600 years before Jesus
King Nebuchadnezzar besieged Jerusalem
Babylonian troups stormed in
raping, looting, killing
people dragged off in chains to Babylon
slaves in a foreign land
There they sang:
“By the rivers of Babylon,
where we sat down,
there we wept,
when we remembered Zion”
royal palace built by King David
holy temple built by King Solomon
burnt to the ground
they wept, wailed,
How can we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?
and in their pain, as you do, cried WHY?
Why did God let this happen to us?
probably round about this time,
as they searched their souls, reflected on their history,
most of the books of the OT emerged
Moses – Sinai contract
they remembered long long ago, in a land far away
Moses made covenant or contract between God and the people of Israel at Mt Sinai,
10 cmds on stone tablets + other rules
keep à blessing: agricultural productivity, military success, social harmony
just before Moses died, before the people entered the land of Canaan, Moses set out the 2 Ways:
“I set before you life and prosperity, death and destruction.
I command you to love the Lord your God, to walk in his ways,
and to keep his commands, decrees and laws.
Then you will live and increase, and the Lord will bless you
in the land you are entering.
But if your heart turns away and you are not obedient…
you will certainly be destroyed.
You will not live long in the land.
This day… I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life.”
History – kings
as people in Babylon thought about Israel’s long history
time and time again, as Moses said,
kings who led the nation into obeying God brought life, blessing, prosperity
kings who disobeyed brought judgement
finally, as Moses warned, by their persistent disobedience they so angered God,
they lost the promised land
here they were, slaves in Babylon
and only themselves to blame
the OT history books Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings, Chronicles, tell this story
The book of Proverbs is slightly more abstract, but teaches same thing:
you reap what you sow.
what goes around comes around
good people deserve happiness, bad deserve disaster
while Jews in Babylon, Buddha lived – Eastern religions developing
reap what you sow as karma and reincarnation
New Testament Times
oppressed by foreign power
so there the Israelites were in Babylon, a conquered, demoralised, subjugated people
a few decades later, they returned to land of Israel,
but nothing much changed, still oppressed by a foreign power
from now on, continuous slavery:
Babylonians, Persians, Alexander the Great
by time of Jesus, the Romans in control
Jews still the underdogs
different Jewish responses:
people responded in different ways to the foreign overlords
1. violent, armed revolt – drive out the Romans with the sword- Zealots
2. Tax Collectors
collaborate with the occupying power – line own pockets
Roman taxation system –
governor of a province appointed tax collectors – who each had a lump sum to pay
any surplus they collected was theirs
say you’re a merchant going to market
TC stops you on road
unpack your wares
import, export, sales tax
cart, animals, wheels tax
probably more, limited only by collector’s imagination
no internet, no mass media – you don’t know what the real rate is
but this collector is backed by the power of Rome – you gotta cough up
Jews hated Roman taxation, sometimes rioted
– Jesus’ enemies try to trap him about paying taxes to Caesar
and tcs themselves despised, traitors to own people, fleecing their fellow Israelites, extortioners
what’s more, Jews strict standards racial and religious purity
contact with Gentiles à tcs unclean
stinking rich scum
but another response to Israel’s misery under foreign occupation
other godly, pious Jews
– understood Moses’ 2 ways of life and death
knew obeying God brings blessing
called nation back to strict observance of the law of Moses
– only in this way would God be pleased and free his people from the Romans, restore Israel to glory
we gotta try harder to please God
sometimes Moses’ rules ambiguous:
eg honor Sabbath, don’t work – what does this mean? how please God in this?
clarified, specified exactly how far can walk, how much can carry, what can’t do etc
– help people obey
Moses’ law a few 100 cmds, Pharisees expanded to a few 1000
some Pharisees corrupt hypocrites, but many sincere, godly men
The Pharisee’s Prayer
Luke 18 – Jesus story about a Pharisee and a Tax Collector who both went to pray in the Jerusalem temple
first, let’s hear the Pharisee’s prayer
“God I thank you that I am not like other people.”
not a thief, greedy, rapacious – like this TC who rips people off
not unrighteous rogue
not an adulterer
I thank you Lord, I’m not like that TC
“Pharisee” = “separated”
by their holiness and obedience separated from bad people deserving G’s judgement
“neither Gentile, a woman, nor a dog”
he goes on
lists good conduct, cashing in his good deeds
I fast twice a week – Mondays and Thursdays – while TC at gluttonous banquets
I give 1/10 of all I have to temple and poor
– this guy swindles the poor
earlier in Luke, Pharisees carefully give 1/10 garden herbs – mint, rue
just imagine, I go to garden to get chives for my scrambled eggs
I count out every 10th stalk to bring to church
– pretty picky – does G really care?
