A Sermon Preached on Sunday, September 4, 2011, by
The Rev. S. Randall Toms, Ph. D.,
At St. Paul’s Reformed Episcopal Church, Baton Rouge, Louisiana
And he spake this parable unto certain which trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others: Two men went up into the temple to pray; the one a Pharisee, and the other a publican. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican. I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess. And the publican, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner. I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other: for every one that exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted. (Luke 18:9-14)
If you really want to insult Christian people, call them a bunch of Pharisees. As we read the New Testament, the Pharisees come across as one of the villainous groups ever portrayed in Scripture. When we think of Pharisees we think of those who like to put their piety and devotion on display for the entire world to see. We imagine them standing in public places, praying these loud, long prayers so that everyone will be sure to see them and praise them for being so devout and holy. We see them wearing their long robes, with the beautiful borders, the phylacteries worn around their arms or on their foreheads to signal how they were always meditating upon and observing the law of God. Perhaps, most of all, when we think of the Pharisees, we think of their hypocrisy. While they put on such a show to convince people of how godly they were, tithing not only their money, but even their herbs, the Pharisees were capable of incredible cruelty. Though they professed to be obedient to the law, they were those who devoured widow’s houses. Though they made long prayers, we see them plotting how they might kill Jesus.
One of the most famous descriptions of the Pharisees is found in Luke 18. Our Lord shows us that one of the chief characteristics of the Pharisees was that they thought they were so much better than other people. In this Parable of the Publican and the Pharisee, we notice how the Pharisee brags about how good he is. He fasts, he tithes, and he is not an extortioner or unjust. He’s not an adulterer. Then, in the middle of his prayer, he sort of takes a peak and sees a tax collector, and in effect says, “I’m certainly much better than this tax collector.” The Pharisee is someone who is convinced of his own goodness, his own righteousness, and how superior he is morally to other people.
Since the Pharisees were so religious, when we look for modern day examples of Pharisaism, we tend to look in the church. We look for people in the church who pray, sing praises to God, give their money to the church, and yet lead hypocritical lives. We look at such people and say, “These are the Pharisees of our generation.” But I think we need to expand the membership of modern Pharisaism and include some other people. In our generation, I would go so far as to say that most of the Pharisees are outside the church. In our analysis of the Pharisees we often forget their chief characteristic was that they felt that they did not need a savior. The Pharisee is someone that we call “self-righteous.” The Pharisee believed that he was so good and holy, he didn’t need someone to save him from the guilt and power of his sin. He would not even have classified himself as a sinner. Those other people, the extortioners, the adulterers, the tax collectors, were the sinners. We could define Pharisaism in this way: the Pharisee is someone who feels no need to pray this prayer offered by the tax collector, “God be merciful to me, a sinner.” The Pharisee may pray a great deal, but he sees no need to pray that prayer.
You do not have to go to church to find people who feel that they have no need to pray that prayer. We would have to say that most people in America today, even among those who are not in the church, see no need to pray, “God be merciful to me, a sinner.”
In our day, we have intellectual Pharisees. The chief characteristic of the Pharisee is that he despises others. Our modern intellectual Pharisees despise others, considering themselves to be so intellectually superior to those fools in churches who believe those fairy stories in the Bible. While they wouldn’t thank God for their superiority, as this Pharisee in the parable did, they would say to themselves, “I am so glad I am not as other men are. I am intellectually superior and know that there is no proof for the existence of God. I am thankful that my keen, enlightened intellect has freed me from the idea that there is a superior being to whom I must one day give account, so there is no need for me to grovel before an almighty tyrant and plead for his mercy.”
Then we have those who say that they believe in God, but they are so superior to those who go to church, because they are broad-minded and tolerant. They brag that they are so much better than those bigots who go to conservative churches. They have come to the conclusion that all those verses in the Bible that speak of God being a God of wrath and justice are just remnants of a very primitive belief system. They have “demythologized” the Bible and have seen that there is no need to look upon ourselves as sinners, because God doesn’t see us as sinners. They believe that God sees us as those who have made some mistakes, but there is no need to ask God for mercy, for God is not going to hold us accountable for our sins anyway. They pray with themselves, “God I thank you, that I have realized that I am not a sinner, and even if I were, I still wouldn’t have to ask you for mercy, because you are so loving, you are not going to hold me accountable for my actions.”
