You Might Be Wrong


You Might Be Wrong

Today we continue to look at pray. Our need for it, how we approach it and through the act of prayer recognize where we put our trust. 

Scripture: Luke 18: 9-14

“You might be wrong.”

Ever meet someone who is never wrong? Frustrating right. Except every once in a while, that person is you. That can be humbling. On the surface this parable seems easy and that should be our first clue that we might be wrong.  

On first glance, this parable looks like a tale of who to imitate? Be like the tax collector who is humble, rather than the Pharisee who judges and appears justified in his position. But is it really as easy as be humble, not haughty, and all is good before God?

It’s not that this is a trap, except it is. Really, what I’m trying to say is that there is more going on in this passage than simply adopting the behaviour of the tax collector, even though Jesus tells us this character is justified. It’s not that we shouldn’t adopt this posture during prayer, we just need to be careful about how we do it.

This passage is primarily about prayer, however it is also a passage about where we place our trust.

Can we come before God in humility and confess where we’ve messed up. Most people I know don’t like admitting that they are wrong. Can we come before God an confess when we’ve made mistakes. Most public Christian prayer that I hear, aside from our time of confession in worship, is prayer where we ask God for things. In many meetings I attend we don’t confess the area’s where we’ve made mistakes.

Let’s pull back the layers of the parable and take a look at the two characters that Jesus uses to teach us about prayer. And remember what I said above or in the words of Admiral Akbar, “It’s a trap!”

The first question we might ask, is do we need to choose between the Pharisee and the tax collector? Does the parable have to be either/or?

The gospels often portray Pharisee’s as the enemy, which makes it an easy default position to fall into. Pharisee’s are bad, therefore the Pharisee here is wrong. While Jesus holds that idea up, remember that this is a lesson for us about prayer. Why does the Pharisee think the tax collector is a sinner? The Pharisee’s thoughts may have been out of a response to what the tax collector did for a living. The failing of the Pharisee is when he judges the tax collector as being unworthy and sinful. What I find interesting is that the Pharisee has a very firm opinion of the tax collector, but the tax collector doesn’t even acknowledge the presence of the Pharisee.  

On the Pharisee Chelsey Harmon writes, “However, the human habit of comparison seems to have subtly shifted his religious allegiance to a distorted sense of being “set apart.” The Pharisee views himself as set apart, not because of what God does for him, but by what he has accomplished himself. Revealed by his humble brag—to God of all people—the Pharisee has fallen into the trap of vainglory.” (Chelsey Harmon) Remember what I said earlier, this is a passage about where our trust lies. The Pharisee trusted more in himself than in God.

Let’s shift to the tax collector. While reading this parable have you ever asked yourself why the tax collector asks for mercy and proclaims he is a sinner?

As a tax collector, he is an agent of the Roman Empire, the foreign power that is occupying the land. The tax collector collects taxes that are sent back to Rome, which uses that money to bolster the military presence occupying the land. His guilt is clearly immense and due to the honesty of his prayer he is justified. However, the parable gives no indication that he gives up his profession. However, we could assume or read into the passage that the very fact that he has come before God in prayer may signify a transformation. We don’t know, we should also remember that Jesus is telling a parable to make a point.

The characters presented are based on stereotypes. We have built in assumptions about these two individuals, and I have to think that Jesus is using this against us. Because we already have assumptions and stereotypes about these individuals we carry those biases with us, and they are ingrained so deep that we make the same mistake the Pharisee does.  

The Pharisee fails to trust in God, instead justifying himself. Further, the Pharisee judges the tax collector while offering prayer. This is a parable about prayer and where we place our trust. One of the failings we have when we read this passage is that we paint these two characters as opposing factions and fail to see the complexity of human interactions.

In his commentary on Luke (Belief Series), Justo González talks about how this parable is one that will likely catch us in the act. Then he retells an anecdote: “There is a story about a Sunday school teacher who, after a great lesson on the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican, led his class in prayer: ‘Lord, we thank you that we have your word and your church, and that therefore we are not like the Pharisee…’ The contradiction between what the parable says and what this teacher did is obvious. But we fail to see that in the very act of pointing to that contradiction, and perhaps even chuckling at this teacher’s incomprehension, we are secretly saying, ‘Lord, I thank you that I am not like this teacher, who did not even understand your parable…’!”

Remember, the parable, it’s a trap.

Jesus sets us up, not to fail, but to get us thinking about our assumptions of one another. When we read this parable, we think Pharisee bad, tax collector good because that’s what the parable says: The tax collector is justified. But sin, at its heart, isn’t a list of wrongs we’ve committed. Rather is the damage and harm that’s been inflicted on our relationships, the brokenness of those relationships often caused by those things we’ve gotten wrong.

“You might be wrong.” Those are the words I opened this sermon with. You might be wrong and we will be, often. But if we come before God humbly, seeking forgiveness in sincerity then we will be justified before God and then we won’t be like those other people…

Opps… Amen.

St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church

St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church

St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, Cobourg is part of the Presbyterian Church in Canada. The congregation was established in 1833 and continues to serve the community.

St. Andrew’s supports the gathering of community agencies, providing space for the Affordable Housing Committee. Rev. Ellis’ voice is key in advocating for improvements in awareness, empathy and action on key determinants such as housing, income and food security. 

Kristina Nairn

Public Health Nurse, HKPR Health Unit

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