One day a young man, journeying home, came to the banks of a river swollen by recent torrential rains. Staring hopelessly at the great obstacle in front of him, he pondered for hours on how to cross such a wide barrier. Beginning to despair, resigning himself to the impossibility of the feat, he was about to turn around when he saw a great teacher from his village on the other side raging rapids. Surely this wise one will know the answer to my dilemma! The young man, cupping his hands over his mouth to be heard, yells at the top of his voice, “Sir, can you tell me how to get to the other side of this river?” The teacher stood still, pondered for a moment, smiled and called back, “My son ‘you are on the other side”.
What was impossible for one to see was easy for the other.
9He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: 10“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ 13But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ 14I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Here’s what’s happening in out text…
Luke tells us in v9, Jesus begins speaking about:
Of course we automatically think of the religious leaders listening in, those who are trying to gain more power, notoriety, prestige, money and political strength. Jesus, however, is peaking primarily to the disciples, others who want to be his followers.
Jesus knows who’s in the crowd and has used religious leaders as examples, warnings, of how NOT to follow him. In Luke 12v1-2 Jesus cautioned his disciples against “the yeast of the pharisees.” He knows religious snobbery, religious hypocrisy, can worm it’s way into any would be follower.
The disciples exhibit the “snobbery virus” in:
Luke 18v15 Some people brought children to Jesus to have him hold them. When the disciples saw this, they told the people not to do that. 16 But Jesus called the children to him and said, “Don’t stop the children from coming to me! Children like these are part of the kingdom of God. 17 I can guarantee this truth: Whoever doesn’t receive the kingdom of God as a little child receives it will never enter it.”
Jesus understood the condition of the human heart that tempts humankind to compare ourselves to others. One of the central teachings of Luke is the Kingdom of God is inhabited by the least of these. Treatment of the undesirables reveals our love for God. To think of oneself as better than, higher than, more worthy than, not as bad as, more holy, more Godly than…well, anyone…is to violate one of the key tenets of the teachings of Jesus.
Jesus tells the crowd a story…
…about a religious leader, a Pharisee, a pinnacle of societal and religious prestige and a tax collector, an enemy, a traitor and thief. You could not be more different than these two. All who listened, including the disciples viewed the Pharisees as respected and honored by all and the tax collector a money grubbing, low life who steals from hard working Israelites.
18v10“One time there was a Pharisee and a tax collector. One day they both went to the Temple to pray. 11 The Pharisee stood alone, away from the tax collector. When the Pharisee prayed, he said, ‘O God, I thank you that I am not as bad as other people. I am not like men who steal, cheat, or commit adultery. I thank you that I am better than this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week, and I give a tenth of everything I get!’ 13 “The tax collector stood alone too. But when he prayed, he would not even look up to heaven. He felt very humble before God. He said, ‘O God, have mercy on me. I am a sinner!’
Jesus begins his tale by speaking of something most in the crowd have done many times, go to the temple to pray.
Two men, at the same place, at the same time, not the same attitude…
“The Pharisee, (and) the tax man enter the Temple. The proud, religious leader, assured of himself and his exceeding righteousness clears his throat, dusts off his clothes, looks around, hoping someone might be eavesdropping, and begins…‘Oh, God! I am so incredibly grateful today that you have made me…well me. I am so relieved that that I am not like other low life types, robbers, thieves, crooks, sexual miscreants, or (rolling his eyes, fanning himself, throwing up a little in his mouth and shuddering at the thought), heaven forbid (pointing, not daring to look), like this, ugh, tax man.
Just in case you forgot, weren’t paying attention, or know how good I am so you worry about other less desirables, I fast twice a week and tithe on ALL (elongating and emphasizing words) ‘MY’ (isn’t this word telling?) my income.’” Finishing his prayer, smiling like a Cheshire cat, clearly pleased with himself, he snorts at the absurdity of sharing the same air with the tax collector, hikes his nose high in the stratosphere and goes home.
