"Rewards For The Sinners"

Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - 10/25/1998

Psalm 65; Luke 18:9-14

     One of the diseases that has plagued religious people for centuries is as old as religion itself. To identify the disease is difficult because it can assume different forms. Yet as soon as anyone comes into contact with an infected person, the disease is instantly recognized.

     To be specific, the chief symptom of this disease is self-righteousness. This happens when people discover a truth that appears to work in their lives and they feel compelled to inoculate everyone else with it. At first glance this sounds like good old fashioned evangelism, winning souls for Christ, but is it?

     What separates the real thing from the counterfeit is what this new truth produces in the life claiming to have it. Rather than producing a wholesome, accepting, and loving spirit, it frequently produces just the opposite. Self-righteousness produces an awareness that assumes that everyone else has the disease while they stand among those who are cured.

     Jesus knew the symptoms of this disease well. His knowledge of it is revealed quite clearly in this morning's lesson. Before he recorded the parable, Luke wrote, "Jesus also told this parable to people who were sure of their own goodness and despised everyone else." How could people who believed that they had the truth despise other people? The answer is that such people remain unaware how their words and body language are received by other people.

     For example, in his parable Jesus skillfully painted a beautiful picture with his words. Two people had entered the temple to pray. One was a very religious person and the other just the opposite, "a sinner of the worst kind." The first symptom that Jesus pointed to was that the religious man chose to stand apart from the other man. He would not sit in the same pew with this poor soul. In fact he might have chosen to attend the synagogue instead of the temple had he known in advance that he would be sharing the same space with a tax collector.

     Most of us have heard the story why Mahatma Ghandi never became a Christian. This great leader of India loved Jesus and his teachings. He would have willingly left his Hindu faith but for one small thing. Those who claimed to have Christ in their hearts would not share their space with him. Ghandi was turned away from two Christian churches because of the color of his skin.

     The second symptom Jesus cited was that the religious man was praising God. What could possibly be wrong with praising the Lord? Showing gratitude to God for all the blessings of life is one of many opportunities we have when we pray. The Pharisee, however, was praising God for how different he was from others. He obviously felt saved and knew he was heaven-bound. Not only was he standing apart from the sinner physically, now he praised God that he was also separated from him spiritually. He thanked God for all the qualities he did not have.

     Here are the Pharisee's words, "I thank you, God, that I am not greedy, dishonest, or an adulterer, like everyone else." Life must have been pretty rough in that community. Those listening to Jesus may have wondered how this Pharisee had such insight into everyone else's character. His prayer continued, "I thank you that I am not like that tax collector over there." It was here that his third symptom surfaced. He compared himself to another of God's creations. This was not a very informed judgment from Jesus' point of view.

     The fourth symptom was that he began to remind God of his own fruits of the spirit. He said, "I fast two days a week and I give you one tenth of all my income." There is little doubt that the Pharisee was sincere and discussed with God many other acquired skills, perhaps even mentioning the fruits of the spirit that the Apostle Paul would later describe in Galatians 5:22.

     If there were ever an image of what a righteous life looked like to the average person listening to Jesus, it was the one coming from the lips of this Pharisee. Jesus wanted his listeners to hear again what many of them already understood about people who were well known for their pious attitudes.

     Next Jesus turned his attention to the other person in the picture, the sinner. Jesus intentionally chose as his contrasting example a tax collector who was basically at the low end of the personal acceptance charts for all his listeners. Even among the most sinfully challenged in his audience, the tax collector would be regarded as the most despised. This is why Jesus was such a master story teller. He held a mirror in front of all his listeners.

     Jesus told how this tax collector was so overwhelmed by his own short-comings that he was unable to lift his face toward the symbols in the temple that represented God's presence. In our day, such a person would not be able to look at the cross. He was so overcome by his sense of failure that he prayed, "God, have pity on me, a sinner." He knew nothing of truth. He was only asking God to love him anyway.

     What his listeners were quite surprised to hear was that Jesus praised the sinner and not the Pharisee. Jesus said, "I tell you, the tax collector and not the Pharisee, was in the right with God when he went home. For those who make themselves great will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be made great."

     How can we understand this parable? The Pharisee appears to be the model toward which many of us strive with our knowledge of the Scriptures, our acts of kindness, our witnessing to our faith, and our desire to spread to others what we have found. Why was it that the sinner was put into a right relationship with God over the one who was practicing, was witnessing to the power of his faith?

     The Gospels are alive with episodes where sinners were rewarded by Jesus. In fact, never once did Jesus utter an unkind word to any of them. His unkind words were reserved for those who knew in their hearts that they were saved. The majority of Jesus' verbal attacks were aimed at the most righteous. It was the sinners who were rewarded with his time and his patient attention.

     We find Jesus eating and drinking with "the outcasts." Jesus once invited a tax collector to come down from a tree so he could eat lunch with him. Jesus allowed a prostitute to touch his feet with her tears and dry them with her hair. (That must have generated some dicey talk among the many who had gathered) He once took compassion on an adulterous woman who had been hurled at his feet by a group of people planning to stone her to death. He invited a tax collector to become one of his disciples. Aside from these episodes, Jesus expressed his attraction to sinners in this way, "I have not come for those who are well. I have come only for those who are sick."

