I speak to you in the Name of Jesus Christ, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption. Amen. (1 Corinthians 1:30–31 ESV)
Just before my summer holiday, I completed a course for my continuing theological education. I submitted the final paper and then awaited my mark and feedback from the instructor. And as I waited, I noticed something about myself that I thought I had left behind years ago when I finished school: and that is that I really, really wanted to get a good mark and receive the praise of the professor. Even though I’m no longer pursuing a degree and so the grade I receive no longer really matters, I noticed that I still had this need to pass scrutiny, a need for approval, esteem, and honour.
But really I should not have been surprised - because this need for approval and acceptance is universal, it’s something almost everyone has. And I don’t think we ever get over it, but this desire is fulfilled and transformed in Christ.
No doubt you have all experienced the confidence boost, satisfaction and reassurance that comes from, for example, an acceptance letter, a good grade, getting hired for a new job, a positive performance review at work, an award or accolade, or even just a word of affirmation from someone you respect. And we’ve also all experienced the reverse: the crushing blow of failure or rejection.
So you see, we’re all looking for a verdict, a favourable judgment. We need someone from the outside to come in and say, ‘You’re approved. You’re good. You’re worthwhile. You’re great.’ We’re all hungry for this glory. And try as you might, you can’t give it to yourself.
Now, of course, people often say, ‘I don’t need anyone’s else’s approval. It doesn’t matter what others say. All that matters is what I think.’ You’ve probably said that yourself at one point or another - I know I have. But I don’t think you can really live this way. The only people who really and truly don’t care about anyone else’s opinion are wicked and sociopathic. (Those of you who work in law enforcement and the criminal justice system (and perhaps others of you) will have encountered such people. You will know that it is unhealthy and repulsive to be hardened to the approval of others.
I mention all of this today because our need for approval relates to an aspect of the biblical notion of righteousness – a key word in the Bible that we don’t use very much anymore in common parlance.
Today’s Gospel story from Luke begins with this brief introduction about its intended audience and purpose: Jesus told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt.
So our message for today is about righteousness – and the wisdom that comes from knowing what true righteousness is, how to get it, and where it comes from.
In today’s parable Jesus says, in effect, ‘Let me show you two ways of dealing with the problem of righteousness – a good way and a bad way, a way that works and a way that doesn’t, the way of wisdom and the way of folly. And these ways are represented by the two figures: the Pharisee and the tax collector.
First, the Pharisee – one of the devoutly religious people of the day.
Clearly he’s presented as ‘the bad guy’ here, but he is not sinful in the usual sense. He may or may not be a hypocrite, outwardly righteous but with no real faith in God. In fact, he attributes his upstanding life to God and expresses his gratitude for this. He begins his prayer by thanking God. (Let’s give him the benefit of the doubt and assume his gratitude to God is genuine).
And yet, how ugly his words sound. In the words of Ecclesiastes, he is the righteous man who perishes in his righteousness (7:15).
The word that occurs most frequently in his prayer is the word ‘I.’ God, I thank you that I am not like other men … I fast twice a week, I give tithes of all I get. I, I, I, I, I.
You see, he is really thinking about himself, what he has done and what he deserves. In doing this he shows that he is satisfied with his own righteousness, his own verdict of self-approval. He is content with himself, his virtues, his religiosity. He really has no need for God.
He certainly has no need of the God of the Bible, the God who tells us that He desires mercy and not sacrifice, a broken and contrite heart rather than burnt offerings (that is, religious observances). The Pharisee is not addressing the God who warns against judging others. His faith in God is not displayed in a heart of compassion; rather, his form of righteousness leads him to condemn others.
And so, his self-righteousness is folly – it is false and shows itself to be such in its ugly outward expression. Therefore, unlike King Solomon in our first reading, the Pharisee is unwise. He lacks true wisdom and understanding.
As we heard, Solomon asks the LORD, above all else, for an understanding mind – a phrase more literally translated as ‘a hearing heart.’ To be wise is to have a heart attuned to the LORD. The Pharisee’s heart is attuned to himself. Whereas the Pharisee boasts, true wisdom listens to God. Wisdom is, in the first place, receptive, not self-asserting.
And we should clear up a common misconception about wisdom: wisdom, as defined in the Bible, is not merely intellectual. It’s not just about the head, it’s about the hands and heart too. Biblical wisdom something much more like artistic skill. It has to do with our whole person, our actions, attitudes, expressions, what we produce, the effect our work has on others. If the Pharisee is an artist, then his work, as we’ve said, is really quite unskilled and repulsive. He is unwise because he fails to draw from the source of true righteousness.
By contrast, the tax collector in the parable has a heart rightly attuned to the LORD. In those days, Judean tax collectors were despised by own people because they collaborated with the occupying Roman empire and collected exorbitant taxes for Caesar, and often lined their own pockets in the process. They were traitors, thieves, outcasts and social pariahs.