“Meanwhile’, Jesus says softly, ‘the tax man, stays in the shadows, not daring to stand up straight, his face in his hands, not daring to look up embodying the spirit of
Psalm 51, ‘knowing he has a bad record, guilt that needs to be scrubbed away, sin stains which need God’s laundry. He knows how bad he’s been; his sins are staring him down. He’s violated God’s laws and knows God sees the full extent of his evil. If God judged him as worthless and sent him to hell it would be a fair sentence. He’s been out of step with God for a long time and in the wrong for as long as he can remember. He knows he’s dirty and is nowhere near ‘snow-white.”
He needs a fresh start. Barely able to get out the words for fear of being struck down he whispers; ‘God, give mercy. Forgive me, a sinner.’”
We know the outcome of the story but imagine you are hearing it for the first time. What are you thinking? What’s Jesus’ point? Who’s coming out of this story on top? The Pharisees are known for their hypocrisy and lacking in the fundamentals of God’s Kingdom but the tax man is still worse, right?
Who’s Jesus going to hold up as the example?
18v14 Jesus (says), “This tax man, not the other, went home made right with God. If you walk around with your nose in the air, you’re going to end up flat on your face, but if you’re content to be simply yourself, you will become more than yourself.”
18v14 (Jesus declares) …(of the two)… men walking back down the road to their homes…. it’s the tax collector who walks home clean before God, and not the Pharisee, because whoever lifts himself up will be put down and whoever takes a humble place will be lifted up.
18v14 (Jesus concludes) I tell you, this (tax collector) went to his house justified rather than the (Pharisee); for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
The tax man goes home pure and right before God, not the religious elite and if the same situation takes place again the following week, same attitudes, same outcome. The one who is humble, not the one who keeps every law, is right before God.
Remember Jesus says in…
Luke 17v3&4 “If a believer sins, correct him. If he changes the way he thinks and acts, forgive him. 4 Even if he wrongs you seven times in one day and comes back to you seven times and says that he is sorry, forgive him.” 5 Then the apostles said to the Lord, “Give us more faith!”
He wouldn’t instruct his disciples to be this way if he, God, wasn’t this way.
It didn’t make sense to the disciples in 17, the crowd in 18 or to us in today in 2013. We are fine with the tax man getting grace, the uppity Pharisee his rightful “smack down” but we want both of them to amend their ways, get a fresh start, and then become good little rule followers.
Once again, in Jesus’ upside down kingdom, the church goer, the rule follower, the socially and religiously acceptable one is worse off than the outright, no excuse, low down sinner. Jesus takes a bat to our pinata of goodness and whacks it until the illusion of anything good in us spills onto the ground. We are not ever capable of standing in God’s presence and claiming to be better than anyone!
This is either disappointing or delightfully good news! For those who are certain there’s something good in us, at least a little better than some of the worst of the worst, this can be hard to swallow.
For others who know the depth of their depravity it takes the weight of hell off our shoulders.
So not only is being righteous before God, being seen by God as clean, pure, impossible in our own power, so is understanding God’s Kingdom ways.
Shifting faith from a what (laws and good works) to who. Not in ourselves, a rabbit trail of delusion which leads to nowhere, but in Jesus who’s going to Jerusalem to make all who are dirty, that’s everyone, clean.
Psalm 84 – “How lovely is your presence, O Lord, God Almighty. We long for the presence of the Lord today. Blessed are those whose strength is in you, in whose heart are Your ways and who trust in Your love to make us clean in Your eyes. May we know a day trusting in You is better than a thousand trusting in our own power to save us. O’ Lord, do not withhold Your goodness from us. Blessed are those who trust in you. Amen.”
A teacher opened up a school for all who desired to learn wisdom. Many pupils gathered, rich and poor, young and old, educated and not. During a break a pupil was caught stealing. The matter was reported to the teacher with the request that the thief be expelled. The teacher said the matter would be dismissed without addressing. A few days later the same pupil was caught stealing again and the matter reported to the teacher. Again, the teacher dropped it and did nothing.
