What Is Pleasing to God

Luke 18:9-14 (NRSV)

[Jesus] also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

“God be merciful to me, a sinner!” It is a simple prayer, but it can take a lot of self-awareness to get us to such a place.

In the case of the tax collector, he had to fall low in the eyes of other Jews, and then he had to fully realize what his status meant in relation to God. You may be asking yourself, “Tax collector? What’s wrong with being a tax collector?” Jokes about the IRS aside, being a Jewish tax collector was much different than being an employee of the modern tax system.  In Israel in Jesus’ day, tax collectors were on about the same level in society as prostitutes and lepers.

For all practical purposes, Jewish tax collectors were traitors. They had decided to go to work for the occupying Roman Empire. They had the backing of the Roman army, a lot of flexibility in making assessments, and were known for using their positions to enrich themselves. Being a tax collector was a good way to be rich and hated all at the same time.

Somehow, some way, this particular tax collector in Jesus’ parable had come to regret the man he had become, but his feelings of emptiness and utter rejection were actually to his advantage. God heard his sad, broken, heartfelt prayer and granted him justification, what we might today call salvation.

Contrast the tax collector’s situation with the Pharisee, a legalistically religious man who would have appeared righteous to the world. He pursued God, but he wasn’t meeting God where it mattered, in his mind and heart. Even in his prayers to God, he exalted himself.

Look how holy I am. Look at the good I do. God, when you look at me and compare me to the people nearby, I must stand out! Thanks, God, for making me one of your favorites.

What should be of concern to many of us is that we potentially have more in common with the Pharisee than we do with the tax collector. (If you’re saying, “No, trust me, I’m broken like the tax collector,” at least know that in the upside-down world of salvation, you may be strangely blessed and already way ahead of me in understanding Jesus’ story.)

Those of us who have a veneer of respectability—a title, a position, a public reputation—have to be a little more conscious of our need to surrender to God wholly and fully. We need to seek humility; we need to understand that in the eyes of God, none of us are worthy. To quote Paul in Romans 3, “There is no one who is righteous, not even one.”

Short of personal disasters that might wipe out affluence or reputation, we have a more difficult path to open ourselves to God. We have to choose to be vulnerable, a state that normally has very negative connotations.

I first offer you a little exercise in humility. It is no great secret to salvation, but it helps. From time to time, try something you’re not good at doing. I’m practicing yoga, and it’s kind of a sad thing to watch, I’m sure, particularly when I’m in downward dog (think shaky chihuahua) or reclined pigeon (I call it “broken bird”). But not only is it good for me, the struggle keeps me humble.

The challenge you take on doesn’t have to be physical. Just try something you know you’re not good at, struggle to improve—perhaps in vain—and learn to laugh at yourself a little.

We need to go further, too. In prayer, we have to be willing to call ourselves sinners. Because of our sins, we cannot be good enough for God on our own. We never will be. It doesn’t matter what we accumulate in terms of titles, homes, cars or 401Ks. God will not be impressed.

As we remember our sins, we should beat our breasts from time to time, saying, “God be merciful to me, a sinner!” I don’t think God wants us to wallow in our sins, but we certainly need to remember they happened, and perhaps still blush at them a little.

Occasionally focusing on our inabilities and sins helps us remember how much we need God. He is perfect, we are not. It is foolish to approach God like we are somehow equal to him.

And when we get there—when we truly humble ourselves—we are much better equipped to understand what a great gift we have been given in Jesus Christ.

God owed us nothing, we owed him everything, and through sin we created a debt we could never repay. And yet, God came. God came for the undeserving, the broken, the lost.

We are no better than prostitutes, criminals, or traitorous tax collectors. Isn’t it strange that once we accept that truth, we are made ready for eternity with God.

The featured image, “Biblical Illustration of Gospel of Luke Chapter 18,” is by Jim Padgett, courtesy of Sweet Publishing, Ft. Worth, Texas, 1984.


