First Read: Luke 18:9-14
Last Sunday morning we began a brief series of messages with the general title: “A Brief Biography of God.” In this series we said that we were going to be taking a look at some of the attributes or characteristics of God.
This morning we will be exploring the subject of the God Who Will NOT Answer. That may sound a bit wrong to you – it may sound very wrong to you – the idea that God will not answer us sometimes – in fact, I think we could take it a bit further if we really wanted to and talk about the God who not only doesn’t answer – but doesn’t even hear us.
This kind of comment creates some conflict in us I would imagine – because most of us have been taught ever since we were just little tykes that God always hears us – and that he always answers us – and many of us have taken great hope and comfort in that concept which was taught to us as a child – and to be honest, as a basic concept for children – as an elementary theology for the beginning of the development of one’s faith – it is still a good concept – however for those of us who are no longer children – at least chronologically – we ought to have a bit more sophisticated and mature understanding of God – looking more closely at who and what God listens to and who and what God does not listen to – because this tells us an awful lot about what God is like.
To help us get at this idea this morning we are looking at the parable that Jesus told about two men who went to pray. Notice that it is Jesus who told this parable – and that is a good reason why the parables are a great place to get an idea of what God is like — because they come right from the lips of Jesus himself – and He tells these parables most often to better explain what the Kingdom of Heaven – or the Kingdom of God – is like. These parables that tell us about the Kingdom of God also tell us about God – about who God is and what God is about.
In this parable, there are two primary characters – there is a Pharisee and a tax collector – that should make it easy – not like trying to keep track of all those different Herod guys in the New Testament – there are just two men at the heart of this parable.
As Jesus tells this parable he does something rather interesting in the middle of the telling of it – first He contrasts the Pharisee and the Tax Collector – and then He does something quite unexpected as He throws a twist into the story. Those who heard him tell this Parable would have been expecting two things as Jesus introduced the characters of the Parable. They would have expected to hear about a Pharisee who was a moral, upright, good, religious leader – the kind of person everyone should look up to – the kind of person who does things properly and rightly.
And then there was the tax collector who everyone understood (just as we understand in our day as well don’t we?) have no scruples, no moral fiber – I mean who wants to admit that they work for the IRS. In Jesus day the tax collectors were also, generally speaking, collaborators with the Romans – and most people considered them the scum of the earth – in fact it was probably a surprise for the listeners of Jesus – that the tax-collector would even show up in the temple at all – even just in a parable.
The first thing Jesus holds up in contrast between the Pharisee and the Tax-collector is the condition of their hearts—because one is of humble heart while the other is really quite proud – even obnoxiously so. It is interesting to note that the Pharisee goes to the temple not really to pray – rather he goes to the temple to inform God about just how good he is – and therefore he wants to make it clear to God what God should be doing for him.
Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.
In the original Greek there is a little play on words in what Jesus is saying. Our translation says that the Pharisee standing by himself, prayed – another translation says that the Pharisee stood up and prayed “about” himself – but in most Bibles there is a footnote that points out that the original language means that he prayed “to” himself – I guess most translators don’t want to confuse their readers because it really isn’t prayer unless it is made to God – you can’t really pray to yourself – yet that seems to be exactly what Jesus was saying about this Pharisee – he was praying – to himself. He was thrilled with who he was – with what he was about – proud, arrogant, upright – what a wonderful man he was – and he really quite enjoyed saying it out loud so that others might also know how wonderful a man he was. So in a sense its true, isn’t it, that he was praying to himself?
What a contrast we see when next the tax-collector comes in – he dares not even stand before the throne of God – Jesus says that he stood at a distance – he wouldn’t even look up to heaven – his eyes were focused on the dirt below. He beat his chest – saying: God, be merciful to me, a sinner!
In truth the Greek here is stronger than this translation – it is more along the lines of: God, be merciful to me, – THE sinner – as if he were the only sinner in all the world. The contrast between these two men is amazing. Which man’s prayer does God hear? The fact is that God does not hear or answer the prayer of the proud and the arrogant who come to him telling him the way things are and what He (God) ought to be doing about them – because like the Pharisee of the parable though we might label it a prayer – it is not really a prayer – because it is no addressed to God but to the Pharisee himself. The arrogant – the proud – pray more to hear themselves talk – and maybe to let those around them hear – just how glorious and marvelous and wonderful a person they are – not because they truly want to talk with God or need His help – they are getting along just fine on their own – thank you.