Of course he does!
slack attitude why G’s judged our nation and sent the cursed Romans
only if we obey his law will he free us
we gotta try harder
so Pharisee treats God as divine bank account
good deeds/obedience – deposit celestial account
bad/disobey – withdrawal
show account balance like this: (graph)
on the right, those with huge savings, the bank’s best customers
on the scales of justice, their good totally outweighing bad
heroes of Israel: Abraham, Moses, Isaiah,
the saints: St Peter, St Francis of Assisi, Mother Teresa
left, huge overdrafts: bad totally outweighing good
foreign oppressors of Israel: Egyptian Pharaoh, Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar, Roman Pilate, Hitler
no doubt whether these extremes deserve God’s favour or judgement, go to heaven or hell
the 2 Ways are quite clear
most of us floating in the middle – we do some bad, some good
hope that good outweigh bad, overall positive balance,
– God’s basically pleased, headed for heaven
but it is a vaguer area
some people are crushed by this uncertainty
they strive, they strain to be good,
always scared they’re not quite there, not quite good enough,
they’re still in the red
historical examples: in their youth Martin Luther, John Wesley, John Bunyan
but most of us less spiritually sensitive or more psychologically robust – take your pick!
– not such a burden
but we’re basically good people, we deserve God’s blessing
of course we’re not perfect – nobody is
but not like the bad
criminals, thieves, rapists, murderers, child molesters, those who exploit the poor like this tax collector
but even criminals have a moral code, they reject the truly bad,
– “honour among thieves”
cut-off line relative to social group
is quite unclear how good have to be for “heaven”
ask the saints
find out true nil-balance position, break-even point:
– ask “saints”, so good and wise – should see most clearly
also, they are free of exclusiveness of Pharisee, that separates bad people from us good
people who talk to saints often say “I felt I was the only person in the world”
love/respect everyone as brothers and sisters
probably ‘cos so good, no insecurity
no need to bolster their moral self-esteem by putting down others
“a mediocre great man makes you feel small, a truly great man makes you too feel great”
lets look at an OT saint, the prophet Isaiah.
like the Phar and TC, he was in the temple
saw vision God on his throne
what did he say?
“thank you Lord I’m more righteous than anyone else”? – he probably was
“Woe is me. I am lost. I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips”
In fact, he said the best, most righteous things I do are like filthy rags compared to God
true situation: Graph 2
an infinite distance between us and God
we’re all in the same boat
we’re all unclean
we’re all hopelessly in the red
Abe, Moses, Isaiah no more claim on God’s favour than a Pharaoh, Nebuchadnezzar
when St Peter met Jesus, he saw himself in the light of G’s holiness
he fell to his knees and cried “go away from me Lord, I am a sinful man”
Peter & Paul no more claim on G than Pilate or Judas
down through history, the same story
when people glimpse, however briefly, the burning beauty of God’s holiness,
they stop comparing themselves to others,
stop thinking they deserve anything from God
stop counting their spiritual deposits
realise God’s standard isn’t any petty rule-keeping, but absolute perfection
– all fall short of G’s glory
we stand on the earth’s surface
we look up to Ed Hillary atop Everest
we look down a shaft to a miner below
big difference we think
but neither can touch the stars
we are all little candles, flickering wavering flames in the dark
comparing ourselves to other flickering wavering flames
– does she waver less? does he flicker more?
one day, all our candles will face the light of the noon-day sun
the “2 ways” in practice collapse to “1 way”
sounds shocking, but the saints say
Mother Teresa has no more claim on God than Hitler
Old Testament again
again “by the rivers of Babylon”
OT history books + Proverbs confirmed 2 ways model
many thought pumping up observance of the rules would earn God’s favor again
but some questioned this
some, like Isaiah we met,
realised the whole rule-keeping, score-keeping, book-keeping attempt to please G was doomed to failure
the whole story of Israel, indeed humanity showed this
Adam and Eve. God gave good fertile garden of Eden. just one command, don’t eat from certain tree. but break it, driven out, homeless exiles.