The Heart of the Matter

Matthew 22:34-40

During October, we’ve been listening to what the Bible has to say about God’s law, given to us so we may better understand who God is.

We heard how poorly the Israelites responded to the law, despite the powerful revelation they received at Mount Sinai. And last Sunday, we explored how Jesus’ answer to a law-related question puts all of us in a quandary.

The law’s demand that we worship only God and let nothing come between us and God seems to be a hopelessly high hurdle. When faced with God’s high standards, humans throughout history have often chosen one of two options: throwing up their hands in despair and turning from God, or attempting a kind of hyper-obedience, trying to outdo others in observance of the law.

Certainly, turning away doesn’t help. And because sinless perfection is not humanly possible, I’ve never understood how hyper-obedience is supposed to save anyone from the separation from God brought on by sin. I assume that practitioners of extreme legalism think that God will save the best of the bad, like a teacher grading a failing class on a curve so that a few students receive A’s.

There is a better way to understand how we are to relate to God under the law. In fact, that’s the whole point of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. And by listening to Jesus and understanding his story, we can follow this path to reunion with God.

Matthew’s gospel records in chapter 22 a conversation between Jesus and a lawyer. (This lawyer also was a Pharisee, one of those groups that strove for hyper-obedience.) The lawyer tested Jesus by asking him, “Teacher, which commandment is the greatest?”

Jesus gave a highly orthodox answer, quoting the Shema,  a Jewish liturgical prayer rooted in Deuteronomy 6:4-9. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind,” Jesus said. “This is the greatest and first commandment.”

He added that there is a second like it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” quoting from Leviticus 19:18. “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” In Luke’s version of this conversation, Jesus’ assertion is followed by the parable of the Good Samaritan, where we learn that we are to define even our traditional enemies as our neighbors, showing them mercy.

Jesus was affirming that nothing about the law had changed. After all, the law as given to Moses is a revelation of the unchanging God. But Jesus also was clarifying the law’s purpose: to teach humanity that love is the core behavior for those who follow God.

The need for obedience doesn’t go away; Jesus proved that later in Matthew when he was obedient to the point of going to the cross, even after asking God the Father, “Let this cup pass from me.”

Love, however, shapes everything, even our obedience. Jesus went to the cross to save us from the punishments we are due for our sins, out of love for all of creation.

Love as the primary driver behind everything we do sounds nice. I get visions of a television show from my childhood where a giraffe, a chipmunk and some other puppet critters sang, “What the world needs now, is love, sweet love … .”

We should never forget, however, that love complicates a religious life. Legalism is in some ways the easier path to choose, at least if you’re the kind of person who’s inclined to say, “Just tell me the rules so I can follow them.”

Love forces us to think, to analyze our actions, to check our motives.

I’ll give you the toughest example I know right now in the Christian community. It is what many simply call “the homosexual issue,” a catch-all phrase covering debates about the ordination of homosexuals, whether homosexuals should be able to marry each other, and whether pastors should bless such marriages.

Working from the Bible—which I take very seriously as being inspired and shaped by the Holy Spirit—I find it nearly impossible to justify homosexual acts. It is possible to contextualize the Old Testament prohibitions, something Christians do all the time with other Old Testament rules. But I cannot get around the first chapter of the New Testament’s Book of Romans.

Its author, the Apostle Paul, clearly understood the impact of God’s grace and love being poured out on the world through Jesus Christ. Paul still, however, deliberately linked homosexual acts (and several other sins) to a general turning away from God by humanity.

And yet, I am troubled by my own desire to say to homosexuals, “There’s the rule, get over it.”

I know followers of Christ who struggle with their homosexuality. I care for them. Love forces me to think beyond simple assertions, acknowledging the powerful feelings they live with day after day, their pain, their craving for acceptance and community.

I love God, I trust God’s Word, and I desperately want to better love my neighbors, but love sometimes leaves me a little stumped. All I can do is pray that the love that resulted in the cross and the resurrection will eventually provide complete answers.