God does not hear those who have no time or inclination to really pray and to listen for direction. We don’t give much press to the passages that tell us this – but they are there – particularly in the prophets – in Isaiah and Jeremiah and Ezekiel. Just take note of the words from 2 Chronicles at the top of the bulletin this morning: ”Because your heart was responsive and you humbled yourself before God… I have heard you, declares the Lord.” Our God is a humble God and expects no less from his people.
The second contrast – twist – that we see in this parable is in the attitude of these two men towards others. One would expect that it is the tax-collector who cares little for his fellow men – all he wants to do is gather in the money, pay his share to the government and live off the rest – the rest of the world be darned!! He could care less.
The Pharisee was supposed to be a religious man – he should have a kind, open and compassionate heart for all – but in reality it is the opposite in this story. It is the Pharisee who despises others – thank you Lord that I am not like this one – and I’m not like that one or that other one – especially I am not like this tax-collector over here.
Who does God hear? Which prayer goes all the way to ear of God Himself? God can’t hear – God can’t answer us – when we are filled with bitterness and arrogance – when we are filled with an unwillingness to see the struggles of others – when our hearts are so hardened.
In contrast, it is the tax collector who came before God asking for mercy – our God is merciful and forgiving – and expects no less from his people.
The third thing we see – the third contrast and twist – is in their attitudes toward God. You would think that the Pharisee being raised in the religious tradition would have the right idea about who God is – and that the Tax collector just wandering in off the street wouldn’t have any idea. But once again the twist in this Parable of Jesus comes into play. For the Pharisee you see uses the wrong standard for comparison. He takes the wrong measurements – he approaches God based on what he has done – on where he belongs – rather than on who he is as he stands before God.
The Pharisee lived in a state of self-deception – he was satisfied with himself – his measuring stick for all the world was — himself. He thought he had done everything correctly – that’s what he believed – after all he was a Jewish Pharisee. Of course, everything about him was righteous – after all he gave his tithe, he came to the temple when he should, he did his prayers regularly and in the right order, he had the whole list filled out and checked off.
That same attitude is not unknown in our day as well – some come before God with the attitude – that he “owes” us because “I’ve done everything right – I’ve come to church regularly – I’ve taught Sunday School – I’ve even been relatively honest in my business dealings – I even go to the “right” church – (no doubt a Presbyterian church).
Let me tell you a secret – there will be no Presbyterians in heaven – no Baptists either – no Lutherans, or Roman Catholics, or Methodists – there will be no Independents or Episcopalians or Anglicans (whatever you want to call them) – our earthly pedigree really doesn’t matter once you are called to the pearly gates. What will matter is our heart – where our relationship with Jesus Christ is.
Our God is a God of Truth – and he expects no less from his children. We need to be careful that we don’t rely on the wrong comparison.
William Barclay the famous British theologian tells a fascinating tale about how one day he was on a train in England traveling from London to some unnamed location – on the trip to his destination as he looked out the window and watched the country side go past – he saw what he thought was the most beautiful white cottage sitting on a hillside among the green grass – the most beautiful white cottage that he had ever seen. It was so peaceful looking and tranquil and the white of that cottage just stood out – like purity itself he thought – as he rode past – it made him think just how marvelous it must be to live in such a place.
A few days later he is on the return trip – headed back home – and as he looks out the window he sees the same little white cottage – but in the intervening time – it had snowed. And now the white – the brilliant, brilliant white of the snow stood in contrast to the white of the cottage. What had looked so spectacularly wonderful and pure when comparing it to the green grass and the brown trees of the hillside – now looked drab and dull and downright dirty compared to the glittering white of the snow.
Do you see? Do you understand how careful we need to be in the standards of comparison we live by?
What kind of God is it that we worship? Scripture tells us that our God is a humble and honest God, merciful and truthful, forgiving and gracious – and that our God celebrates when we are the same – no matter what our station in life – when we are open and humble and honest and gracious – God is thrilled.
