What Not To Be Thankful For

[Note: This is the prepared text for a split sermon given to the United Church of God congregation in Portland, OR on Sabbath, November 26, 2022.]

It is customary this time of year to talk about the issue of gratitude. We are exhorted and encouraged to be thankful for all that God has given us and to show appreciation for the blessings that we have received. We are reminded about how much we take for granted individually and as a culture and society. All of this we are reminded of this Thanksgiving season, and there is nothing wrong with any of it, for it is all true. It is my point today, though, to look deeply at one passage and its implications that remind us that it is not enough simply to be thankful. There are some things, in fact, that we should not be thankful for.

Let us turn to this passage, as it is a familiar one, although one we often do not examine in great depth. The passage I would like to focus on is Luke 18:9-14. Luke 18:9-14 reads: “Also He spoke this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others:  “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.  The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, ‘God, I thank You that I am not like other men—extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector.  I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess.’  And the tax collector, standing afar off, would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’  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.””

Before we explain this passage, let us consider the context in which this passage is placed. When we look back starting at Luke 17, we have a context that involves a related set of issues. We start in Luke 17:1-4, we have a passage discussing the issue and requirement of forgiving seventy times seven. After that, in Luke 17:5-10, we have a discussion of the faith of the mustard seed and the need to call ourselves unprofitable servants when we merely obey what God has commanded us. In Luke 17:11-19, we find Jesus cleansing ten lepers, of whom only a despised Samaritan returns to show gratitude and thank Jesus Christ. The remainder of Luke 17 then discusses the return of Jesus Christ and the way that mankind will behave at His return. Luke 18:1-8 gives the parable of the persistent widow and her demands for justice at the hands of an unjust judge. After that we have the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector, which we will examine in more detail, which is a parable given to those who trust in themselves that they were righteous and despised others, namely most of us. After this passage, in Luke 18:15-17, we have the blessing of the little children, where we are told that those who enter into the Kingdom of God (already discussed in Luke 17), we must become like little children. Then, in Luke 18:18-23, we have a passage where a rich and righteous young man is told to give all that he possesses and follow Christ, which he is unwilling to do. This prompts a discussion in Luke 18:24-30, where Jesus Christ states that it is hard for the wealthy and powerful to enter into the Kingdom of God but that all things are possible with God, even the salvation of elites. After this comes Luke 18:31-34, where Jesus Christ talks about how He will mocked and despised and crucified. And finally, Luke 18:35-43 discusses a blind beggar seeking for healing and God’s mercy, and finding it.

There are a few threads that connect all of these stories. For one, all of them represent what we may judge as the weightier matters of the law, truth, justice and mercy. In particular, these particular passages are heavy in looking at matters of mercy and justice, and the way in which we as human beings often look down on and despise and mock others. This was true in Jesus’ time and it is certainly true in our own time. The other thread that connects these passages together is that what Jesus says and does is surprising and a reversal to our normal expectations. We did not expect Jesus to require us to forgive others so much. It is our habit to write people off after they have habitually sinned and offended against us. It is our habit to trumpet ourselves as righteous when we obey God’s commandments, especially in a world like our own when this is rare, but even perfect obedience to the law is merely being an unprofitable servant worthy of no special praise or gratitude from God. We do not expect that it would be hard for the wealthy and powerful to enter God but that we must enter the Kingdom of God as a humble and unpretentious child. Being humble and unpretentious, after all, is quite hard for some of us. Similarly, we do not expect that widows should find justice of unjust judges merely by wearing them down with persistence, or that despised Samaritan lepers or blind beggars or flagrant sinners should find mercy but that righteous Pharisees should not.

This last one is not nearly as surprising to us as it should be. After all, in large part thanks to the Gospels, our idea of the Pharisee is to automatically view them as self-righteous hypocrites who are almost beneath our contempt. This is in many ways quite grimly ironic, for it puts us in a dangerous position. Let us remember that the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector was given in the first place to curb our tendency to trust in our own righteousness and to look down on others. This is what the Pharisee of the parable was guilty of, and it is what we expect of Pharisees as we look down on them and consider ourselves to be more righteous than they are. Indeed, it is quite common in religious discourse to look down on those who conscientiously, if imperfectly, strive to obey God’s laws and commandments (especially the Fourth Commandment) as being self-righteous legalists, thus placing themselves in the position of the Pharisee who trusted in his own righteousness and despised others. This is nothing if not ironic. There are many reasons in the contemporary world that we might look down on others. We might hate them for reason of identity politics. We might see their flaws and sins and imperfections as being signs of some deep moral hypocrisy that allows us to cast aside their beliefs and arguments as being not worthy of being taken seriously. We might hate their politics or envy and despise them for some supposed privilege. In whatever way we trust in our own sense of personal justice and righteousness and despise others, we are putting ourselves in the point of view of the Pharisee and not the sinner who finds mercy with God. For we all sin and fall short of God’s glory, and it is only as the penitent and not the self-righteous accuser of the brethren that we enter into God’s kingdom.

We therefore ought to recapture some sense of the unexpected that the Pharisee should be found so lacking in his prayer, for to dismiss the Pharisee as being hypocritical and self-righteous and so unworthy of our serious attention allows us to ignore the Pharisee within ourselves. Let us ask ourselves: are we being just to the Pharisee? Did Luke make up a prayer for the Pharisee to make him and other Pharisees look bad, or was the Pharisees’ prayer something that was actually prayed by people like him? In fact, in Orthodox Judaism, there is a daily prayer that is recited by every religious Jewish male where he thanks God that he was not born a woman, a Gentile, or a slave. So when Luke has a Pharisee standing up to pray with himself thanking God that he was not made like other men, Luke is not being unjust to his sentiments. To this day a great many Jewish men pray every morning prayers not unlike the Pharisee, trusting in their identity as freeborn Jewish men to give them a sense of personal superiority to those who do not share that privilege.