Then there are those who call themselves Christians, but won’t go to church because there are too many hypocrites in the church. This is one of the reasons why I say that so many Pharisees are outside the church. The new Pharisee is not someone who is inside the church, feeling superior to those outside the church. The new Pharisee is that person who is outside the church, because he feels he is so superior to those inside the church. These are the people who pride themselves on saying, “Those hypocrites in the church are religious, but I’m not religious. I’m spiritual.” The next time you hear someone use that slogan, just remember, you are listening to a proud Pharisee. They don’t go to church because they are too good, too spiritual to mingle with those religious hypocrites. Since they are not guilty of such hypocrisy, they could not bear to get off their lofty pedestal and associate with those ungodly hypocrites who go to church. They stand and pray with themselves saying, “God I thank you that I am not like those hypocritical people who go to church. There is no need for me to pray, ‘God be merciful to me a sinner,’ because I am so spiritual.” Yes, it is true that the church has its share of Pharisees, but atheists, agnostics, members of other religions, and those who don’t go to church have their own form of Pharisaism. They all have this characteristic in common—they are intellectually, morally, and spiritually, better than other people.
But what is the opposite of Pharisaism? The opposite of the Pharisee is seen in this tax collector who will not even lift his eyes toward heaven, but smites his breast saying, “God be merciful to me, a sinner.” The Christian does not feel that he is superior to anyone, morally, spiritually, or intellectually. How could the Christian ever feel superior to anyone when the first thing that a Christian has discovered about himself is that he is a sinner? The Holy Spirit has opened his eyes and made him look into the deep recesses of his heart and what has he found there? The Christian has found within himself hatred, envy, jealousy, lust, idolatry, cruelty, and other things too horrible to mention. The Christian knows that there is no sin that he is not capable of committing. The Christian looks at all the people of the Bible, like David, and knows, that given the right opportunity and the right pressure, he is capable of committing those sins and more. Even when the Christian sees someone who is living in open rebellion against the law of God, his is always the famous sentiment, “There but by the grace of God, go I.” The Christian knows that his heart is deceitful and desperately wicked. The Christian knows that if he has any virtue at all, it was planted there by Jesus Christ. The Holy Spirit has worked in him and produced in him the fruit of righteousness. We have done nothing at all worthy of praise.
Christians realize that they are sinners, and if we have any goodness at all, it is because God has had mercy on us and produced that goodness in us. We have nothing of which to boast. We can’t boast that we are believers because we are intellectually superior. We are not believers because we have these wonderfully reasonable minds that have deduced with our keen intellects that the gospel is true. The Christian knows that if he believes it is because God had mercy on him and granted him the ability to believe. We are just like other people. By nature, we don’t want to believe the gospel. By nature, we would much rather not believe the gospel, but God in his mercy has shown us that the gospel is the truth, and gave us hearts to love the gospel message. Believe a believer is nothing that we can brag or boast about. Our ability to believe is the merciful act of God.
The Christian knows that he is no better than those outside the church, and he doesn’t have a haughty attitude toward people inside the church either. The Christian looks upon other believers in Christ as those who are fellow sinners who have received mercy. We see this humility in St. Paul when he said, “For I am the least of the apostles, that am not meet to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am” (I Cor. 15:9-10). Notice how the apostle says that though he is an apostle, he is not worthy to be called an apostle. He had been a persecutor of the church, and if he has accomplished anything for the cause of Christ, it is because of the grace of God working in him. He has done nothing of which he can boast as any kind of innate goodness or virtue. St. Paul continues these kinds of descriptions of himself. We find him looking upon himself as “the least of the apostles,” “less than the least of all the saints” (Eph. 3:8), and “the chief of sinners” (I Tim. 1:15). The believer in Christ sees himself the same light.
St. Paul constantly admonishes Christians not to be proud and think ourselves better than others. In Phil. 2:3, he says, “Let nothing be done through strife or vainglory; but in lowliness of mind let each esteem other better than themselves.” In Romans 12:3, he writes, “For I say, through the grace given unto me, to every man that is among you, not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think; but to think soberly, according as God hath dealt to every man the measure of faith.” Paul constantly warns us about the sin of being “highminded,” conceited, arrogant, and proud. When St. Paul talks about how the Jews were rejected and the Gentiles were grafted into the church, Paul tells Gentile Christians, “Be not highminded but fear. For if God spared not the natural branches, take heed lest he also spare not thee” (Romans 11:20-21). The Christian knows what unbelief lurks in his heart, just waiting for the opportunity to fill our hearts with faithlessness. Don’t be highminded, but fear.