In one of his books Tony Campolo tells an interesting story – he was a professor of Sociology at Eastern College – which is now Arcadia College – just north of Philadelphia. Tony Campolo is a very well known Christian author and speaker – this account comes from his book entitled “The Kingdom of God is a Party.”
I do a lot of public speaking and my work takes me to all kinds of places – some of them are exotic and some of them not so exotic. Sometimes I get Honolulu and sometimes I get Toledo, Ohio. If you live on the East coast and travel to Hawaii you know that there is a time difference that makes 3 AM feel like it is 9 AM. If you know of what I speak you will understand when I tell you that when I go to our 50th state I find myself wide awake long before dawn. Not only do I find myself up and ready to go while almost everybody else is still asleep – but I find that I want breakfast when almost everything on the island is still closed. With this background you should understand why at 3:30 in the morning I was wandering up and down the streets of Honolulu looking for a place to get something to eat.
Up a side street I found a little place that was still open – I went in – took a seat on one of the stools at the counter and waited to be served. This is one of those sleazy places that truly deserve the name a “greasy spoon.” I mean I did not even touch the menu – I was afraid that if I opened the thing something gruesome might crawl out. But it was the only place I could find.
The fat guy behind the counter came over and asked me – “What do you want.” I told him – I said I wanted a cup of coffee and a donut. He poured a cup of coffee – wiped his grimy hand on his smudged apron – and then grabbed the donut off the shelf behind him. I’m a realist – I know that in the back room of that restaurant they probably drop kick donuts all around the floor – but when everything is out front where I can see it – I would really have appreciated it if he had used a pair of tongs and placed the donut on some wax paper.
As I sat there munching on my donut and sipping my coffee at 3:30 in the morning, the door of the diner suddenly swung open and to my discomfort in marched eight or nine provocative and boisterous prostitutes. It was a small place and they sat on either side of me. Their talk was loud and crude – I felt completely out of place and was just about to make my getaway when I overheard the woman sitting beside me say: “Tomorrow’s my birthday. I’m gonna be 39.”
Her friend responded in a nasty tone: “So what do you want from me? A birthday party? What do you want? You want me to get you a cake, and sing happy birthday?”
“Come on,” said the woman sitting next to me, “why do you have to be so mean? I was just telling you, that’s all. Why do you have to put me down? I’m just telling you it’s my birthday. I don’t want anything from you. I mean, why should you give me a birthday party? I’ve never had a birthday party in my whole life. Why should I have one now?”
When I heard that I made a decision – I sat and waited until the women had left, and then I called over the fat guy behind the counter and asked him, “Do they come in here every night?” “Yeah,” he answered.
“The one right next to me,” he asked, “she comes in every night?”
“Yeah,” he said, “that’s Agnes. Yeah, she comes in here every night. Why do you want to know?”
“Because I heard her say that tomorrow is her birthday. What do you say that you and I do something about that? What do you think about us throwing a birthday party for her right here tomorrow night?”
A cute smile crossed his chubby cheeks and he answered with measured delight, “That’s great. I like it. That’s a great idea.” Calling to his wife who did the cooking in the back room he shouted, “Hey, come out here – this guy’s got a great idea – tomorrow is Agnes’s birthday – this guy wants us to go in with him and throw a birthday party for her. Right here – tomorrow night.” His wife came out of the back room all bright and smiley, she said, “That’s wonderful. You know Agnes is one of those people who is really nice and kind and nobody ever does anything nice and kind for her.”
“Look,” I told them, “if it’s ok with you, I’ll get back here tomorrow morning about 2:30 and decorate the place – I’ll even get a birthday cake.”
“No way,” said Harry, “the birthday cake’s my thing, I’ll make the cake.”
At 2:30 the next morning I was back at the diner, I had picked up some crepe paper decorations at the story and had made a sign out of big pieces of cardboard that said, “Happy Birthday, Agnes!” I decorated the diner from one end to the other and had the diner looking good. The woman who did the cooking must have gotten the word out on the street because by 3:15 every prostitute in Honolulu was in the place. It was wall-to-wall prostitutes and me.
