good;
the tax collector compared himself to God and came out a hopeless disaster. He
knew he was a sinner and he knew he needed help. He didnít try to buy,
impress, earn or trickóhe just prayed the truth, "God, have mercy on
me, a sinner."
Jesus saw these two men as symbols of us all. He said, "I tell
you that [the tax collector], rather than the [Pharisee], went home justified
before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles
himself will be exalted."
… Interestingóthe "good guy" lost
and the "bad guy" won. The Pharisee left a sinner who was
disconnected from God. The tax collector left a saint who was connected to God.
And, it wasnít just about going home that day. It was about their eternal
… Jesus was very specific about what made the
difference. "For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he
who humbles himself will be exalted." In other words, those who think
that their goodness can make them right with God are tragically mistaken. Those
humble enough to throw themselves on Godís mercy and ask for salvation are
There is a spiritual test question sometimes asked to determine the same
things Jesus was teaching about in this story. Maybe youíve heard itó"if
you were to stand before God and he were to ask you, ëWhy should I let you
into my heaven?í What would you say?"
The Pharisee would say: "Iím a good person. I havenít done
bad things. Iíve done lots of very good things. So, let me into heaven."
God would sadly reply, "Sorry, but youíre not good enough. Youíre
not even close. No heaven for you."
The tax collector would say: "God, thereís absolutely nothing
about me worthy to get into your heaven. I donít deserve heaven. All I can do
in ask for your mercy through Jesus Christ." And God would gladly
reply, "No, youíre not good enough, but Iíll count my Sonís
goodness on your account. Iíll grant you mercy. You are forever in."
What about you? What would you say? If youíre good, thatís great.
Keep it up. But realize that you can never be good enough for God. You need
mercy through Jesus Christ. If youíre bad, thatís sad. Stop it. Stop your
sin and do what is right. But first of all, ask for Godís mercy. Pray a prayer
like the prayer of the tax collector. Right here. Right now. Pray, "God,
have mercy on me, a sinner. I realize I can never be good enough. So, I accept
the goodness of Jesus and commit my life forever to him."
If you will humble yourself, pray this prayer and commit your life to Jesus,
Iíll tell you what to expect. God will forgive your sin. God will
guarantee your place in heaven forever. God will transform your life starting
today and lasting forever.
February 5-6, 2000 Wooddale Church
² 2000 Leith Anderson