After this happened a third time the other students became angry and signed a petition to have the thief removed from the school or else all the other students would walk out in protest. When the note reached the teacher he summoned everyone before him. “This is not justice. You students know the difference between right and wrong. You may go elsewhere to study but this one, where will he go if he doesn’t know good from bad? Only when he knows the difference will wisdom and justice be available to him. Even if all else leave, he will stay and I will teach him.” The students understood, recalled the petition and grew in wisdom.
Luke 18: 1-8
Luke 18v1 Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. 2He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. 3In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’ 4For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, 5yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.’” 6And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. 7And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? 8I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”
Here’s what’s happening in our text…
This is another Luke exclusive. Jesus is speaking to the disciples but also to the rubberneckers, folks waiting for the next controversial statement, confounding parable, or wonderful miracle. The religious leaders are also there looking for more evidence that Jesus needed to be done away with…
Jesus had just finished teaching on the “Day of the Lord” at the end of chapter 17.
Luke 17v24 “You know how the whole sky lights up from a single flash of lightning? That’s how it will be on the Day of the Son of Man. But first it’s necessary that he suffer many things and be turned down by the people of today. 26-27 “The time of the Son of Man will be just like the time of Noah—everyone carrying on as usual, having a good time right up to the day Noah boarded the ship. They suspected nothing until the flood hit and swept everything away…That’s how it will be—sudden, total—when the Son of Man is revealed. 31-33 “When the Day arrives and you’re out working in the yard, don’t run into the house to get anything. And if you’re out in the field, don’t go back and get your coat…If you grasp and cling to life…you’ll lose it, but if you let that life go, you’ll get life on God’s terms.
18v1-3 Jesus told them a story showing it was necessary for them to pray consistently and never quit. He said, “There was once a judge in some city who never gave God a thought and cared nothing for people. A widow in that city kept after him: ‘My rights are being violated. Protect me!’
Luke tells us this judge had no fear of God or respect for people. The Greek here means he had no problem shaming them or keeping them from being shamed.
In other words the judge was on no one’s side but his own. Whatever benefited him or fit his whim was what he decided to do. It didn’t matter if it brought shame upon him or those in his court. His interest was not justice, fairness or equality.
A widow, under his jurisdiction, knowing the judge’s penchant for bending, breaking and ignoring the law took matters into her own hands. She was unwilling to let the judge get away with his usual behavior. She wasn’t going to let her case be decided by a bribe, law breaking or anything nefarious.
Reading the Hebrew Bible, what Christians call the Old Testament, is to know God’s commands that widows, orphans, helpless, powerless to be represented, taken care of, protected and provided for…but reading these scriptures also reveals the truth this often didn’t happen. They were taken advantage of, beaten down, cast aside and abused by those in power.
It was no different in the 1st century day of Jesus. The helpless, powerless, poor and needy were often the last to get justice. Jesus even accused the religious leaders in Luke 20:47 of “devour(ing) widows’ houses” by taking advantage of them when their husbands died.
This is a humorous scene!
On one side, a powerful judge, who was the law, occupied a high rung on the social ladder, always had a table reserved at his favorite restaurant, invited to the best parties and gala events. On the other, a widow, a woman, with no power, no social standing, no favors to pull or men to call to do her a solid, stand up for her or stand beside her, to speak up on her behalf. These two, seemingly mismatched opponents are doing battle. The widow doesn’t stand a chance…does she?
The widow will not be denied!
She’s not taking any chances. She isn’t waiting for her day in court! She hounds the judge, stalks him, chases after him, won’t leave him alone. In other words she’s driving the judge crazy with her constant demand for justice! The Greek literally says “Do me justice on my opponent! Or avenge me against my opponent!”
At first the judge doesn’t budge. Who is this widow? Why can’t she just leave him alone? Who does she think she is, hounding, stalking, chasing him? He wouldn’t give her the time of day. The Greek says the judge gave her “no earthly, chronological time.” No appointment, no moment to plead her case, not even a minute of his precious, valuable time.