If there is one characteristic of modern people, especially people in the United States, I would have to say that it is we are highminded—we think we are so much better than we really are. But Christians, knowing what we know about ourselves, knowing that what we have done and what we are capable of doing, knowing what a strong tendency there is in us to abandon the faith, we begin the Christian life and end the Christian life with the same prayer, “God be merciful to me, a sinner.” Even on the last day, when we stand before the judgment bar of God, we will still have only one plea. We will not stand there saying, “I have done many good works. I have gone to church. I have read my Bible daily. I have contributed to charities. Surely I deserve a place in heaven because I have been such a good husband, father, mother, wife, such a faithful church member.” No, we will still be saying, “God be merciful to me, a sinner.”
Down through the centuries, the people of God have always kept this posture of pleading for the mercy of God. In Psalm 25:7, the Psalmist prays, “Remember not the sins of my youth, nor my transgressions: according to thy mercy remember thou me for thy goodness’ sake, O LORD.” The Psalmist doesn’t deny that he is a sinner. He knows that he is and pleads for mercy. After David committed his terrible sin with Bathsheba, he begins that beautiful penitential prayer of the 51st Psalm, “Have mercy upon me, O God, according to thy lovingkindness: according unto the multitude of thy tender mercies blot out my transgressions.” David doesn’t say, “Lord, I know that I did wrong, but think back on all the good things I did before I sinned and all the good things I am going to do in the future.” No, he pleads for mercy. When St. Paul describes how the Christian has been saved, he puts it like this, “ Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost“(Titus 3:5). God didn’t save us because we did so many good works. We have no works of righteousness. All our righteousness is as filthy rags in the sight of God. We are saved only because of the mercy that has been shown to us in the atoning work of Jesus Christ. Christians are often accused of being Pharisees—being haughty, proud, arrogant, feeling that they are better than other people. If a person is bragging about his own goodness, he is no Christian. The Christian is one who realizes that he is merely the recipient of mercy.
The great characteristic of true Anglican worship is prayer. But if I go a little further and ask, “What kind of prayer is most characteristic of Anglican praying,” we would say that it is prayer for mercy. We open our service with the Kyrie, “Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy.” Three times we ask for mercy, and if we do the ninefold version, nine times we ask for mercy. If we do the Decalogue, ten times we ask for mercy. We begin the service in this manner because we know that even our worship, even our prayers, are filled with such sin and imperfection that they are only received because God is merciful. In the remainder of the service some 16 times the word “mercy” or some form of it, such as “merciful” is used in our service, not counting the collects and other prayers we use that often contain the word “mercy.” As a matter of fact, if someone asked you, “What do you do in the worship services of the church,” our answer would be quite unusual for these days. We would say, “What we do most in our worship service is plead for mercy.” I would invite you this morning, for the rest of the service to take note how many times we use the word mercy in our service, not even counting the many hymns we sing that contain that word. Anglican worship encourages the posture and the attitude of this tax collector. We do not lift proud and arrogant eyes to heaven and boast of our goodness. We bow our heads and plead for mercy. You can’t really see it during the service of Holy Communion, because I have my back turned to you, but while I am saying the prayer, “And though we are unworthy, through our manifold sins, to offer unto thee any sacrifice; yet we beseech thee to accept this our bounden duty and service, not weighing our merits, but pardoning our offences..,” I strike my chest. It is a way of remembering this description of the tax collector who smote his breast, saying, “God be merciful to me a sinner.” I make that action on behalf of us all, for we know that we are unworthy to be here, unworthy to offer the sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving, but God receives it out of mercy through Christ our Lord.
The characteristic of the Pharisee, whether we find it in first century Palestine or in 21st century America, is the same. The Pharisee refuses to bow, refuses to smite his breast in agony over his sin, and refuses to plead for mercy. But the good news of the gospel is that for all who recognize that they are sinners and that they need mercy, God will grant his merciful forgiveness to those who ask him. In Psalm 86:5, we find the words, “For thou, Lord, art good, and ready to forgive; and plenteous in mercy unto all them that call upon thee.” In Eph. 2, Paul described the condition of the Ephesians before they came to Christ and he says that they walked according to the course of this world. That is, they yielded to Satan and his devices, they lived in lust, fulfilling the lusts of the flesh and of the mind, and they were those who deserved the wrath of God. Then, St. Paul says, “But God, who is rich in mercy, for his great love wherewith he loved, even when we were dead in sins, hath quickened us together with Christ (by grace ye are saved)” (Eph. 2:4-5). We are saved for one reason: God is rich in mercy. God is so rich in mercy, he sent his son to die on the cross for us. If we will only believe in what Christ did on the cross, he will forgive all our sins. He will have mercy on all who come to him through Christ. Let us come once again to this holy table, praying again the prayer of the tax collector, “God be merciful to me a sinner,” and then resting assured that he will pity us, for he is the same Lord whose property is always to have mercy. Amen.