Is the Christian Church about us or God?

Sunday the 23rd of October

Luke 18:9-14

During the recent Pastor’s Conference that I attended, Bishop Greg gave us a book called ‘Disappearing Church’ by Mark Sayers. This book is a very good book addressing how we can be a Christian church in a culture that is not Christian. One of the things this book addresses is the fact that our culture is extremely focused on self. Everything around us tells us that life is about me, my feelings, my experiences and my rights. Now this is not telling us anything that we do not already know, but he takes it one step further by observing that churches are becoming the same, in that they are reflecting the around us. So faith then is about coming to Church so that my needs are met, so that God can bless my life, so that I can feel good about myself and have a good life blessed by God. When I feel good about myself and live a good ‘Christian’ life I will get to go to heaven, because I have done the right thing. There are others who say to themselves: ‘When the church stops meeting my needs, I will go somewhere else’. Many are stopping coming to church because they have found other things. You will often hear people say: “ you don’t have to go to church to be a Christian”  When this happens those of us who remain faithful can easily become judgemental, and think that at least we are going to heaven because at least we are not giving up, walking away, like ‘those’ people. The problem is that faith in Jesus  is not about meeting our individual needs and it is certainly not making Church about us. We can make our relationship with God about what we do for God, how we are behaving, what we are doing to improve our lives and living life as ‘good’ Christians. The temptation to put the entire focus of our faith and worship on ourselves is always with us.

The Gospel reading for today from Luke chapter 18, I believe, speaks to this situation we find ourselves in as Christians.  Verse 9 says: To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable” It was of course about the Pharisee and Tax Collector.

Now we know about Pharisees because they are spoken about often in the Gospels. We know that they were opposed to Jesus and his teaching, we know that were self-righteous, arrogant people and that Jesus often calls them hypocrites. If we have been in church for some time we know that Pharisees are people we want to be on our journey with Jesus. So I suspect that intuitively we would hear this parable and come to the conclusion that Jesus is telling us we are not be like to Pharisee and are be more like the Tax Collector. In other words, we are not to be arrogant, self righteous, but are to be humble and rely on God’s mercy. So this seems like a very straight forward parable. Or is it?  I wonder whether the danger that we have as Christians is that we miss the point of Jesus teaching here. Might our prayers sound more like this: “Lord, we thank you that we are not like other people: that we are not like hypocrites, overly pious self righteous people; we thank you that we are not like the Pharisee in this parable. We come to church each week, listen to your Word to us, and we have learned that we should always be humble.” Very subtlety we can fool ourselves and find that we are just like the Pharisee in this parable.

The Pharisee here is not speaking falsely, the things that he prays would have been true. Pharisees were very strict, and he would not have done any of the things he said he did not do. His actions were not the problem, it was rather that he missed the true nature of his blessing. He has trusted in himself. His prayer of gratitude may be spoken to the Lord, but it is really about himself. He locates his righteousness entirely in his own actions and being. He is centre of his worship and prayer.

The tax collector, on the other hand, knows that he has nothing by which to claim righteousness before God. He has done nothing of merit that he can use; indeed, he has done much to offend the law of Israel. For this reason he stands back, hardly daring to approach the Temple, and throws himself on the mercy of the Lord.

So in this parable we have a contrast between the Pharisee who claimed to be right with God based on his own over inflated view of himself, while the Tax Collector relies entirely upon the Lord’s mercy. Rather than be grateful for his blessings and all that the Lord has done for him, the Pharisee appears smug to the point of despising others. The way the Pharisee thinks is that there are two types of people: those who are right with God and the immoral sinners, and he is grateful that he has placed himself among those right with God. The tax collector, on the other hand, isn’t so much humble as desperate. He is too overwhelmed by his sin to think about us and them type thinking. All he recognizes as he comes to God in his own great need for mercy. He therefore stakes his hopes and claims not on anything he has done or deserved but entirely on the mercy of God.

There is a contrast here. And we are to be aware of how this applies to our own hearts before God. For this is what really matters. But the trap that we fall into when we hear this parable is that our sinful natures always want to compare. We want to see ourselves as being on the right side of what God wants from us. However as soon as we fall prey to the temptation to divide humanity into any kind of groups, having and us and them attitude, we have straight away aligned ourselves squarely with the Pharisee. It does not matter whether our division is between you and I, as the true right ones with God, and sinners, as with the Pharisee, or even between the self-righteous and the humble, as this Gospel tells us, we are doomed.

Life with God does not work this way. As soon as you and I start to question whether or not someone is right with God, we would do well to remember these words of Jesus. As soon as someone points out the inadequacy of others, we would do well to remember this reading. As soon as the justification of another is easily determined, it’s time to re-read this passage. And to ask ourselves: What will our response be?

Behind this parable from Jesus lies the truth. This parable is about God and what he does. The tax collector makes neither sacrifice nor restitution for his sins. So on what basis is he then named as righteous by Jesus? Well it is on the basis of God’s actions towards him. We need to keep coming back to the fact that it is God who justifies, it is God who makes things right with us we need to see ourselves with nothing to claim but our dependence on God’s mercy. The mercy and grace that he gives us all through the death of his Son Jesus Christ, who has taken care of our sin and removed the barriers between us and God, is where our focus should be. As we do this and we stop thinking and comparing ourselves to everyone else around us, we stop focusing on what we can get from God, focusing on our own wants and desires, but rather we look to what God gives us; when we stop trying to look at and judge others; as we stand before God aware of our need, then we too are justified by our Heavenly Father and invited to return to our homes in mercy, grace, and gratitude, just as the tax collector was in this parable.

God through his son Jesus Christ has made it possible to be in a right relationship with him. This is something that we need to be thankful for and respond to him in gratitude. This is difficult to do when our focus is on what we can get, or on our own achievements, works, morals, or comparing ourselves to those around us. I know that this is easy to do, because we all do it, but I encourage you all to lift your eyes off yourselves and put them on Jesus Christ as this is where you will find grace and mercy that comes to life in your life. The grace and mercy that God give you through him, that makes all the difference.