Israel. God gave the Promised Land, flowing with milk and honey. just keep Moses’ rules.
but the same story. disobeyed, driven out, homeless exiles in a foreign land
so why should adding rules upon rules, making 1000s of rules be any different?
we’ll never manage to get our act together
we broke the contract with God made at Mt Sinai
we’ve lost any right to claim G’s blessing by obeying the law
we’ve blown it
Jerusalem lies in ruins, we’re slaves in Babylon
we can do nothing to help ourselves
– physically or morally with G
we’re powerless, bankrupt, bust
we got no options
we’ve hit rock bottom.
but in this despair, some found another ground for hope, another way to God
they remembered that 430 years before Moses and the contract at Sinai,
God made a promise to Abraham
“I will bless you, and through you I will bless all peoples”
no rules to keep, no conditions,
G just promised.
and G keeps his word
they remembered that Moses himself said,
God didn’t give Israel their land because they were good or obedient – they disobeyed from the start
God gave them the land to fulfil his promise to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob – the land of promise
Remember the “saints” say no one has a claim on God, no one is righteous, not even one.
They also say G accepts everyone, no matter what they’ve done or who they are.
Blessing depends on G, not us, just like the promise to Abraham
As the Christian author Phillip Yancey put it,
– “we’re all bastards, but God loves us anyway”
Tax collector’s prayer
in the light of this promise to Abraham and this new source of hope
let’s return to J’s story
we already heard the prayer of the Pharisee
summarised as “I I I – what I have done to deserve G’s blessing”
now let’s meet the TC
he hangs his head, not daring to look up to heaven.
he beats his breast in grief, like the mourners at J’s crucifixion
no claim to deserve God’s favor
no list of good deeds to boast about
just “God have mercy on me a sinner”
echos David’s prayer – Psalm 51 – after adultery with Bathsheba
“God have mercy”
The chapter before, unclean lepers cried “Jesus, master, have mercy on us”.
Jesus healed them – “your faith has made you well”
later in chapter 18, a blind beggar cries “Jesus, have mercy on me”
Jesus gave him sight – “your faith has saved you”
both were powerless to help themselves,
neither had any claim on Jesus,
both cast themselves on his mercy
the TC realised his spiritual uncleanness and blindness,
and in his helplessness,
he cast himself on G’s mercy
Luke says Jesus told this parable to those
who trusted in themselves that they were righteous & despised others
The word righteous or just came from law court:
in a civil case – if I am pronounced righteous or justified: verdict in my favour – like the widow in the previous parable
criminal case – found “not guilty”
This was the Pharisee.
Not a guilty sinner, but righteous – of course G would judge in his favor.
but Jesus said it was not the Pharisee the TC who went home made righteous, justified, before God.
just after, people brought their kids to Jesus to bless
Jesus said all of us can only come to G like little children:
snotty-nosed, sweaty, smelly, covered in mud
no impressive CV,
no imposing list of accomplishments
no self-importance, self-sufficiency, self-righteousness
helpless, just trusting that Daddy loves us
like the TC
It is the great reversal of the 2 Ways:
All who exalt themselves will be humbled,
but all who humble themselves will be exalted.
as Christians, we say we’re saved/forgiven/accepted by God on basis of Jesus Christ’s life, death, resurrection
where’s that here?
it was told before Jesus died
“Lord have mercy”
lepers, TC, blind man
TC uses different word for “mercy”, much more unusual, only found here in the gospels
in Hebrews and 1 John:
Jesus as the atoning sacrifice, propitiation for our sins, removing the barrier of sin between us and God
TC’s mercy theologically loaded –
Also, this Pharisee, so confident in his own self-righteousness,
recalls another Pharisee a little later.
a young man, but highly respected, more zealous for the Jewish traditions than most his age
more reason than anyone else to be confident in his own righteousness
his obedience to the law was blameless, faultless
if anyone was made righteous by keeping Moses’ law, he was
But one day the Pharisee Paul met Jesus
Paul said whatever was to his profit, to his credit,
all those deposits he’d made into his spiritual bank account,
were worthless rubbish compared to Christ.
Paul threw away his own righteousness that came from keeping the law of Moses
to gain God’s righteousness that comes through faith in Christ
we saw Luke’s use of “righteous”/ “just”:
Pharisee thought he was just-ified, despised others as unjust-ified, but the TC went home made just-ified.
Not bad, 3 times in 1 parable.
But this is Paul’s favorite word,
he can trump Luke, he can use it 3 times in 1 verse:
Get this, from Galatians (Gal 2:16)
“one is not just-ified by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be just-ified by faith in Christ and not by observing the law, because by observing the law no one will be just-ified.”
