Grace illustrated – Luke 18:9-14

Luke 18 is where we find Christ’s “Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector.”  It provides a number of lessons, namely on prayer, humility and grace.  Luke’s one-sentence introduction to the parable gives us a clear picture of what it is like when our understanding is devoid of the concept of grace.

He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: 

What are such people thinking?  And what corrective would Christ offer to their error?  We are now ready to understand the parable.

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.”

The Pharisee in the story does in fact think himself to be righteous.  He seems to be trusting in himself and, in his heart, treating the tax collector with contempt.  The man is convinced that God must be looking upon him favorably, since he is extra holy in all that he does.  No doubt the Pharisee really was more righteous than the tax collector in all of his outwardly visible behavior.

The tax collector comes to the temple with a sense of need.  We might add that there is no other way to come before God.  Neither gratitude nor worship make much sense if we are not needy at some deeply known level.  Prayers of petition express our need most directly.  A request for mercy from God is perhaps the ultimate petition, since our very lives and standing before God are hanging in the balance.  At the white throne of judgment we won’t be thinking of Aunt Betsy’s headaches.

Yet the tax collector is at least confident enough to go to the temple.  He is not so ashamed as to run and hide and refuse to pray.  He has a basic understanding of grace and his need for it.  This is the perfect place to begin.

Performance-based religion places numerous obstacles on the path to a reconciled and satisfied soul.  On our bad days, we can find ourselves striving in futility in an attempt to get right with God.  On our good days, we can feel confident, but deep down we are trusting in ourselves.  Neither end of that spectrum leads quickly to grace.

Grace reminds us that our best behavior is still somehow tainted by sin, even if only by a sliver of a wrong motive lurking in our heart.  Grace also give us confidence, when we know we have not measured up, to go into God’s presence and seek his mercy.  Like the tax collector who went down to his house justified.

Your worst days are never so bad that you’re beyond the reach of God’s grace.  And your best days are never so good that you’re beyond the need of God’s grace.*

– Jerry Bridges, author, Navigators staff member (1929 – 2016).

* from Bridges, 2008. Holiness Day by Day, Colorado Springs: NavPress, 19.  Originally in The Discipline of Grace

Spiritual VIPs – Mark 12:38-40

38 And in his teaching he said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes and like greetings in the marketplaces 39 and have the best seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at feasts, 40 who devour widows’ houses and for a pretense make long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”

Have you ever been in the presence of someone really, really important?  I remember one time attending a campaign event in New Hampshire in the run up to a presidential primary.  Several political big shots had crammed into a school cafeteria with all the requisite staff, press and random observers like me.  It was hard not to get caught up in the excitement of the moment.  So much power being wielded in the midst of a crowd interacting in tighter-than-usual personal space! The spectators and the stars were almost literally rubbing elbows.

We might assume all the candidates at that event had no aspirations outside the boundaries of selfless public service, but it probably wasn’t true.  Some people do crave the attention, the respect, the deference to their inherent importance, the awe from others which they see as their just due.

Jesus wasn’t like that, but rather lowered himself intentionally to our level.  When he saw the types that liked to be spiritual VIPs, he had nothing but harsh words. And he pointed out their hypocrisy.

They got attention merely by the way they dressed.  Some clothing automatically looks more spiritual and they wanted people to see them in it.  People saw them dressed in those long robes and reflexively gave them special greetings in the marketplaces.  It was a wholehearted, full-eye-contact “Oh hello, sir!” not just a halfhearted “Hi.”

When they took their place of religious duty, it was a place of honor.  If there was a feast, the host would be sure to seat them somewhere special, because of course he wanted everyone to see what kind of people came to his banquets – spiritual VIPs.

People like this can use their power to take advantage of others.  The grieving widow might someday want to sign over some of her estate.  Be sure to get into her good graces.  Why even wait that long?  Perhaps they would pull on her heartstrings now to lead her to give to their “charitable” cause.

Long prayers are often necessary, but there is no sense in the mind of this VIP to offer them only in private.  Prayers are best offered in pretense, for all to see and hear, sufficiently clogged with spiritual vocabulary and run-on sentences.  Who would ever believe that someone so pious could ever devour the house of a widow?

Many people will be condemned in the judgment, but these will receive greater condemnation.  If there is such a thing as a hotter place in hell, it is reserved for the phony, self-focused, hypocritically spiritual VIP.

Central Streaming: Actually, it isn’t all about the economy.

The_Vision_of_The_Valley_of_The_Dry_Bones-810x557At the height of Tyre’s glory, Ezekiel prophesies the demise of that economic powerhouse..

Ezekiel 26-27.pdf       Ezekiel 26-27.mp3

Who’s the Best?

Those silly apostles. In Luke 22 we see Jesus about to be betrayed, arrested and crucified – approaching the climax of His mission and ministry here on earth. Sadly, His closest followers seem oblivious. They are so self-centered they get into something of a fight.

I’m a better Christ-follower than you, Peter, ” says one.

You are not,” the burly fisherman strikes back.

Wait a minute! I’m the disciple Jesus really loves,” says John, the beloved disciple.

He’s just trying to make you feel good because you’re such an idiot.”

And so Jesus, with endless patience, interrupts.  He takes a conversation about greatness and makes it a lesson about our willingness to serve others. It’s a lesson we need every bit as much as they did:

Now there was also a dispute among them, as to which of them should be considered the greatest. And He said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them, and those who exercise authority over them are called ‘benefactors.’ But not so among you; on the contrary, he who is greatest among you, let him be as the younger, and he who governs as he who serves. For who is greater, he who sits at the table, or he who serves? Is it not he who sits at the table? Yet I am among you as the One who serves. – Luke 22:24-27 (NKJV)