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Good Guys, Bad Guys, and Us Guys

Humility comes from looking at God and then seeing ourselves.

When I was a boy growing up in New York City, one of the nicest ways for me to spend a Saturday afternoon was at the matinee of the neighborhood theater. A group of us would arrive early and warm up on a series of cartoons. But we really went to see the cowboy movies.

We liked those movies because they were so predictable. The bad guys always wore gray and rode dark horses. Whenever they spoke, they spoke with a snarl. The good guys always wore white hats and rode white horses. And from time to time, they would stop and sing to us with their guitars.

On Sunday, if we managed to make it to Sunday school, it sometimes seemed that the same people who had written the screenplay for the movie had also written some of our Sunday school lessons, for the characters we studied there were also very gray and very white. We knew, for example, that had we been there for the showdown in Egypt between Pharaoh and Moses, Pharaoh would have been dressed in gray and Moses in white. And it was no surprise to us that David sang with a harp, because in our minds that was a kind of guitar.

As I grew older, though, I grew tired of those cowboy movies, just because they were so predictable. They didn't deal with real people living in a real world. Instead, they usually dealt with cardboard characters in a tissue paper play.

In turning from some of those stories of our childhood, many of us have unthinkingly turned from some of the ripping good stories Jesus told. We have heard them too many times. As a result, we've concluded that Jesus, like the cowboy movies, dealt with caricatures rather than real characters.

Take the story in Luke chapter 18. As soon as we get a line on the cast of characters, we have made up our minds. We know that one of the men was a Pharisee, and like Pavlov's dogs, we have been conditioned to think of all Pharisees as evil. So, mentally we proceed to color him gray. On the other hand, the other fellow in the story is a tax collector. We recognize that tax collectors were not the best of men, but we suspect that in this story, at least, we're dealing with a good guy in disguise.

But had you stood there on that ancient afternoon when Jesus first told this parable, you would not have come to any such naive conclusions. In the eyes of good and decent men of that day, the Pharisee was a religious and a moral success. He could stand in the temple and pray, "I thank you that I am not like other men — extortioners, evildoers, adulterers. I tithe all that I take in. I fast twice each week." I'm sure he was praying sober truth. In business, he had not made his living by driving his neighbor to the wall. His word was his bond. When he made a promise, you could count on it.

And in a day as sexually loose as our own, he had not sacrificed upon some wayside altar.

Measured by any conventional standard, ancient or modem, the Pharisee was a religious success. He says that he fasted twice each week. That was far more than the Old Testament had asked. In the ancient law, the people of God were asked to fast once each year—on the Day of Atonement. But in his devotion to his religion, this Pharisee would not be held to that. So, twice each week, on Monday and Thursday, he denied himself food.

He also says he gave a tithe of all that he took in. I suspect he is saying more than that he was a tither. That would have been characteristic of a great many people of his day. I think he is saying he tithed those things the law did not ask him to tithe. Perhaps each year he figured up his net worth and gave a tenth of that to God.

This Pharisee was in deep earnestness about his religion; you had to be serious about it to make yourself as uncomfortable as he made himself. God was as real to him as the shekels in his pocket, and he was willing to lower his standard of living a bit for him. And his religion had done him good: the people in the community respected and admired him as an outstanding citizen, a contributor to the community.

In fact, even the tax collector who came to services on that ancient Sabbath admired and respected the Pharisee. Jesus said when the tax collector entered the temple, he stood far from this noble leader of the religious community. He did not feel worthy to stand by his side.

If you think this tax collector was merely a chap willing to admit his limitations, you do not understand the place of tax collectors in the first century. Whenever Rome wanted to tax a province, it sold the right to tax to the highest bidder. And once a man purchased the right to tax, he was free to take anything the traffic would bear. He usually discovered it could bear a great deal. You couldn't do business without doing business with a tax collector. You couldn't move your goods from town to town without stopping by his desk.

As a result, extortion was built into the job; injustice was part of the trade. Tacitus, the Roman historian, says that once he visited a village that had had such an honest tax collector that the village erected a monument to his memory. Some men are traitors by one craven deed of cowardice, but a tax collector was a traitor all day and every day. He was despised by most people. Instead, he spent much of his time with extortionists, evildoers, and the sexually loose.

We Must Be More Concerned with SRighteous Comparisons than with Conceit.

If both of these men, the Pharisee and the tax collector, were running for public office, we would do our best to elect the Pharisee. If the tax collector got in, we would feel that corruption had invaded our society. If both of these fellows were courting your sister, you'd be pleased to have the Pharisee as a , but hardly the tax collector.

It's not so simple, then, to discover why Jesus decides the verdict as he does. It's not easy to see why he turns our values , why he commends the person we would condemn and condemns the person we would commend. But he's not dealing with caricatures; he's dealing with characters. To understand this story, then, we've got to look at it more closely.