A repetitive verse:
observing the law observing the law observing the law no matter how hard you work at observing any sacred/sacrosanct/sanctified/sanctimonious law any religious /spiritual / moral/ ethical law you like it won’t work
but by faith in Christ faith in Christ faith in Christ and nothing but faith in Jesus Christ alone
we are justified justified justified
So no one can boast.
Paul said God never intended us to work our way up to heaven by obeying the law of Moses,
– or any other code of conduct, be it Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, secular humanist…
these moral codes are good and useful in their own way
but powerless to make us right with God
Moses’ law was conditional – on our achievement
so Moses’ law brought only God’s judgement and death
– our only lawful right
– the hard-earned wages of sin is death
but before, behind, beyond, beneath the Way of Works was an older, deeper, often-forgotten Way to God
fans of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, hear the Deeper Magic from before the Dawn of Time.
the unconditional promise given to Abraham 430 years earlier.
“I will bless you, and through you I will bless all peoples”
Paul said Abraham was justified not by works but by faith,
so all who believe are descendents of Abraham and inherit the promise of blessing,
Moses’ law was temporary –
The promise continued, and was fulfilled in Christ.
Christ destroyed the curse brought by our disobedience to the law.
The law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ – John 1.17
Christ is the end of the law so that there may be righteousness for all who believe.
OT shows 2 ways to relate to God:
1. based on us, what we do, in obeying the law
2. based on God: who He is and what He does to fulfil his promise
these two ways are represented here by the Pharisee and the tax collector
retells the story of the Prodigal Son
Pharisee wrong on 2 counts:
1. his own good deeds earn G’s favor,
2. the TC’s bad deeds exclude him from G
Pharisee thinks he’s in the money, sweet with G
– in fact overdrawn – has no claim on G
he’s same as the TC: both are insolvent
both have a multi-billion dollar debt,
Pharisee thinks he’ll pay his off – he don’t need no charity
he slaves to make a few bucks – they won’t scratch what he owes
– yet G’s already written the debt off in Christ!
– the whole bank’s been shut down anyway!
– love doesn’t keep a record of wrongs
Pharisee’s struggle to pay a debt he no longer owes
is a joke, also a Tragedy
– it’d be funny if it wasn’t fatal
TC accepts he’s penniless, broke, no more cards to play, no self-righteousness
so accepts G’s free gift of Christ-righteousness
The old baloney about heaven being for good guys and hell for bad guys is dead wrong… There are no good guys in heaven, just forgiven sinners – guilty types whose guilt has been abolished free of charge. And there are no bad guys in hell, just more forgiven sinners – guilty types who stupidly refuse to accept the abolition of their guilt.
Robert Farar Capon
1. parable says to earn G’s favor, to be saved
– we don’t have to keep religious laws like fasting, tithing
– we just have to be humble.
there’s a lot of pride in me – how humble is humble enough?
I’d better whip myself into greater humility.
that’s just another works-righteousness.
It’s remarkable the lengths we go to turn down a free lunch!
the sun of G’s generosity shines always on everyone
my pride, my guilt, my whatever, is just a cloud that stops me enjoying the sunshine – it doesn’t touch the sun
Nothing I do affects G’s love for me.
Pharisee represents non-Christians, TC Christians
the Pharisee and TC are both in all of us.
As I Christian, I know that everything required for my salvation was done 2000 years ago, I don’t have much to do with it.
But I’m often more aware of my own efforts to please God – whether or not they succeed
– than that God accepts me regardless
we so often get glimpses of God’s grace, but slip back into depending on our own efforts
a brief glimpse of freedom, but run back to the slavery of works
– that’s why Paul wrote his letter to the Galatians, that I’ve quoted a lot
conversion from Pharisee to TC is a life long process of growing trust and dependence on G.
the Good News is not that
God helps those who help themselves.
or we reap what we sow, we get what we deserve
Moses’ 2 Ways collapse into one.
But GN that G helps those who can’t help themselves.
we reap what Christ has sown, we get what Christ deserves
God isn’t fair: if he were fair, we’d all be in the soup.
God is good: crazy, stark-staring-bonkers good.
Robert Farar Capon
GN that "Everyone – TC or Pharisee – who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved." – Romans 10.13
so we pray with leper, blind man, TC, with God’s people down the centuries
“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on us poor sinners”