Dr. Victor Chang was a great heart surgeon based at St.Vincents Hospital. He had the ability to transplant a heart and a lung and he gave people an extra 20 years of life. Things were said of him that will not be said of many of us.
One Thursday morning while driving to work he was pulled over by 2 gunmen, he refused their request and he was shot dead, there on that footpath at Mosman was the very best and the very worst this country had to offer. His hand devoted to saving lives, the hands of his murderers were devoted to taking his.
The story that Jesus tells also puts two men together side by side in the presence of God. They stood for the very best and the very worst his nation could provide.
He tells the story for one reason.
To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: ~Luke 18.9 (NIV)
This is a critique on those who trust in their own goodness and as a result, look down on everybody else. What we have here is the Pharisee and the Tax collector.
The Pharisees were about 1% of the Jewish population, they were hardcore and there were no half measures, these were spiritual heroes of that culture. They fasted 2 days a week and this is not your 5-2 diet where you drop to 600 calories 2 days a week. This was no food for 2 days every week, week in week out. It was all the more impressive given the bible only required 1 day per year, but that is religion for you, it always adds to what God says.
They also gave 10% of their wage to a greater cause. If anyone had grounds for thinking they had done enough it was them. They had a high standard and a high success rate!
The tax collectors were on the other end of the spectrum, they were contracted by the Romans, who invaded Israel, to tax their own people. They were a nasty piece of work, they betrayed their own people by siding with the enemy. They exploited their own people by overtaxing them. They bled decent people of a decent living. Kids went to bed hungry because of the Tax collectors who lined their own pockets with illegal taxes.
Knowing that, who would you honestly think that Jesus would promise heaven to.
Let's see how they approach God. The Pharisee comes before God prayerfully confident that he did everything required of him and more.
The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’ ~Luke 18:11-12 (NIV)
As far as he is concerned, he has kept the 10 commandments. He paid his taxes and he has not slept with another man's wife. But most of all he is grateful that he is has not turned out like that treacherous tax collector.
He does not sing "Amazing Grace how sweat the sound that saved a wretch like me." His hymn is "Amazing Grace how sweat the sound that saved a wretch like him."
The Pharisee thinks he a good person who has done a lot of good and his community would agree, this is why he relies on what he does. You get the feeling that God owes him. What the Pharisee doesn't do is this; he doesn't come, wanting to be put right with God, not a hint of confession.
The religious heart tends to produce one of two outcomes, you’re either proud or petrified. Proud that I'm good enough and you’re not or Petrified that I'm not good enough and I never will be.
The Tax collector, on the other hand, is very much aware of his failure before God
“But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ ~Luke 18.13 (NIV)
This is not low self-esteem, this is an honest assessment of himself. He knows that he comes before a perfect God as a sinner, there is no offer to try a little harder, there are no new resolutions. He places no hope whatsoever in anything good he may have done, because he may well have been good to his close circle of friends and family but he knows they are but crumbs. All we hear from his lips are "Have mercy on me a sinner' or literally 'the sinner.'
What made these two men end up coming to God in such different ways?
1. Being good is its own temptation. The Pharisee was deceived by his virtues, he was a man who did good things, but he then concluded that he was good enough. The fatal error is, I’m good therefore I’m good enough for God.
So, the warning is clear, the better you are, the more sincere, more compassionate, more spiritual, the more causes you pursue, the more justice you seek on behalf of others, the greater the danger for thinking that these are the grounds of God's approval. They aren’t.
The Tax Collector has no goodness to be deceived by, that is why he is not pretending. He knows he is a mongrel and so does everybody else.
Friends let me be very clear, Heaven is not for good people, Heaven is for forgiven people. It has to be because Jesus said “No one is good, except God alone.” The Pharisee didn’t come looking for forgiveness, he came to present his CV to get a promotion.
2. The Pharisee does what we are all tempted to do, he made other people the yardstick and not God. He measured his performance with other people like the tax collector instead of measuring his performance with God. Of course, he was better than the tax collector, but so what! People all over the world are pinning their hopes that they are at least statistically average and better than most. Did you know that 80% of Australian men think they are above average in sport?