So this tax collector would have received no approval or acceptance from others. And obviously he wasn’t getting it from himself either because it seems as though his heart has convicted him of his crooked ways.
The tax collector has nothing to offer God except a broken and contrite heart. He has no hope in anything except God Himself. And the God He approaches is precisely the one proclaimed in the Gospel, the One who came to call sinners to repentance, not the self-righteous who think they have no need of Him.
Friends, the fact that God calls sinners is good news indeed, but it requires of us something much harder than religious devotion: it requires of us that we acknowledge ourselves to be sinners. And we must not underestimate the difficulty of this, of seeing just how much we stand in need of God.
To get a sense of just how hard it is, notice how you reacted when this Gospel was read, when you heard the boasting of the Pharisee, who said: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like sinners.’ I’m willing to wager that quite a few of us said in our hearts at that moment: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like this self-righteous Pharisee!’ It is possible even to be sinfully proud of one’s own humility, which of course, is no humility at all, but rather a sneaky form of self-righteousness.
So what we need is true righteousness together with genuine humility – a rare combination indeed.
So what then are we to do? How do we resolve the problem of righteousness? As we’ve seen, we can’t get it from ourselves. We need someone else to approve and accept us, but as we also know, we can’t depend on it from other people, because that comes and goes. When others do praise us, it tends to puff us up in pride; when they don’t, we are deflated in shame.
So where, then, can we find a true, humble righteousness? Where can we hear wisdom on this vitally important question?
Well, there is someone who can point us in the right direction; and we heard from him today in our second reading: St. Paul the Apostle.
Not only does Paul’s teaching give us wisdom on the problem of righteousness, but his life story actually demonstrates how it is resolved.
Paul was formerly Saul of Tarsus, a Pharisee and teacher of the Law. He was devoutly religious, just like the Pharisee in today’s Gospel. In fact, he was so zealous, that he violently persecuted the early church, those he saw as a threat to his religion. So again, this Pharisee’s ‘righteousness’ manifested itself in a very ugly way.
But then Saul met Jesus – and everything changed. He was converted – he gave up his old ways and was given a new and better righteousness.
In another one of his letters, Paul lists all his impressive religious credentials as a former Pharisee; and then says this:
But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith (Philippians 3:7–10 ESV)
What happened to Paul? He came to realize that Jesus Christ is the true and perfect person, the fulfillment and embodiment of God’s Law which Paul tried so hard to follow. So Jesus is the only one fully acceptable in God’s eyes. Only He is truly righteous and so our righteousness can only be found by faith in Him. We trust in His perfect record on our behalf. We draw from the wellspring of His goodness by the Holy Spirit, so that we can live upstanding lives while remaining humble, because we know that any goodness we have does not come from us. In fact, like the tax collector, we can take an honest look at our hearts and acknowledge ourselves to be the sinners for whom Christ died. Our hearts can be broken and contrite, but made new with love, joy and thanksgiving for God’s grace and mercy.
We cannot find righteousness in ourselves or from the praise of others. We can only get it from God who judges justly and His Son Jesus Christ, who is our righteousness. This is the Gospel – the good news of our salvation.
In the passage we heard today from 1 Corinthians 15, Paul tells us how this righteousness can be ours. It comes to us in a sequence. Paul says that the Gospel is preached and received by faith in a hearing heart. Again, this is true wisdom – to have a heart that hears the gospel. Thus the gospel becomes the firm foundation on which we stand; and by it we are being saved if we hold firm. Friends, the entire Christian life, the wisdom of the Christian faith, is summed up here. Notice that it is receptive and centered on God’s Word in contrast to the Pharisee’s boast of I, I, I, I, I.
In conclusion, I want to give you two quick practical take-home suggestions – and both have to do with prayer. I think that’s fitting because the example of the repentant tax-collector in today’s Gospel points us in that direction: prayer both the request and appropriatky humble response to God's free gift of righteousness.
First, this afternoon or sometime this week, pray through our Psalm of the day (Psalm 28) and imagine it being prayed from the lips of the repentant tax collector.
And secondly, pray through our collect of the day and reflect on it in light of today’s readings.
O God, you declare your almighty power most chiefly in showing mercy and pity: mercifully grant to us such a measure of your grace, that we, running the way of your commandments, may receive your gracious promises, and be made partakers of your heavenly treasure; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
God shows us ‘mercy and pity’ (like the tax collector) and grants us His ‘grace,’ which is the gospel, as summarized by Paul in 1 Cor. 15. And this grace, rather than our own strength, is what enables us to run the course of life 'in the way of God’s commandments’ and ‘obtain His gracious promises.’
Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy, to the only God, our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen. (Jude 24–25 ESV)