This is no insignificant matter. In fact, it is precisely this problem, this sense of self-superiority, that led Paul to make a striking statement in Galatians 3:26-29. Galatians 3:26-29 in fact directly rebuts every element of the morning prayer that many Jews to this day still make. It reads: “ For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus.  For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.  There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.  And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.” There are a great many people in this evil age, as there were in the first century AD, who judged people based on their identity, and Paul wanted to make it clear that the only identity we would be saved through or justified through is our shared identity with all other believers of whatever background as being one in Christ, and thereby Abraham’s seed and joint heirs according to the promise. This is something our contemporary age would do well to remember.

What was the nature of the Pharisee’s problem? He trusted his own righteousness and despised others. He saw someone he viewed as a sinner praying and saw himself praying as someone who was not a sinner. There are two problems here. The first is his lack of self-knowledge. The sinner who prayed to God for mercy knew–accurately–that he was a sinner. The Pharisee who prayed thought he was not a sinner when he was. The second problem is the lack of knowledge of what is inside the heart of others. As human beings, we only know the inside of someone else’s heart to the extent that we are able to infer accurately from their behavior and what others communicate with us. Neither of these ways of inferring what is inside of someone else are foolproof, and as a result we often have very little means of understanding what others are really thinking or feeling if they do not choose to let us know.

This is by no means a new problem. Perhaps most poignantly, we find this problem in the interaction that Jesus Christ had with the Pharisee and the woman who was a sinner in Luke 7:36-43. Here we see an interaction that is very strikingly similar to that of the Pharisee and the sinner in Luke 18. Luke 7:36-43 reads: “ Then one of the Pharisees asked Him to eat with him. And He went to the Pharisee’s house, and sat down to eat.  And behold, a woman in the city who was a sinner, when she knew that Jesus sat at the table in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster flask of fragrant oil, and stood at His feet behind Him weeping; and she began to wash His feet with her tears, and wiped them with the hair of her head; and she kissed His feet and anointed them with the fragrant oil.  Now when the Pharisee who had invited Him saw this, he spoke to himself, saying, “This Man, if He were a prophet, would know who and what manner of woman this is who is touching Him, for she is a sinner.” And Jesus answered and said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” So he said, “Teacher, say it.” “There was a certain creditor who had two debtors. One owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty.  And when they had nothing with which to repay, he freely forgave them both. Tell Me, therefore, which of them will love him more?” Simon answered and said, “I suppose the one whom he forgave more.” And He said to him, “You have rightly judged.””

When we read this particular passage, we tend to think about how it is that the Pharisee was so unloving towards Jesus compared to the sinful woman who was forgiven of her sins. Let us note something, though, about the point that Jesus makes about the two of them. First, Jesus considers both of them as debtors. Both the judgmental Pharisee who invited Jesus Christ to eat with him and the sinful woman who washed Jesus’ feet with her repentant tears were sinners. Second, one of them knew it and owned it and repented of it, and the other one denied it. But there is something else to notice here that we may forget in our hurry to condemn the Pharisee. The Pharisee was a debtor who owed one tenth of the debt of the sinful woman. He was, in short, ten times more righteous, or ten times less unrighteous. This not nothing, and Jesus Christ points out that He was willing to forgive both the sins of the Pharisee and of the sinful woman. But only one person asked for forgiveness because only one person recognized themselves as a sinner. The same is true when it comes to the parable we are looking at. One person asked for mercy, and the other person thanked God that they were righteous and not like the horrible sinner, and as a result they ended up praying to themselves because God wanted nothing to do with the prayer.

When we assume the Pharisee to be some great sinner on account of the fact that they considered themselves righteous, and condemn them accordingly, we put ourselves in the position of the unjust Pharisee who judges by appearances and not by what is inside, what only God and can see. Had either the Pharisee who invited Jesus to dinner or the Pharisee who prayed with himself and looked down on others recognized that they were themselves sinners and repented, they would have been forgiven as well. It was not their relative righteousness compared with more flagrant and easily recognized sinners that prevented them from receiving God’s mercy, but their lack of self-awareness and reflection about the fact that they themselves fell short of God’s perfect standard and were every bit as in need of God’s mercy as the sinners they looked down on. Yet at the same time they were right in recognizing that they were more obedient than the open sinners around them. The problem is that God does not grade on the curve, and being the most righteous people in a world full of sinners of varying amounts does not mean that one gets the A and a passing grade into God’s Kingdom. None enter the Kingdom except by being imputed with the perfect righteousness of Jesus Christ. And one must own up to one’s sins and humbly ask forgiveness before receiving that imputed righteousness. One cannot be righteous and self-righteous simultaneously. Which one is more worthwhile I leave it to you all to work out for yourselves.

So, what should we not be thankful for this Thanksgiving? We should not be thankful that we are not like other people. Given our lack of knowledge of other people and our frequent lack of insight about ourselves, it is very common that we are exactly what we would accuse others of being. It is not merely enough to be grateful for the many blessings that God has given us. We have often been reminded of such things and will be reminded of them many more times. But it is not enough to thank God for what we have, or what we think we have. It is important that our thanks and gratitude, such as it is, gives credit and honor to God and is not merely a way to humblebrag about ourselves. The Pharisee of Jesus’ proverb did not pray to himself because he was some great evildoer in comparison with the repentant sinner. He prayed with himself because he sought to praise himself in the disguise of feigning to thank God. And God will have none of that.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in Bible, Christianity, Church of God, Musings, Sermonettes. Bookmark the permalink.

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