LUKE 18:9-14, 18-29


            The parable of the Pharisee and the Publican, along with several other sayings of Jesus, ought to shock most Christians when they come to understand what is implied. Did you ever stop to think what group in society has the greatest difficulty in experiencing salvation? You’ll find it most disconcerting, but the answer is people like you and me, because it appears that we are precisely the type of persons who face the greatest obstacles. Jesus condemned the more obvious sins --- murder, robbery, adultery, lying, etc. His most solemn words of judgment were reserved, however, not for persons guilty of such crimes, but for men and women who were uncomfortably like you and me. There were three groups in particular whom Jesus singled out for criticism: the Scribes, the Pharisees, and the rich or powerful.


            We all know what Jesus had to say about the Pharisees. The harlots and sinners will enter heaven before they do. He calls them blind leaders of the blind. He likens them to tombs full of the rottenness of dead men’s bones. He asks of them, “How can you escape the damnation of hell?” Surely, we say, these Pharisees must have been horrible people. But were they? They were the religious people of their day, the men who took the greatest concern for their church, who tithed most regularly, who kept all the fast days. More than this, they were the responsible, decent people, pillars of the community. As we read in our parable, they were not murderers, adulterers, extortioners, or the like. To all appearances, they were of the type of people of whom we say, “He is the backbone of his land.”


            The Pharisees constituted the larges and most influential group in Jewish society. The Pharisaic ideal was a truly noble ideal, to live wholly in accord with the will of God. This was the basis of their zeal for the minutest regulations of both written and oral law. However, their tendency was to stress the outer forms of worship to the neglect of the inner spirit; and so they grew narrow, censorious, self-righteous, and conceited, while their insistence upon tithes and fees laid a heavy burden upon the poorer people.


            In most of His condemnations of the Pharisees Jesus included the Scribes, who were, in a sense, a unique group inasmuch as they grew out of the special nature of the Jewish religion. They were scholars who knew and interpreted the Jewish law – their function was both religious and legal. We might aptly term them the intellectuals of Jesus’ day, the men with the superior education and training who held posts of importance because of their learning. They sought to set fine moral standards for the people, but they overdid the matter and became pedantic.


            And lastly there were the rich and powerful. These came in for very severe criticism on the part of Jesus. He said, “Woe unto you rich.” He told them it was easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God. Jesus told a parable about a rich man who, like most of them of that day, wished to increase his riches and to enjoy them. Jesus called him a fool.


            At the very beginning of Jesus’ life, Mary sings her famous song in which she says of God, “He hath put down the mighty from their seats and exalted them of low degree. He hath filled the hungry with good things; and the rich He hath sent empty away.” This song foreshadows the teaching of Jesus about those who have wealth and power.


            The Apostle Paul continued the teaching of Jesus here, when, analyzing the type of people in the early Church, he said, “For you see your calling, brethren, how that not many wise men after the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called. But God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things that are mighty.” We know from the history of the early church, not many of these rich and powerful found their way into the church during those early and dangerous years.


            When we examine these three groups, we can see very clearly how each of us is brought under suspicion.


            To begin with, we have much in common with the Pharisees. Our presence here in Church is proof that we belong to those who are somewhat more zealous about religion. If ever there is a sermon which preachers must preach to themselves as well as to their people, it is a sermon on the Pharisees. Precisely by being a clergyman, one is put among those who, like the Pharisees, take religion more seriously.


            Furthermore, all of us belong to what would be called the respectable groups of society. The police do not have records on us; we are not guilty of grosser sins, of murder, robbery, and the like. We read sensational news stories of crime and vice, of murder and corruption, and we feel a sense of superiority – because we don’t belong to that kind of thing. Again, we are just like the Pharisees.


            As Americans, we have all enjoyed considerable advantages in the way of education. Few of us consider we belong to the so-called “intellectual” group, but we do pride ourselves on being able to understand and appreciate the intellectuals. We are proud of our degrees if we have them, and are happy to show off our diplomas. Again, we resemble Scribes.


            Perhaps many in the congregation are comforting themselves on not being among the rich; but wait just a moment. This is not true. By the very fact of being American, most of us are rich beyond the dreams of vast millions of this world. In fact, so proud are we of our wealth as Americans that one of the chief arguments we use to prove the superiority of the American way of life is the fact that we have more autos, radios, television sets, refrigerators, washing machines, and other gadgets than any other part of the whole world. Not of us may be as rich as we would like to be, but we are by any standards past or present, the richest people in the world. Just when we are proudly boasting of the supremacy of America because of its wealth, it is somewhat jolting to hear Jesus say, “But woe unto you that are rich.” I wonder how many of us could have said what certain Quakers said at a recent Quaker conference in England – they apologized to the world, as Americans, for being so wealthy. And let us not forget that with wealth goes power. As Americans we are joint-heirs to the greatest power the world has ever seen or known.


            Now, when we face the teachings of Jesus in this light, they seem strange. It almost seems that the Master has turned things upside down. The people He condemns most are the people whom we praise the most highly; the religious, the good, the wise, the wealthy.


            And we wonder what He can mean. The clue lies in the words with which He prefaces our parable, “And he spake this parable to certain which trusted in themselves that they were righteous and despised others.”


            The Christian religion is built on the understanding that all of us are sinners. The primary problem of life is the problem of sin. We don’t like the idea – in fact, men through the years never have. We all use the term “sin” to describe the state in which other people find themselves. We see the sins of others. All of us can go into the temple and be thankful that we have escaped the sins which we see around us every day. But we are most uncomfortable in the face of a religion which tells us that each of us is a sinner, each of us is not living as God expects us to live, we have fallen short of God’s demands for our lives.