When we do, we discover that the Pharisee and the tax collector are both in the temple. Certainly Jesus is not criticizing them for that. In the temple the daily sacrifices were offered. In the temple men and women, through those sacrifices, came into a relationship with God. We also see that both of them are praying, and Jesus is not giving them low marks for that. In fact, in the previous parable, Jesus told a story whose purpose was that men and women ought always to pray and not to faint.

But as we listen to the prayer of the Pharisee, we begin to get a little uneasy. He says, "I thank you that I am not like other men—extortioners, evildoers, adulterers. I fast twice each week. I give a tithe of all that I take in. I thank you especially that I'm not like that tax collector." What upsets us is that we feel this man is conceited.

If you and I were going to give him a bit of spiritual counsel, we would urge him to be more modest. We'd say to him, "Look, what you pray is true, but you ought not pray it in public. It sounds bad, conceited. You ought to be careful how you pray."

In the assortment of sins that men and women commit, one of the sins we don't like (at least in other people) is the sin of conceit. We like our heroes modest, and conceit has a way of putting us off. When the back runs seventy yards, scores a touchdown, and then is interviewed on television, we like him to say he made the long run because of the good line in front of him. We don't like him to say, "I'm the best runner in the National Football League."

Or, let's say you and I play tennis, and you beat me in three straight sets and then come bounding over the net, saying, "Look, Robinson, I don't know what you play, but it isn't tennis. Next time you want exercise, get somebody else to give it to you." I'm willing to admit you're a better tennis player than me. (I guess everybody else would admit it, too.) What I don't like is to have you admit it. I like you to tell me that you got in some good shots, that you were particularly up on your game that day. Conceit has a way of rubbing me wrong.

Or, let's say you discover that on a test you've gotten a fat C minus. As the person next to you looks at his blue book, you ask, "What did you get?"

He says, "Oh, I got an A. That was an easy exam. I didn't even study for it. Got an A! You didn't have any trouble with it, did you?" You're willing to admit the other person's a better student than you; it's obvious to the professor. What you don't like is to have him say it. You don't like his conceit. It puts you down. It rubs you wrong.

But, as far as God is concerned, conceit never makes it into the big leagues of sin. Conceit is a minor matter. It's often a way of talking. It's often just bad judgment.

A young woman went to her pastor and said, "Pastor, I have a besetting sin, and I want your help. I come to church on Sunday and can't help thinking I'm the prettiest girl in the congregation. I know I ought not think that, but I can't help it. I want you to help me with it."

The pastor replied, "Mary, don't worry about it. In your case it's not a sin. It's just a horrible mistake."

That is often true of conceit. There are people who talk big because inside they feel small. It's a way of covering up feelings of inadequacy. As far as God is concerned, conceit is a lot like acne: disturbing but not fatal.

The trouble with this Pharisee was not conceit, not pimples on the skin. The trouble was in the bloodstream. He is standing in the temple—in the presence of God—and thinking that the differences that matter among men matter with the Almighty. The problem with the Pharisee was pride.

Luke tells us that Jesus told this parable to those who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else. One of the symptoms of is a critical spirit, because one of the ways we feed our is by comparing ourselves with others. We usually look at their vices and think of our virtues, and that, we assume, gives us special standing with God. We have a way of cutting other people off at the knees and putting ourselves up on stilts. In comparison, we seem to stand tall.

Whenever you hear somebody always criticizing other people, see it as a manifestation of a spirit. It's a kind of insanity that says, "If I pull your house down, my house stands taller." That is and the way proud people feed their pride.

Pope Gregory the Great said of this Pharisee that he was like a man who had killed an elephant, but who was killed by the elephant's fall. The stench, the smell that comes out of this passage—this horrible aroma that has about it the brimstone of hell—is the smell of grace gone sour.

Here was a man with benefits: he had a knowledge of the Scriptures; he had been brought up in a good environment; his religious life had contributed positively to his character. But he took those things for granted; he thought that the good things given to him made him a creature of special merit and put him in special standing before God. Even though he thanks God, he is really practicing . He is saying, "Lord, you have made a good soup. But you couldn't have done it without good material like me to work with." That's the smell of grace gone putrid.

You can smell it in the life of young men and women. Many young people are brought up in a good environment, perhaps a Christian home. They're enabled to go to a Christian university. They have advantages that many others don't have. But soon they take those advantages and turn them into virtues. They begin to look at these "virtues" and compare themselves with others. They feel that as the mass of people go, they're pretty special, special to others and special to God. That's the stink of grace gone putrid.

You can see it in schools, seminaries, and Christian colleges. Across the years, some institutions have been true to truth. By God's grace they have the truth. By God's grace they've been true to truth. But in order to show how true they are, they begin to look at other schools, pointing out other schools' flaws and defections. When they do it, there are no tears streaming from their eyes; their hearts are not broken. No, they feel they're pretty special, the objects of God's blessing because they deserved it. That is the smell of grace gone putrid.

