By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
October 23, 2022
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Luke 18:9–14 (ESV)
9 He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: 10 “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ 13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ 14 I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”
As I have read through the gospel of Luke the past few weeks. God has been revealing things that I have been blind to for many years. I have grown used to scripture. This does not mean that I have grown tired but that I have become comfortable. I like this comfortable image, because this is one of the most powerful images there is.
My grandparents were and are some of my favorite people on earth. I have mentioned them often, and there are not many days where I reminisce on who and what my grandmother was. My grandfather with his quick wit and song is still living and he has been such a foundational influence in my life that I really do not know how I will react when God calls him home. My grandparents are my comfort. They are that little sanctuary in this crazy world, a touch stone, where I can either remember or visit and just know that things will be ok.
If you ask me about my grandparents, I will describe them as saints because I truly believe that they are that caliber of person, but I am aware of their faults and the trials they went through. They were born during the depression when both lived on farms in dry land Kansas. Their families survived one of the greatest agricultural economic disasters in our nation’s history, and they emerged from that trial not broken but stronger. When my grandfather was coming of age, World War two was being fought. He had to live with the risk of being drafted into that war, he had to struggle with his own peace testimony since he grew up among Friends, and he had to think about the farm. My great grandfather had a son and a daughter. My great aunt’s husband ran half of the family farm and my grandfather the rest, with the help of my great grandfather. Since the farm itself was under the ownership of my great-grandfather my great uncle was drafted into the navy, but as the only son of a farm owner my grandfather was not drafted to the war. This might seem like a praise to the Lord, but there were struggles on the home front during the war also. It was not easy to run a farm during a period of rationing. Luckily, they were prepared for this.
You see each trial we face strengthens us and prepares us for what life will bring us in the future. My great-grandfather worked on the farm throughout the great depression. He learned how to survive, and he had ingenuity. He took those skills with him and during the war they were able to work around the various struggles they faced so that they could produce what was needed.
The lifestyle of those that live on a farm is interesting. It is raw, so to speak. Farmers often live on the edge of success and poverty. Every little thing within the global economy seems to affect those that produce the raw materials that feed the world. When the price of natural gas and oil rise it affects the farmer. When the dollar loses value in relation to other currencies it significantly affects the farmer. It affects them because there is so little margin in agriculture. I think this is why Jesus uses farmers in the parables. Little things affect them more. And in most societies, farmers are a predominate demographic in their population.
I got a bit off topic, but there really is a point to this. The farm is my place of comfort. It’s my touch point. And this is largely due to my grandparents. In many ways I do not remember the negative things about my grandparents. I only see the good, and often I will paint over the negative and make it seem as if it is good. I would watch my grandparents interact at the table and listen to them argue about things. The funniest was always when my grandpa would point randomly in a direction, and my grandmother would grab what was necessary while complaining about how she could not possibly know what he needed if he did not talk. And yet she always handed him the exact thing he wanted. And his response was always, “Thank You.” With an occasional, “you seem to be pretty good at figuring it out.” That is the comfort that I am speaking about. Knowing someone to such a degree that a random pointing of a finger could prompt instant knowledge of what was needed even if a word was not spoken. It does not mean my grandparents were perfect. Clearly, they had issues in their relationship if my grandmother vocalized the need for greater communication.
We often get into this with scripture. We get so comfortable with it that we seemingly know exactly what it is saying. But then all at once something else is revealed to you. Like my grandpa pointing to ask for salt and instead receiving butter. In that moment words must be spoken.
This has been my experience over the past couple of weeks. I have read these verses many times. I have even presented messages on them but this time something else has been revealed. It is not that it is something new, it has always been there, just like the butter on my grandmother’s table has always been right next to the salt. But something in my life at this moment has changed. And if I continue with my grandparents’ table illustration, my grandfather had his knife in his hand instead of his fork, so with the given circumstances butter was the more appropriate response instead of salt.
What has changed in my life that has promoted the Spirit of God to show me an aspect of these stories that I have not seen before? I cannot fully tell you because I am not fully aware. But I feel as if the conflict in Ukraine, and various discussions that I have been involved in among the elders has promoted my spirit to be more open to a different perspective. I have gotten comfortable with scripture. At times I have felt as if I knew what it says, and the Spirit of God informed me that there is much to learn.
Jesus begins to teach once again, but today he does not address his disciples but those who have gotten comfortable within their understanding of faith. He addresses those who trust in themselves for their righteousness.
I stopped here in my personal contemplations this week. I sat in my traditional chair, and I just considered what this really meant. I pondered how it may appear. I wondered if I could even recognize it. This consideration has led me to some examination of myself in many ways.
Jeremiah 7:3-7 says:
3 Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Amend your ways and your deeds, and I will let you dwell in this place. 4 Do not trust in these deceptive words: ‘This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord.’