            When Henry Thoreau was getting along in years his aunt asked him if he had made his peace with God. The poet of Walden Pond answered as most of us would probably answer, “I was not aware that God and I had quarreled.” Therein lies the essence of man’s sin – his refusal to see that he has done anything which falls short of God’s will. Man refused to admit that he needs to make peace with God – he trusts in himself.


            We must be fair with the Pharisee, and remember he was better than the Publican who was praying with him. But the trouble was that, by looking at the Publican, the Pharisee saw only how much better he was. It didn’t occur to him that he might not, therefore, be good enough. Had he looked to God in his prayer, he would have seen how far short he had fallen, and then his prayer would have been like that of the Publican.


            True Christianity issues in a relation of love to God and man. On the other hand, sin consists of the wrong relation to both. The two go together. When we remove God from the center of life and exalt ourselves in His place, then we break the relationship of love with our neighbors. That is why the three groups mentioned find salvation so difficult. Each group has something which enables the members of the group to feel self sufficient and hence superior to God, God becomes a symbol of the Being who knows what a good man he is and who will reward him for his goodness. This leads to scorn of one’s neighbor. Like the Pharisee, he compares himself to his neighbors as his standard, not God.


            The Pharisee has his religion and his goodness to make him feel proud, self-sufficient, and superior. Ironically, it is his religion that keeps him from God. He looks upon other men whom he calls heathen, infidels, sinners, while he thanks God he is not as they are. He can discriminate against and despise the people of another religion, or those who are less zealous in his own. In his goodness, the Pharisee ha lost his sympathy for those who are less good. It is often the curse of goodness that it cannot sympathize with the sinner.


            A minister friend of mine was called by the police one morning to help them. They had arrested a girl for prostitution who was obviously from a good home and had had every opportunity. They wanted the minister to find out what was wrong. He found out that the girl had come from a fine home, but when she had become pregnant out of wedlock, her father had thrown her out of the house. From then on her decline had followed the inevitable. The father illustrates the Pharisee. So secure was he in his own righteousness, that he had no compassion for the sin of another. In addition, he was so certain of his own righteousness that it never occurred to him that he might have a share in the girl’s guilt.


            Similarly, the wise use their learning to give themselves the sense of superiority over others and self sufficiency within themselves. Because they are wise, they feel no need of God’s revelation. The only God for whom they have any room, is the one whom they can create out of their own reason and learning. In the same vein, they look with scorn on the uneducated. They come to believe that because they know all about good, they are good. Such are full of schemes to save the world, by which they mean creating people in their own images, because they are sure there is no higher estate to which man might attain than to be like them.


            In like manner, we have those who have made the highest virtue ignorance and the lack of formal education. The ultimate in goodness is to have little formal education and to despise all formal education.


            Likewise the rich, he is proud of his wealth, certain that he has become wealthy because he is superior to other people, has no sympathy with the poor or the failures. He believes they are poor because they don’t work hard enough, and that any help which he gives may only encourage them in their weakness. You see this continually in the attitude of Americans who are faced with the moral imperative to feed their less fortunate neighbors in other countries.


            And so the story goes. Wherever God does not have first place in life, men are looking for the person of whom they can say, “Thank God, I’m not like this man.” So long as what we are or what we have seems good enough to us, we will never make room in our hearts for God.


            There is danger of misunderstanding Jesus at this point. Seeing the dangers of goodness, wisdom and wealth, there have been those who thought they could solve the problem by renouncing one or all of these. Many would stand outside the Church and refuse to be associated with the “hypocrites” within. You know them, and I know them, for I have been exposed to many right here in Grand Rapids, who have told me they don’t need the church, they are good enough with out it, or they not interested because of the so-called “hypocrites” in it. Yet they are filled with new pride – actually, they are thanking God they are not like the Pharisee.


            Many Christians from time to time have renounced wisdom. Sometime ago I came across an old folk hymn which goes,

            Some folks go to school to learn how to teach

            And some folks go to school to learn how to preach.

            If you can’t preach without going to school,

            Then you ain’t no preacher, you is an educated fool.


            Here again there is no escape from the problem. Those who have exalted their ignorance have become proud of it even as others are proud of the wisdom they possess. This too causes them to exalt themselves over others.


            The same principle applies to those who have renounced all wealth and become proud of their poverty. There is no escape from corruptions of goodness, wisdom, and wealth by renouncing the responsibilities which are associated with these. Jesus said that the righteousness of His follower was to exceed, not be less than, the righteousness of the Scribe and Pharisee.


            The cure of the dangers that beset the good, the wise, the wealthy lies in repentance, and in putting God at the center of the life. We soon learn that we too are sinners, that nothing we have done or can do is enough to purchase our way into God’s presence.


            When we have made our peace with God in this way, then we begin to have right relations with other people. If we have achieved some superiority over others because of our wisdom or wealth or goodness, it doesn’t make us superior to them, but gives us greater obligations to them and to God. When one has been humbled enough to stand before God and cry, “Be merciful to me, a sinner”, then he will find he has compassion and sympathy for other persons, and will feel responsible for their conditions.


            Lord Jesus, Thou hast given us the Way to live, and we know that Thou wilt also give us the means by which to live that Way. So we would ask, regardless of our status in life, make us want to live with God at the center of our lives and Jesus Christ as the sun of our souls. In His name we pray. AMEN.