Carolyn Park Presbyterian Church

Right Relationship

Luke 18:9-14


Today is often celebrated in protestant churches as Reformation Sunday. On October 31, 1517... 481 years ago... Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-five These to the church door in Wittenberg, Germany, as a public protest against practices of the church that he believed to be wrong... that needed reforming. John Calvin was another great reformer and we Presbyterians claim him as our illustrious forefather. It was from John Calvin's teaching that the Reformed tradition got it's motto... "Reformed and always reforming."

I suppose the best way to rephrase that statement... so that we can understand it today... is to say that we are open to the leading of the Holy Spirit in the revelation of God's truth to us through Jesus Christ and Holy Scripture. In other words... there is always the possibility of new understanding about God and his purposes... about ourselves and our motives... and about the Church and its activities.

Sometimes it's difficult for us to accept that we are in a growth process... you and I are suppose to be growing in the strength and knowledge of Christ... we are suppose to be changing... we are suppose to be drawing closer and closer to God. Drawing us closer to himself is the major purpose of God's activities on earth.

In reality the concept of "reformed and always reforming" has resulted... not so much in spiritual growth... but in a lot of different protestant churches... mostly as a result of disagreement. It seems that it is extremely difficult for human beings to agree on anything... and among the most difficult issues are politics... and religion! Most of the time our motto appears to be "I'd rather die than switch!"

Webster says that "reform" means "to put or change into an improved form or condition" or "to amend or improve by change of form or removal of faults or abuses." That's why Luther and Calvin are known as reformers... and... as you are very much aware... their ideas led to a massive split in the Roman Catholic Church which is still problematic today. Splitting... in the Protestant tradition... has become so commonplace now-a- days that it's almost the first thing we think of when there is a disagreement of any kind in the church.

I had lunch this past week with a group of Presbyterian, Lutheran and United Church of Christ ministers (groups with whom Presbyterians have recently united). We were talking about why it is so difficult for these time-honored, main-line denominations to attract the X-generation... the generation that comes after the baby boomers. One minister expressed his opinion that it has something to do with our pride... and our reputation. Unfortunately we seemed to be viewed by outsiders as unloving and unaccepting of people who are different from us. Even though this congregation might be the most accepting and loving in the world... the general reputation of our denomination... the word "Presbyterian" in the name of our church... may be a major turn off for many people. Today the non-denominational churches are the ones attracting people... the ones that are growing.

In general... there is a lot of pride that goes along with being Presbyterian... but within the ranks of Presbyterians there is a constant battle between those who want to hang on to old traditions... and those who want to incorporate some new ones. The kind of music that we sing is a good case in point... the kind of people we will allow to be ruling and teaching elders... the way we dress for worship... what will be included in the service... the list goes on and on. Probably it's as long as there are individual Presbyterians. We all have our own point of view... and we can certainly be judgmental and uncaring at times... focusing primarily on having things our way.

With that background information... and those concerns... lets turn to our text and see what Jesus has to say to us this morning. Immediately I am struck by who Jesus is addressing with this parable... and I don't mean the Pharisees!

9 To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable...

Could that possible be us?... or our church?... or our denomination? Maybe we need to take a closer look at the Pharisee and the tax collector to see if we recognize ourselves in any way... shape... or form!

Let me just remind you briefly who the Pharisees were. They were a relatively small group of men who were greatly respected by others because of their concern with keeping God's commandments. They were devoted to obeying the laws that God presented through Moses to the Israelites in the wilderness... and where the law was unclear or vague... they supplemented it with additional rules in order to avoid any possible disobedience.

In order to obey the ritual purity laws found in the Hebrew Bible they separated themselves from anything unclean... including people who were likely to be in any sense unclean. They refused to associate with... and especially to eat with... "sinners." So you see... the prayer this Pharisee prayed makes perfectly good sense.

11 The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: 'God, I thank you that I am not like other men--robbers, evildoers, adulterers--or even like this tax collector.
12 I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.'

Generally speaking... in Jesus' day... there was nothing wrong with this prayer. After all... the Pharisee was acknowledging... and thanking God for who and what he was... a "righteous" man! This was a "pious" act... as were the other things he mentions.

Many of the most pious fasted... without water... two full days each week... in spite of the health hazard! Pharisees were also meticulous about "tithing" to the full amount that could be inferred from the law... probably about 20 percent of their income. Now... honestly... you couldn't get any more "righteous" than that... could you? Wouldn't you consider yourself "righteous" if you deprived yourself in those ways?

On the other hand... we have the tax collector. Everybody hates the IRS, don't they? Aren't they still today the epitome of evil? Actually, in Jesus' day they were despised mostly because they were considered traitors because they worked for the Roman government... to whom the Jews were forced to pay taxes. They were definitely considered unclean! So this guy is kind of standing in the background... and his prayer sounds very different from the Pharisee's prayer.

13 "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.' Now... the question is... which one had a right relationship with God? Well... Jesus says:
14 "I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted."

What we have here is a contrast between pride and humility. The Pharisee talked to himself... about himself. He really had no need for God. He did not need to be declared "righteous"... he considered himself so already!

What can we say of the tax collector who prayed for God's mercy? He was willing to humble himself... and to "tell it like it is!" Humility... you see... is a personal quality in which an individual shows dependence on God and respect for other persons. The tax collector knew that he had not... nor could he ever... earn "righteousness"... he was totally dependent on God who alone could declare him "righteous." He did not have to compare himself with other people in order to prove himself "righteous"... he simply placed it in the hands of God. This is what a right relationship with God is all about... being dependent on God... and trusting him for salvation.

God will never be a big part of our lives as long as we succeed in telling ourselves we are A-OK already. God's place in our lives is always going to be at our weak spots... where we need him to be strong for us. We too must "tell it like it is" in order to have a right relationship with God... and there is no room for false pride because Jesus came to save sinners... not the "righteous".

Ask yourself this week... "How is my relationship with God?" Amen.


A Sermon Preached on October 25, 1998
The Rev. Shirley R. Frazier
Carolyn Park Presbyterian Church, Arabi, LA

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