We are deluded by comparison, I am 5 ft 6 inches tall, that's 165 cms which is not all that tall, yet growing up I thought of myself as being tall. My Father was 5 ft or 152 cms and my Mother was 5 ft or 152 cms and my sisters are 150 cms so, by the time I was 12 I towered in my family. As long as I used my family as the comparison, I considered myself to be tall. But by the age of 13, I discovered all my friends grew 5 to 10 cms taller than me and before I knew it I was on the receiving end of short jokes.
So what if you are as good as the average and better than most. So what if you’re the best person who has ever walked this earth, line yourself up to Gods standard and cringe.
What does the Tax Collector do? He doesn't measure himself to the Pharisee, he measures himself to a God whose standard is nothing less than perfect. Once you know that yardstick you’re only left with one response. “Have mercy on me a sinner!”
The tax collector sees himself in light of God alone, hence the clean confession. No excuses. No, I'm sorry but here are my good points. No, I'm sorry but I support three world vision kids. No, I'm sorry but I fight for the rights of Koalas. Have mercy on Me the sinner. So simple and so profound.
The problem with the human heart is this. It overestimates human nature then comes up with superficial solutions, but Jesus will tell us we are far worse than we can imagine and God is more merciful than we could ever hope for. When the Tax collector asks for mercy he is saying “God I know you’re rightly angry with me, I know I deserve hell. I'm asking you Lord to turn your anger away from me..”
Jesus, who told this parable is on his way to the cross, to take that anger upon himself. We fail to see the seriousness of our situation.
Imagine if you value your failures in terms of a financial debt toward God and you were told that you have incurred a debt by God for $250,000 and you have one life time to pay it back. What would you think? Serious - but I can solve this problem. You would work out how to pay it back…sell the car, or sell the house or take a loan. You would be optimistic that you could repay the debt. That is a human solution, to think I can pay it back. But Jesus' message is, your failures are more like a 900 billion dollar debt and you have one life time to pay it. What would be your reaction? You’re not going to offer 3 cents in the dollar, you would give up and cry for mercy.
The Tax Collector has done what God expects everyone to do, Give up! Not give up doing good! Give up trusting that your goodness will justify you before God or qualify you for heaven. Heaven is not for good people because they don’t exist. Heaven is for forgiven people who ask for mercy. Don’t stop doing good but stop relying on the good you do and start relying on God's mercy.
The Tax collector sees things as God sees them. Now Jesus, who is the one who will judge us all, tells us how he sees them.
“I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” ~Luke 18.14 (NIV)
What?! Jesus declares that the horrible tax collector now broken before God has his charges dropped. He is justified, and that is as offensive as putting a civil rights activist and a member of the ku klux klan in a church, both hear the same message of grace. The ku klux klan member cries out for mercy and is forgiven but the civil right activist is offended and refuses to ask for forgiveness.
The Pharisee wants from God what he thinks he deserves and he got it, rejection. The Tax Collector asked for what he didn't deserve, mercy and he got it.
What do you want from God? I promise you, you will get it.
God will give you what you deserve if that is what you want.
Are you really sure you want it!
I remember watching a former minister of immigration talking to a Cambodian refugee in a detention centre. The minister of immigration asked the refugee “What do you want from me? The Cambodian man dropped his head and whispered, "mercy".
He is saying. “I know I have no right to be accepted but I'm asking for what I don’t deserve” Mercy
Friends God is dying to offer you mercy. No, Gods son Died to provide you with mercy. Jesus lived the life we should have lived, but didn't and then died the death we deserved to die but don’t have to. The payment is made, we owed a debt we just couldn't pay and Jesus paid the debt he didn't owe. And so let me plead with you, ask God for mercy, turn from your sins, turn to Christ. Begin a new personal relationship with this Lord Jesus whose mercy provides full forgiveness.
I preached this sermon once and a man came up and said “I was on that footpath in Mosman when Dr. Victor Chang was shot.” He was a British man working in Sydney, the assassin threatened him and he was too afraid to go home in Mosman.
So, he lived with a family for months who were Christians. They took him to church where he heard that Heaven is not for good people but forgiven people, who own their sin and cry out for mercy to Jesus. Is it not time for you to join the rest of us..
Have mercy on me a sinner. I know that what I deserve is your rejection but what I am asking for is your beautiful mercy.
Thank you Lord Jesus that through your death on the cross you paid the debt that I could never pay.Thank you that I am now fully forgiven.
I now put my trust in you. I now seek to put you first in my life. Please help me to live for you and never look down on others.
In Jesus name, Amen