Bible Reading James 1:22-25
James teaches us to use the Bible as a God-given reflective tool to look at our own hearts and adjust how we live on the basis of what we see in Scripture. He writes,
- 22 Do what God’s teaching says; don’t just listen and do nothing. When you only sit and listen, you are fooling your-selves. 23 Hearing God’s teaching and doing nothing is like looking at your face in the mirror 24 and doing nothing about what you saw. You go away and immediately forget how bad you looked. 25 But when you look into God’s perfect law that sets people free, pay attention to it. If you do what it says, you will have God’s blessing. Never just listen to his teaching and forget what you heard. (ERV)
Piecing together different lines from different bits from comedian Jim Gaffigan: On the rare occasion that he gets to the gym which is across the street from his house. He contemplates the purpose of mirrors in the gym. He jokes that some people use the mirror to admire themselves as they work out. He also wonders why these finely tuned people are even there – Go home, he quips, you’re done. Then he sees some others about which he thinks, “Why bother? – You waited too long, there is no hope.” – and then he realizes he is looking in the mirror and is thinking Oh no! How did this happen to me?
Of course, we know the real purpose of mirrors, whether in bathrooms, desks, purses or elsewhere, is to check ourselves to see what is out of place and needs to be corrected. And though some people use gym mirrors to admire or despise themselves, the real purpose of mirrors in gyms is so that we can make sure we are doing the exercises in the proper form so we don’t hurt ourselves (or others). But there may well be people who use it, at least now and again, to check themselves out – to see how far they have come, or to see how far they have to go.
Today’s text, like in the bible reading from James, holds a mirror, not to our body and outfits, but to our hearts to see what we may need to change in our attitude and life. As Jesus describes the characteristics of two people, they may sound simplistic and extreme, (history teaches us that they were neither, but was very representative of some people). But because it sounds extreme, it is easy to dismiss their warnings to us as irrelevant. But maybe they are presented that way so it is easier for us to recognize what may be more subtle, yet still dangerous leanings -- that left unrecognized and unchecked, may grow within us.
For those who were here last week, we learned, among other things, the dangers of comparing ourselves to others – leading us to falsely conclude that “We may be bad, but because they are so much worse, we are practically innocent…” This week we the danger is thinking so highly of ourselves that no one can compare to us. Remember that the real purpose of mirrors, (unless they are an automobile’s mirrors to keep you from hitting others – or you are a dentist looking in a mouth, or some exceptional use like that) – generally, the real purpose of mirrors is not to examine others, but to look at ourselves.
The ever-present danger of being a beloved, special child of God is that we are tempted trust in our Methodical rules of doing good and avoiding evil to earn a special place in God’s favor and put us in a better place than others who aren’t (by our indirect mirror inspection) measuring up to those same standards, and therefore we are tempted to think less of them and their value to God or to us.
Hear Jesus’ parable as a warning which he tells people (as Luke 18:9 says),
- 9b who trusted in themselves, as though they were righteous, and despised others: 10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, the one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee stood and prayed these things about himself, ‘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, and I tithe of all that I earn.’ 13 “But the tax collector, standing at a distance, would not even lift his eyes to heaven, but struck his chest, 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, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Luke 18:9-14 (MEV))
They went up to the temple to pray. One was a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The faithful prayed at nine, noon, and three. Prayers offered at the Temple and were considered more powerful so many went there to pray. We aren’t told if this was a prescribed time or not. It would make sense that it would be an alternate time for the tax collector, who, based on his attitude and standing in society, would probably prefer to pray out of the eyesight of others. On the other hand, it would make sense that the Pharisee would want to join with as many others as possible when praying, although if he was as good as he says he is, he may go there more than the prescribed times too. Jesus doesn’t think the time of day is relevant to the story.
The Pharisee stood and prayed… When I was at the Great Synagogue in Jerusalem, because everything was spoken in Hebrew, it was hard to get a good sense of what was happening, but the early part of the service people were coming and going frequently, standing in their pew and moving in rhythm to their own words spoken out loud, sometimes holding (what I assume) was a prayer book. There was no unison (that I could tell, each was doing their own thing) – while on the platform certain acts were being done that I didn’t understand and to which no one seemed to pay attention – until the rabbi began to preach. At that point, excluding the words of the rabbi, you could have heard a pin drop. But the point is, while any posture was acceptable for prayer, but the norm then, and now, was to stand.
And this man prayed these things about himself, Prayer is meant to be offered to God with the primary focus on God and our relationship with him and his activity in the world. But this man puts God’s name in front of a speech about himself. As one person put it – he went to inform God how good he was. He defined that goodness as avoiding evil sins and sinners including the tax collector. One person suggests that he would not have had the audacity to speak such a thing loud enough for the tax collector to hear his prayer. Maybe. But we’ve all around long enough to know people that are that brash, and also to know that even when people don’t say anything, nonverbal language can say it loud and clear. There is a beautifully done animated video of this parable in which (in some versions of it) there is only background music, no words are spoken or quoted – yet you can see by facial expressions and body movements what everyone in the story was thinking. He knew what was thought.
