These notes are intended for distribution to members and friends of the Kirk of Kildaire, Presbyterian Church family. While effort is made to give credit for work done by others, the notes may use material for which appropriate credit is not given. Also, the notes may differ from the actual sermon as it was delivered. Remember, sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation; the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.
The sign on the church, a beautiful church with tiffany stained glass windows, said it was open for prayer at 9am, Noon, and 3pm. Every day. The church opened the doors because this was the time when the faithful could go into the church, sit on a pew and offer their prayers to God.
You walk inside for the noontime prayer—a lunch break– and there you are at the back… there are just a few people who have gathered. It is fairly quiet – everyone is respectful. Then you hear someone upfront who is in a prayerful pose and the sound travels well in this cathedral so you are able to hear his prayer:
“I thank you God that I am not like other people…especially other religious people… I’m not prideful, moralistic, self righteous— or even like that fundamentalist Christian over there— I know I’m a sinner– I confess my sins to you and do not pretend to be holy. I am not a hypocrite like those people…Thank you God… I am not like them”
Then you notice that Christian across the aisle. He is also praying. He says, “God, I am trying my best… I go to church every week… I pray every day… I pledge and tithe… I serve on the Session… I teach others your ways… I want to please you… Please help me to live a good and moral life… But God, I know I let you down again and again. Forgive me.”
I tell you, the fundamentalist Christian went home justified rather than the other, for all who exalt themselves will be humbled and all who humble themselves will be exhausted.”
I retold that story in a new way because sometimes I think we’ve heard the story the old way so much, many of us have ceased hearing the story and the point Jesus is making. We know it so well, it no longer shocks us. We just think we thank God we are not like that hypocritical Pharisee.
But Parables are meant to shock us into a new way of thinking.
First, let’s first be clear what the story is NOT about. Jesus is not attacking the faith of the Pharisee or his desire to live a holy life.
In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus tells his disciples, “For I tell you unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven”.
Jesus is not lowering the bar for disciples here.
Truth is, I think we all have much to learn about the holy life from this Pharisee. In many ways his life could be a model for us. He is very involved in the life of faith. You cannot question his spiritual practices.He fasts twice a week, he tithes (gives 10% of his income away, better than most), reads the scriptures, and here he is praying. And many people brag if they get to church once a week. Maybe that’s why people like to put him down—makes us feel better.
Jesus, you remember, modeled this holy life himself—he prayed, he fasted, reflected upon the scriptures, he went to the temple, taught in the synagogue— gave of himself completely.
I am humbled by this Pharisee and have no reason to look down on him for his dedication and commitment to God and trying to please God.
Many of the people you and I admire are very holy people: Billy Graham, Mother Teresa, Henri Nouwen, name your favorite Christian author… We can learn from them all.
No, this is not a story where Jesus is attacking the holiness of the Pharisee.
But he is attacking a problem for many people of faith– the Achilles heel of holiness if you will. The problem (as Archibald Hunter says), is when holiness turns to holier than thou-ness. The best turns to the worst when we become self righteous.
That’s why Jesus told this parable:
“He told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.”
Jesus is giving us an attitude check. Which is why I wanted to re-tell the parable to help many of us check our attitudes.
Truth is, I don’t hang around with too many fundamentalists of any religion.
But I’ve met self-righteous sinners who take pride that they are not as self righteous as holy people. Oh, they are a bunch of hypocrites… that’s why I don’t go to church. I’m better than those hypocrites. Hear the irony in that!?
There is an old spiritual that is a good one for me to remember when I may need a spiritual attitude check. Though simple, it has a profound message – that could be a commentary on this parable:
It’s me, it’s me, it’s me, O Lord,
Standing in the need of prayer.
Not my father, not my mother
But it’s me, O Lord,
Standing in the need of prayer.
Not my sister, not my brother, (not the Pharisee or the Sinner)
But it’s me, O Lord,
Standing in the need of prayer.”
It’s me, O Lord. It’s me.
“Lord, be merciful to ME, a sinner. I need your help. I am a sinner in my worst moments and truth be told, I know I can be a self righteous sinner in my best moments. Lord, be merciful to me, a sinner.”
I like the story I heard of a little girl who was overheard saying her prayers. Her mother heard her say these words, “O God, make the bad people good and the good people nice.”
I think Jesus knows that when we get down to it, all of us—the bad people and the so-called good people- need to have time to look in the mirror, to see if there is any self-righteousness within us. Do we think we are better than others?
This political season do we not hear people say, Thank God I’m not like… a Democrat… a Republican… a Tea partier… a fundamentalist, a conservative… a liberal, A Baptist, An atheist or agnostic… a– (well, you fill in the blank)…
I’m told that Robert Schuller defined original sin as our need to establish worth by comparing ourselves to other people. That is certainly what the Pharisee was doing.
Maybe prayer is one of those times when we can at least be honest with ourselves and before God—to see if there is any wicked way in us.
For even good people are not always nice. They are not nice to others, they look down on others with contempt… they blame others for what is wrong with their marriage, their church, their family, the society, the nation, the world. They blame everyone but themselves. Thank God I am not like them… if only they were like me, the world would be better. Good people are not always nice. Holiness can turn into holier than thou ness.
But in prayer, we can be honest with ourselves and before God… we can confess who we really are—which is why we have a prayer of confession in worship—we can confess, “it’s me, it’s me, it’s me, O Lord”… “God, be merciful to me, a sinner” and we can know… that God will forgive us.
I wonder if you know that the church, over the centuries has lifted up this simple prayer as a model for us. We even gave it a name: “The Jesus Prayer”…
“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
Many people have made the Jesus prayer a part of their daily prayer. I’m thinking if you pray that prayer enough, it might just change you. It will at least help protect us from thinking we are better than others… from the sin of self righteousness.
Last week, in the text we read, you may remember we were given a challenge by Jesus for persistent prayer… “Pray always and do not lose heart.” This week, Jesus challenges us to be humble in prayer…“Lord, be merciful to me, a sinner”
“It’s me, it’s me, it’s me, O Lord, standing in the need of prayer…
And if you ever want to know if God hears our prayers. Let us be clear about this one: God hears and answers those prayers for mercy every time… every time.