But after a while, at the widows insistence, he changes his mind.
The widow is heard, not because the judge has a change of heart, the judge seeks justice because he wants her to go away! He is actually frightened of her. The word translated “plague” can also mean beaten and battered. In other words her persistence carries with it such urgency and passion the judge is worried what might happen if he doesn’t give her justice. This is hilarious! The big, bad ‘ol judge is a fraidy cat. Weirded out by a helpless widow.
Jesus helps the disciples get it…
8v6 Then the Lord said, “Listen to the words of the sinful man who is head of the court. 7 Will not God make the things that are right come to His chosen people who cry day and night to Him? Will He wait a long time to help them?
Calling Jesus “Lord” is Luke’s way of saying what comes next is a royal proclamation! Listen up! Jesus is speaking with authority.
Jesus says God will act! God will execute justice for his people! If this judge, who does not fear God or respect people, will give justice to this one pleading, harassing, widow, how much more will God act because of his people who cry out day and night? In other words prayers for justice, equality, and fairness, matter and God is acting.
The cries of the his people have come before God, God has heard them, God is moving. This is why Jesus has come! This is why Jesus is going to Jerusalem. It is why he will bear the brutal assault upon his body and hang on the cross. It is why he will die a most gruesome death. This is God’s justice, fairness, and equality in action. These will be completed when Christ is resurrected.
Listen again to Luke 17
Luke 17v24…on the Day of the Son of Man. (it will be) necessary that he suffer many things and be turned down by the people of today. 26-27 “The time of the Son of Man will be just like the time of Noah—everyone carrying on as usual, having a good time right up to the day Noah boarded the ship. They suspected nothing until the flood hit and swept everything away…That’s how it will be—sudden, total—when the Son of Man is revealed.
Jesus is the answer to God’s people’s prayers. He has come for this very reason. However, he will be rejected by those who say they are praying for, waiting for, wanting the Son of Man to come and exact God’s justice. But they do not recognize it when they see it. Why? Because justice, God’s justice, does not favor the powerful. God’s justice favors the weak, the powerless, the lowly, the least of these.
The Greek word meaning “justice or unjust” occurs six times in these few verses. God’s justice, embodied in Jesus, is God’s answer to the evil, wickedness and injustice in our world.
God answers and God is the answer. His justice is not the justice of the world. The disciples hope is not in worldly powers setting things right. God has come to bring his own justice. He has taken justice into his own, soon-to-be, nail scarred hands. All receive justice by Jesus, the judge, who represents the powerful, and the widow, who represents the powerless. All receive justice through Jesus. God sets things right and makes humanity right through the cross and Jesus’ resurrection.
No one, not the judge who is contemptible, or the widow, who is pitiable, receive justice on the merit of their cause or lack thereof. Justice is not done because of who we are but because of who God is and what is done through Christ.
Saint Paul says it perfectly in Romans
3v21-24 – something new has been (accomplished). What Moses and the prophets witnessed to all those years has happened. The God-setting-things-right that we read about has become Jesus-setting-things-right for us. And not only for us, but for everyone who believes in him. For there is no difference between us and them in this. Since we’ve compiled this long and sorry record as sinners (both us and them) and proved that we are utterly incapable of living the glorious lives God wills for us, God did it for us. Out of sheer generosity he put us in right standing with himself. A pure gift. He got us out of the mess we’re in and restored us to where he always wanted us to be. And he did it by means of Jesus Christ.
Psalm 121 – “Our precious Lord, today we lift up our eyes to You and ask for help, for safekeeping, for justice. Our help comes from the You, the maker of all things. Our God You have planted us solidly in Your love and faithfulness and will we not be moved. You keep us safe, you never sleep or forget us. You, O’ Lord are on our side. God, our Father, protect us from this world that tries to pull us away from You. By Your Son, Jesus, You have saved us and by Your Spirit, You will keep us from this time on and forevermore. Amen.”