Not only was he grateful that he was better than bad people because he avoided evil, he thought he was better because he did good things such as fast twice a week. There was only one annual required fast – the Day of Atonement. Natural or human-made disasters may also call for a national fast. But some went above the call of duty, fasting on Mondays and Thursdays (market days when most of the country people came into town – giving them an opportunity to show a bigger group of people how good they were – of course no one could tell unless they would ashen their faces and dress untidily, so everyone could see their sacrifice. So that is what they did. and (the quote unquote prayer continues) I tithe of all that I earn. Jewish law did not require tithes on everything but some tithed beyond the requirements. Make no mistake - this was a good man. There is no reason to suspect he was lying in his prayer. He didn’t do bad things, and he went the extra mile in good things – we dare not downplay his virtuous life. He truly lived a life to emulate. The outer mirror is looking pretty good. “He was “done” as Gaffigan would say.
But today’s mirror is on the inner life. The essence of the inner life, according to Jesus, is to love God with all we are and others and ourselves, and this is where the man went off course. Sinful pride blinds us to who we are. A fifth grader came home from school very excited one day. She had been voted "prettiest girl in the class." The next day she was even more excited when she came home, for the class had voted her "the most likely to succeed." The next day she came home and told her mother she had won a third contest, being voted "the most popular." But the next day she came home extremely upset. The mother said, "What happened, did you lose this time?" She said, "Oh no, I won the vote again." The mother said, "What were you voted this time?" She said, "Most stuck-up." How quickly a little success goes to our head. How quickly after God blesses us, do we start thinking we are all that and a bag of chips. In Revelation 3, John warns one church:
- For you say, ‘I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing.’ You do not realize that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked… Be earnest, therefore, and repent. Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come into you and eat with you, and you with me.’ (Revelation 3:17,19b-20 (NRSV))
the tax collector, standing at a distance, probably in the Temple’s outer courts as opposed to the inner courts where the Pharisee would have gone. [who] would not even lift his eyes to heaven, (like going up to the Temple, lifting eyes to heaven a normal posture of prayer and spirit, but shame caused him to look down, and he struck his chest, (the original verb tense indicates he kept on beating his chest repeatedly) an outward gesture of sincere sorrow and indicating from where the core of his rebellion and failure came – the heart). Just as we tend to downplay the goodness of the Pharisee who we know ends up unjustified, we tend to downplay the badness of tax collector because we know he ends up justified. We minimize his badness by thinking he was really a good person that was helplessly caught in a bad situation, and he was only perceived bad by others. Because of time and distance, we are dispassionate outsiders to the situation. We too easily dismiss that these Jewish collectors betrayed their own nation and faith to work for their oppressive conqueror, Rome. On top of that, they often cheated their fellow Jews out of more than their fair share and pocketed the difference. Jews in this profession were seen as some of the vilest traitors before God and faith and nation -- and most often, it was not just a perception, they actually were.
And this one said, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner.’ (not just a sinner, literally, the sinner) This man recognized the truth about himself, the decisions he made and the actions he had done made him the ultimate sinner extraordinaire. As much as the Pharisee thought he was better than everyone else, this man knew he was worse than everyone else. Unlike last week where the defendant wanted to be declared not guilty because he thought the jury and judge and executioner were worse than himself, this defendant knows beyond a shadow of a doubt that he is the worst person in the room. He knew he rightly had no standing before God and could do nothing but throw himself on the mercy of the court. His outer mirror was a disaster. But his inner mirror was moving in the right direction.
And this week is about the inner life and inner attitudes. Saying the right prayer words did not justify the tax collector. It was about an honest confession and sincere sorrow for sin and a recognition that we need God that puts us in a place where we can receive God’s grace.
What does this parable teach us about a prayerful life?
1) When you trust only yourself, you get ... only yourself. But when you trust God, you get God.
2) Prayer is primarily about God and his activity in the world and how we can participate in it.
3) It is not about comparing our lives with other lives, good or bad. It is too easy to see inexcusable sins in others and too hard to see sins so easily excused in ourselves.
4) It is about placing ourselves in God’s hands. If we see ourselves as his children in need of mercy, we can see others in the same way.
5) It is not about a good or bad past life, but about our present and future relationship with God. We’ve heard it in the music today –His amazing grace and wonderful unfailing love -shown by Jesus taking our sins and making them his very own, taking our place and bearing our cross – accepting us just as we are and as one of his own, as friend with friend, he puts out chaos back into order Everything good comes from grace alone.
6) In the long run, if we get our inner mirror corrected, eventually our outer mirror will follow suit. To have the attitude of the tax collector and moving toward good deeds—not done to be better, or to earn heaven, but to simply be God’s and in love with him and his creation, to draw constantly closer to him, and to serve out of desire to be a part of what God wants to do.
Closing Hymn # 419 (vv 1,3,4) I Am Thine, O Lord
Closing Blessing Now go to experience a great day -- and make a great day for others… in the name of Jesus Christ, through the power of the Spirit, and to the glory of God the Father. Amen.