At 3:30 on the dot, the door of the diner swung open and in walked Agnes and her friend. I had everybody ready – after all I was kind of the MC of the affair and when they came in we all screamed: “Happy Birthday!”
Never have I seen a person so flabbergasted – so stunned – so shaken. Her mouth fell open, her legs seemed to buckle a bit, her friend grabbed her arm to steady her. As she was led to sit on one of the stools along the counter we all sang happy birthday to her. As we came to the end of our singing with “Happy Birthday dear Agnes, Happy Birthday to you,” her eyes moistened.
And then the birthday cake with all the candles on it was carried out she lost it and just opening cried. Harry gruffly mumbled, “Blow out the candles, Agnes. Come on blow out the candles. If you don’t blow out the candles I’m going to have to blow out the candles.” And after an endless few seconds he did. Then he handed her a knife and told her, “Cut the cake, Agnes. Yo Agnes, we all want some cake!”
Agnes looked down at the cake and then without taking her eyes off it, she slowly and softly said, “Look, Harry, is it all right with you if…I mean, if I don’t…I mean, what I want to ask, is it OK if I keep the cake a little while? I mean, is it all right if we don’t eat it right away?”
Harry shrugged and answered, “Sure, it’s ok, if you want to keep the cake — Keep the cake. Take it home if you want to.”
“Can I?” she asked. Then looking at me she said, “I live just down the street a couple of doors, I want to take the cake home, OK?? I’ll be right back honest.”
She got off the stool, picked up the cake, and carried it like it was the Holy Grail – walked slowly toward the door, as we all just stood there motionless, she left. When the door closed, there was a stunned silence in the place – not knowing what else to do I broke the silence by saying, “What do you say we pray?”
Looking back on it now it seems more than strange for a sociologist to be leading a prayer meeting with a bunch of prostitutes in a diner in Honolulu at 3:30 in the morning. But then it just felt like the right thing to do. I prayed for Agnes, I prayed for her salvation, I prayed that her life would be changed and that God would be good to her. When I finished, Harry leaned over the counter, and with a trace of hostility in his voice, said, “Hey, you never told me you were a preacher. What kind of church do you belong to?”
In one of those moments when just the right words came I answered, “I belong to a church that throws birthday parties for prostitutes at 3:30 in the morning.”
Harry waited a moment, and then almost sneered, as he answered, “No you don’t. There’s no church like that. If there was, I’d join it. I’d join a church like that.”
Wouldn’t we all – wouldn’t we all love to join a church that sees the simple joy of throwing such a birthday party at 3:30 in the morning.
Tony Campolo wonders out loud if that isn’t just may the kind of church that Jesus came to create. I don’t know where we got the other one that can be so prim and proper and so dull and so often so dead.
Anybody who reads the New Testament discovers a Jesus who loved to party with all kinds of people – including those most often left out – the tax-collectors and sinners loved him because he spent time with them. The lepers of society found in him someone who would eat and drink with them. They loved him – even though he was brutally honest with them. He is the one who said, “Go, and sin no more…” “Deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me…” “Blessed are those who are persecuted…” “You cannot serve both God and money…”
He didn’t make it easy – if anything he made it more difficult. It was the arrogantly religious who could not relate to what he was about – while those folks of humble estate and humble state — who don’t usually get invited to the best parties took to him with excitement.
In our parable it was the pretentiously pious who is left out in the cold – for he truly had no idea who God was – and God really couldn’t/wouldn’t hear a thing he had to say in prayer, because he really never prayed, he never really talked to God – he only ever talked to himself.
Martyn Lloyd Jones was a well-known voice in the Christian Church in the 20th century – he preached at Westminster Chapel in London for 20 years and wrote numerous books and commentaries. I came across a quote from him this week I thought appropriate for our subject matter today: “The gospel is open to all: the most respectable sinner has no more claim on it than the worst.”
In our parable it was the tax collector who desperately needed God – and how wonderful – God was there for him. The tax-collector went home feeling right with God in his heart and soul.
Let us seek him in truth and with honesty and in humility – that we might know and experience in our lives the God who hears and who answers.