5 “For if you truly amend your ways and your deeds, if you truly execute justice one with another, 6 if you do not oppress the sojourner, the fatherless, or the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own harm, 7 then I will let you dwell in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your fathers forever.
I found myself wondering if I was deceiving myself, am I getting comfortable in my own understanding and my own self. This is difficult for me. I do tend to speak about myself, and I am aware of this, but I do this for the simple fact that I know me, but have I spoken so much about myself that I have walked over a line.
In the passage from Jeremiah the prophet urges the followers of God to consider their faith. Are they worshiping a temple of stone or are they worshiping the true God? Are they exhibiting their faith in their devotion to the temple, or are they expressing their faith among those that bear the image of God? I think we as Evangelical Christians could learn something from the prophets.
Two men, Jesus says, went up into the temple to pray. When the temple was at its prime, there were two times devoted to corporate prayer, in the morning and in the afternoon, and then throughout the rest of the day individuals could come into certain sections to pray as individuals. We are not told if this is one of the corporate sessions of prayer or if these two men just happened to enter into the temple courts at the same time for their own personal reasons. I would venture to say that it was probably a dedicated time for the simple fact that one of the men was a Pharisee.
We tend to look at the Pharisees with contempt because of the various arguments that Jesus has with them during his parables. This is quite unfortunate because if we were to really consider the teachings that Jesus gave and compare them to rabbinical teaching of the pharisees of the same era we would find that in many ways they are quite similar. The Pharisees were good people. They were the kind of people we would want to be in our community. They showed up and they got things done when it came to religious activities. Sure, at times they might be a bit much on their piety, but you could count on them. They were devout people.
Jesus gives us a glimpse into this devotion, “God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.” This is a good man. I like him, I would probably encourage the nominating committee to nominate him to be a chairman on one of our boards. He is not an extortioner, he is just, he is faithful to his wife, and he is not a tax collector. I think we can all agree that this is good.
But there is more. He fasts twice a week. This is a common practice among the Pharisees. Even the Jewish historian Josephus mentions the religious devotion of this sect of Judaism in his various histories. The Pharisees were known to have fasted on Monday and Thursday. The fact that we know the very days even two thousand years later surprises me, but there is a reason for this knowledge. Those days were the market days. Those were the days that the most people would be in the various cities throughout the nation buying and selling goods. And these men would go out into these communities publicizing their piety.
A fast is an important spiritual discipline, although it is not one that I personally frequent. The idea is that we abstain from food for a period of time and devote the time and the financial aspects of a meal to the glory of God. The point of the fast is not so much to show the world our devotion to God, but to bring ourselves into proper alignment with God. Most fasts are done to remind us of suffering. For the Christian most mandatory fasts within various denominations are during Lent where we focus on the temptation of Jesus, or during passion week when we focus on the suffering of Jesus. Among the first century Jewish community it might surprise you that there was only one mandatory fast each year, on the day of atonement. The Day of Atonement was basically a collective reset of the religious community. They would deny themselves of food during this time to remind them that their very life and existence is by the grace of God. Together they would feel the pangs of hunger as they watched their priest transfer all the sins of the community, not individual sins but the sins of the entire nation, onto a goat that was then chased out into wilderness. It is interesting that the sins were placed on the goat that was not ritualistically killed but on the one that survived. We often call this goat the scape goat, but it is the goat for Azazel. There is debate about this word. I could be a place or a personality. But I want us to consider the possibility of it being a personality. If Azazel is a personality, why would God command Israel to basically send a sacrifice to it?
This is where the place comes in. Azazel is a wilderness filled with rocky cliffs. It is the valley of the shadow of death. By transferring the inequity of the nation on this goat and sending it out into the wilderness God is visually showing them that they are denying themselves of pleasure and food to refocus their lives on the one true God and they are sending their sin back to the wilderness where it belongs, and that they will no longer worship this idol of sin and death, but will return to the one true God.
Long story short, a fast is not about gaining favor with God. A fast is returning our mind, our bodies, and our spirits back to God. It is about denying ourselves the pleasures of this world so that we can experience the world through the strength and power of God.
The pharisee in the story does not only fast, but he tithes. I do not speak much about this topic, but it is important. We often think of the tithe as being ten percent of our income, like a Godly income tax. This misses the point. The actual tithe was not on everything, this might surprise you, but it was only on firstling animals, cereal grains, wine, and oil. I hope when I read off that list you caught something. Of the items on that list, they were the staples of life and animals that qualify for sacrifice. The tithe is not about raising support of the meetinghouse, but it is about trust and faith. It is giving God a tenth of your life and your hope.
