Friends in Low Places

[This message was given at Perinton Presbyterian Church on 10/23/22, based on Luke 18:9-14. It can also be viewed on the Perinton YouTube page.]

You probably didn’t notice this last Sunday. The sanctuary was pretty full for our 40th anniversary service. I noticed because for the first five minutes or so of the service I am moving around the back looking to see that everything is going right, and I’m always looking for people I haven’t yet met. During the first hymn, with all of the congregation standing and singing, I saw two women enter, close to each other but not together. One was dressed very nicely, everything color coordinated; not one hair out of place. The other was rather shabbily dressed and more than a few hairs were out of place. Both entered through those double doors, one going one way and the other the other way. I wanted to make sure both got worship bulletins and were greeted. Which should I go to first? Which would you go to first? I quickly made my choice and walked toward one; and she was gone. Then I turned to find the other, and couldn’t find her. She was gone. I couldn’t find either one. Did they get greeted and welcomed?

Did that really happen? No, but it might have. I just told a parable based on a parable. Parables are pithy little stories from everyday life, told to make a point, usually one simple and often surprising point. Jesus didn’t invent parables, but he is the master of telling parables to make his simple and surprising points.

“He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.” It is notable that Luke tells us that. As if to say, “you don’t want to miss this, just in case you too have a tendency to think more highly of yourself and look down on others.” Like four days ago when I was in the waiting room of a physical therapy clinic and saw one young woman who looked like she had slept on the streets the night before and was talking too loud on her cell phone. Yes, I was really in that place—no parable this time—and had to work on not looking down on her. Yes, this parable is for me and I expect it is for you too. This parable also involves a religious type person and we are here today, which suggests that we care about religion in some way. So we better listen. Are we listening?

Two people approach the temple to pray. One is a religious leader and one a tax collector. They both are there to pray; they have that in common, but that is all. There is an obvious divide between them. The Pharisee is on the right team, a faithful member of the Jewish people, a nationalist. The tax collector works for a foreign mega power that has occupied little Israel as part of its empire. Sound familiar? Yes, that happens in our world today. It is happening right now in Ukraine and plenty of other places we don’t know about.

The Pharisee is ritually clean. That is, his religious practices are in order. We tend to like that. The tax collector is ritually unclean; he does the bidding of the foreign power and gets paid well to do so. We tend not to like that.

Which one of these would we want to join our church, the tither or the employee of the foreign government? I think I know your answer and mine. Give us the one that tithes. We need tithers. We need people with good religious practices. We need people that know how to dress up on Sunday mornings, and volunteer to work at the food drive, and keep their lawns mowed to three inches without any weeds. Now Jesus has us right where he wants us, as we listen in on their prayers. First the Pharisee: ‘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.’ Then the tax collector: ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’  How would you grade their prayers? Which one would you want to lead our opening prayer in worship this morning?

We have a showy, self-exalting prayer and a simple, honest plea. The Pharisee’s prayer has this danger in it: he is thankful that he is better off than someone else. I don’t want to be thankful to God at the expense of another person. I want to be thankful because God loves that other person as God loves me. Which one shows us how to pray?

And look at their postures. One raises his head and voice in preening pride; one lowers his head and voice in humility. The Bible uses the words humble and humility over 100 times. I briefly looked at them. The Bible uniformly lifts up humility as the right way to live. In Matthew 11:28-30, Jesus says, “Come to me, all you who are weary and carrying heavy burdens…. For I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” In Matthew 21, Jesus enters Jerusalem riding a borrowed donkey, and it says, “Look, your king is coming to you, humble and riding on a donkey.” In Philippians 2, it says that “He humbled himself, taking the form of a servant.”  This is how the Lord of glory comes to us, in humility.

Here is a humility quiz. I will give you a statement and you tell me if it is humble or not. Let’s consider Josh Allen, the star quarterback for our Buffalo Bills, in whose mouth I will put some words. First, he says, “I’m not a good football player. I don’t run fast or throw accurate passes or leap over other players.” Is that humble or not? Next, Allen says, “I am clearly the greatest quarterback ever to play football. (Move over, Tom Brady). There is no other player even close to how good I am.” Is that humble or not? One more: Allen says, “I have been given a lot of athletic ability and I work hard at improving it all the time. I hope to be a player on the Bills when they win the Super Bowl.” Is that humble or not?

Humility is not being dishonest about ourselves. Trying to look humble is the worst kind of pride. It isn’t putting ourselves down. It is never comparing ourselves to others. It is having an honest understanding that we are fearfully and wonderfully created by God, crowned with glory and honor, made to serve others as Jesus serves us. Rather than looking down at others, humility listens to others and seeks to understand them and lift them.

I love stories that show genuine humility. I read last week that Jim Redmond died at his home in Northampton, England. I recognized the name. It was 30 years ago that he was seated in the Olympic Stadium in Barcelona, Spain, to watch his son, Derek Redmond, run in the semifinal 400-meter race in the summer Olympics. Derek was favored to win. At the halfway mark, Derek was ready to make his move and win the race. Then, suddenly, he grabbed his hamstring and fell to the track. His hamstring muscle had snapped. He lay on the track in pain, then got himself up and began hopping on his good leg to finish the race. Jim, his father, leaped from section 131, row 22, seat 25, and ran onto the track. Safety guards tried to stop him, but he would not be stopped. He told his son that he didn’t have to finish the race, but Derek said that he must finish the race. Jim put an arm around his weeping son and walked with him to finish the race. 65,000 people were on their feet cheering. Millions more watched on television screens around the world. That is a picture of biblical humility. It is seeing the other in need and coming alongside the other and giving the other a lift. It is what Jesus does for us. He comes to lift the fallen, to exalt the humble.

The parable gives us a choice: exalt ourselves or humble ourselves. If we choose to exalt ourselves, we will be brought down, whether sooner or later. But if we choose to humble ourselves, never looking down on others, God will lift us up. God loves to lift those who humble themselves. It makes me want to pray, not in some flowery, wordy way to impress others, but as a tax collector once prayed: ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ Will you pray with me now in this way? ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ 

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