     Why was Jesus so attracted to sinners? Why did he lavish his love on them? They were the most eager to hear the Good News that God had a place for them, too. Any of us who spend time with people who have made a lot of mistakes in their lives know how easy it is to love them. There is no pretense with them. They have no need to impress. They have nothing they want anyone to buy.

     It was quite obvious that Jesus never treated them as lepers, as did the righteous. The sinners knew little about what was "correct" to believe. What was unmistakably clear to them was that Jesus loved them very much. Everything about Jesus demonstrated that. Is this not one of the authentic characteristics of true discipleship?

     On the other hand, when the righteous came to hear Jesus, they were not there to learn. According to the Gospel accounts, the righteous were there to compare his words with their own understanding. They were listening for his distortions, mistakes and errors. The spirit in which they listened blinded them from seeing his compassion and caring. The righteous were more interested in maintaining "correct belief" than doing something loving simply to make a difference.

     There was a woman in her mid-eighties who lived in the Harlem community in New York City for most of her life. She was the neighborhood baby-sitter because everyone knew she was a saint. There were times when she had as many as twenty children under her care, but she had her day structured around naps, walks, and story times. She was a natural story teller. She could keep the children spellbound.

     She knew that many of the children's parents were living difficult lives. Her special gift was watching and caring for their children. Sometimes the parents did not pick up their children at the end of the day. That was okay. She put them to bed on the floor while surrounding them with the numerous soft blankets she had.

     One day a mother came early to pick up her son and found the woman in the middle of one of her stories. The mother was so touched by the wise woman's words that she sat down and listened. It was not long before there were two mothers and than three. Then some fathers began to show up. The woman's words were touching the hearts of "unchurched" people with hope and encouragement. Many times her stories made everyone laugh, something many of them had not done for a long time.

     A local Baptist pastor heard about Old Miss Lizzy and visited her one day. He, too, was touched by her unique wisdom and manner. He said to her, "You know the Bible better than anyone I have ever known. The way you weave the teachings of Jesus into your stories amazes me!" To his surprise she said, "Why thank you, Reverend, but the truth is I have never read the Bible. One of my regrets in life is that I never learned how to read. For most of my life all I have been able to do is to love all my babies. God must have given me that to do and then helped with all the rest."

     There is no mistaking a spirit like that. Such a person has no need to judge others. There was plenty to do each day without her needing to assess the quality of someone else's life or determine what other people may need for their salvation. Such a person has no need to know what is "correct" to believe. She was giving herself away and that was enough.

     If this is the case, how are we to spread the Gospel? The answer is we don't; God does. The Gospel could not have survived and spread as it has by human effort alone. What spread it was the attractiveness of those who had become inspired by God to give of themselves without counting the cost. The way they lived through the ages communicated the message. No one needed any more evidence to know that Miss Lizzy was a saint. She knew how to make sinners feel accepted, loved, and needed just as they came. Love did the rest.

     There will come moments in all our lives when we know we have really messed up. We will feel that we have lost our way. We will feel that we cannot take communion, cannot look at the cross, and cannot feel at home in this or any church. We can get like that from time to time.

     Always remember that Jesus came into our world for people like us. He came personally to bring hope and encouragement into our darkness. Never compare yourselves with those who feel they have arrived. Those who truly understand the truth Jesus brought, allow their lives to speak for them. Jesus said, "For those who make themselves great will be humbled, (not lost, only humbled) and those who humble themselves will be made great." Please, do not forget that.


     Eternal and ever faithful God, thank you for your promise to be available to us every moment of our lives. May we sense your voice in the songs we hear, be comforted by the articles we read, and find direction when we come to you in prayer. Spare us from judging our circumstances and from questioning the experiences into which you guide us. As our lives unfold, enable us to live our discipleship through a spirit that is warm, caring, and thoughtful. As we collectively continue our faith journeys, may we find in each other the same inspiration, comfort and support that Jesus and his disciples shared together. Use our community of faith, O God, to bring peace to all who need to be touched by an angel. Amen.


     Thank you, God, for providing us with a house of worship where we feel accepted and loved by others. We thank you that we can enter these walls, knowing that we are people who have made a lot of mistakes in our lives. Yet, our welcome here is unmistakable. And the fact that we are loved by you is never in doubt. Help us now to close our ears to all the voices that want our attention, save yours that constantly reminds us that you are with us.

     May we allow our spirits to be open to the cleansing of your holy spirit, so that all the symptoms of our self-serving attitudes might be like the mountain that can be uprooted and cast into the sea. Move our hearts so that we may become walking advertisements for what living in the Kingdom of God looks like.

     Help us point to truth with our lives instead of making judgments with our tongues. May our insights into the lives of others enable us to increase our love for them instead of motivating us to make them more like us. May we come to understand that the differences between us are as important as the uniqueness of every instrument within an orchestra.

     Today may we find healing. May we find more insights into your will for us. May we extend our hands and make new friends. May those of us who worry and remain anxious, leave our service today feeling peaceful and able to allow life's unfolding to remain in your care. We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus, who taught us to say when we pray . . .