The daily wage in the first century was not based on currency, but on what it cost to eat. When Jesus taught his disciples to pray, he said give us this day our daily bread. This literally means that we will trust God for the necessities of survival. To give a tithe would basically mean that one day out of ten you would sacrifice your daily bread to God. One day out of ten. If we were to subtract out the Sabbath day that leaves 313 days of labor. That means within each year 31.3 days of bread the most basic necessities of life should be devoted to God. Basically, an entire month. But then there is a tenth of the firstling animals as well. This is the future hope. Wealth was often calculated on the flock not on currency. If you read through Genesis, we are told about the size of the patriarch’s flocks. I raised cattle as a child and when you raise cattle you are more excited for females than males because that is one more animal that will produce offspring the next year. The females of the flock are the hope of the future.
To give a tithe of the firstling of the flocks means that one tenth of those first-born animals were devoted to God. These were the ones that you would sacrifice for yourself, but these were the animals given to the temple for the sacrifices for the nation. One tenth of your future hope. How can we quantify this in our lives today? On average we work from the age of twenty-one to sixty-five, which is forty-four years. If we were to make $30,000 a year for that entire time that would be over $1 million. A tenth of our future hope is $100,000. I want us to really get a grasp on what a tithe is. If we were to give a tenth of the daily bread it would mean one month of wage, and a tenth of our future hope. At $30,000 a year that would not be $3000 but $4772. I did this weird math for a reason. It is not about the money. The pharisee in the story was saying he gave a tithe of everything which meant he gave a tenth on all income not just his daily bread and future hope. He went above and beyond. But he missed the point, the tithe is about faith. It is about hope. It is about trusting that God will provide for our daily bread even if we are willing to give him over a month’s worth of that bread each year. The question is do we have that amount of faith? Do we trust that God will provide?
There is a second man in the story, a tax collector. No one likes tax collectors. Even if we support the idea of paying taxes to a civil government, not one of us is yearning for a tax audit. We do not seek this out because it is an invasion of our privacy, it questions our integrity, and it threatens our future. The tax collector is a reminder that we have obligations and responsibilities thrust upon us that we cannot control. It is a reminder of the potential of human corruption and injustice. I am often accused of being idealistic. I truly believe with the right encouragement and proper communication people would willingly take care of their own communities. I believe this because I have faith. That there is a necessity for a tax collector shows me that we live in a broken world, because we must use the threat of force for people to provide for their community.
Yes, I think it is important that we are a bit uncomfortable with my words, because this is why Jesus spoke these things. The Pharisee despised the tax collector but why, it is because the tax collector is a visual reminder that the world is not what it should be. The pharisee speaks to God about his personal greatness, and the tax collector beats his breast and pleas to God to be merciful to me, a sinner. But a sinner may not be the best rendering of the word. Some scholars believe that it should be translated not a sinner but the sinner. The tax collector embodies our sin.
We are often unwilling to step up and live in faith and because of this other have stepped in to take up the slack where we have failed. I am not saying that we should not pay taxes, but I am say that the fact that we need to pay taxes is a testimony to us all that we have failed. We have let people slip through the cracks, we have treated others with injustice, we are focused on ourselves instead of encouraging those within our community. We should be beating our breast because our nation needs a tax collector because it means that we have neglected justice, we have oppressed the sojourner, we have allowed the fatherless and the widows to go hungry, we have shed innocent blood and chased after gods to our own harm. We should be beating our breasts, because we have used the name or our lord in vain.
This parable is layered it is not only about prayer, but it is also about temptation and complacency. We are tempted to believe that we have no sin. We are tempted to believe that we are better than those around us because I have not personally, intentionally, caused harm. Have we trusted in ourselves? Have we looked at or treated others with contempt? Have we compared ourselves with others and said that we are righteous or good?
In my favorite book, The Brothers Karamazov, the holy man tells Alexei “There is only one salvation for you: take yourself up, and make yourself responsible for all the sins of men. For indeed it is so, my friend, and the moment you make yourself sincerely responsible for everything and everyone, you will see at once that it is really so, that it is you who are guilty on behalf of all and for all. Whereas by shifting your own laziness and powerlessness onto others, you will end by sharing in Satan’s pride and murmuring against God.”
I know that the quote is strange, but it is good. This is the tax collector in the story Jesus tells, “God, be merciful to me, the sinner.” The tax collector knows that he is the problem, he has failed to live up to God’s standard and he needs help. He recognizes that He is not righteous in himself and without divine intervention he will share with the corruption of mankind. Do we recognize this in ourselves?
I have sat in contemplation this week and I have struggled. I have struggled because so often we want to prove our own righteousness, but the reality is that we are the sinner. We are the reason that Jesus had to come from his throne and live among us. We are the reason that he had to suffer and die on a cross. We are the reason that he had to lay alone in the tomb. But we are also the reason he rose from the grave. He came because we are the sinner and we are guilty, and we are deceived. We have fallen short of God’s glory and his purpose. We have failed to make the world around us Eden, because we are distracted by the knowledge of good and evil. We try and we strive but so often we get caught in the traps of doing evil so that good can come of it. And the cycle continues. How will we break this cycle? God, be merciful to me, the sinner.
 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. Crossway Bibles, 2016, p. Je 7:3–7.
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