This Pharisee was in the presence of God, and in the presence of God he thought that the distinctions that mattered among men mattered with the Almighty. In the presence of God, he had a good eye on himself, a bad eye on his neighbor, and no eye on God.

We Must Be More Concerned with Living in God's Presence than with Hypocrisy.

"But the tax collector," Jesus said, "stood far off and kept beating his breast." That was something that women did, not men. "And he would not even look up into heaven." He looked down at earth. When the standard way to pray was to look up into the heavens, he kept beating his breast saying, "O God, be merciful to me, a sinner."

You say, "All right, he was humble. But after all, he had a lot to be humble about: he was a tax collector." But you can have Pharisees and Pharisees, like the Sunday school teacher who, after teaching this story, said, "Now, boys and girls, let's bow our heads and thank God we're not like that nasty Pharisee."

This tax collector could have stood in the presence of God and said, "O God, I thank you that I'm not as other men are. I especially thank you I'm not like that Pharisee. I don't pray long prayers in public. I don't pray like a religious type. I know I have sinned, and I'm willing to admit it. And even if I had done all these things, at least you know and I know that I'm not a hypocrite."

I think a man is as stupid as he is rotten who thinks that by taking the bandages off the putrid sores of his life, he becomes a creature of merit. I don't know why we think hypocrisy is the worst sin in the world, and why we believe that by living shabby lives, but not being hypocrites, we become creatures who enjoy special favor from God. I could wish that some people would take a short course in guile and cover up those sores.

A few years ago, two men held up a bank in Dallas. For reasons I do not know, only one of them wore a mask. In ten or fifteen minutes they were captured. Can you imagine one of those men standing before the judge and saying, "Your Honor, I admit I robbed the bank. I admit that I did it. But at least I went in there without as mask. I was not a hypocrite. Everybody saw who I was." That doesn't make it with a judge in Dallas. So, if you want to play the game of Pharisee, you can play it from any position on the board. This tax collector stood in the presence of God, and in the presence of God he kept beating his breast, saying, "O God, be merciful to me, a sinner."

One of the benefits of living in God's presence is this: when you really see God, you see yourself; when you see yourself, you see your sin; when you see your sin, you cry out to God for grace and forgiveness, and you receive it. The saint is always more aware of his need of God than his successes in God, always more aware of how far he has to go than how far he has come.

Job is described by the biblical writer as the most righteous man of his day. When he suffered, his friends told him he was suffering severely because he had sinned badly. Job denied that, refused to accept that. Then, at the end of the book, Job receives a vision of God. When he sees the vision, Job responds, "I have heard of you with the hearing of my ear, but now my eye sees you, and I repent in sackcloth and ashes." Seeing God, he saw himself; seeing himself, he saw his sins; seeing his sin, he saw his need of grace and forgiveness. And he cried out to God for cleansing.

Isaiah was the cream of young manhood of his day. But in an hour of national and personal crisis, when a mighty king had died, Isaiah stood in the temple and caught a vision of God, high and lifted up, his train filling the temple. And when Isaiah caught that vision of God, he said, "Woe is me. I am undone. I am a man of unclean lips. I live in the midst of a people of unclean lips." When Isaiah saw God, he also saw himself; when he saw himself, he saw his sin; when he saw his sin, he saw his need of forgiveness and grace. And he cried out to God for cleansing.

In Paul's first letter to his young friend, Timothy, he says, "Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst" (1 Tim. 1:15 NIV). Did you notice the verb? It is not "I was the worst, back there on the Damascus Road, when I was persecuting the church," but "I am the worst of sinners. Now that I have preached the gospel across the empire, now that I have established churches in the major cities, now that I have suffered persecution for God—I am the worst of sinners." Why does he say this? Because a verse later he says, "Now, to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever."

If you live in the presence of God and live in the light of his holiness, you will see your sin. And when you see your sin, you see your need of forgiveness, and you cry out to God for grace to cleanse you.

You never outgrow your need of grace or forgiveness. The most respected professor on your faculty, who has lived with God for scores of years, needs God's grace just as much as the pimp or prostitute on a skid row who is coming to Jesus Christ for the first time. The more you know of God's light, the more you see your own shadow. And the more you become aware of your need of God's grace, and the more often you cry out for God's cleansing and grace, the more you realize how much God gives you.

H. G. Wells was no friend of the church, but sometimes he served us well. Years ago in the New Yorker, he told a story about an Episcopalian clergyman. (He could have told it about a preacher from any denomination.) This Episcopalian bishop was the kind of man who always said pious things to people. When troubled folks came to him, he found that a particularly helpful thing to say, if said in a right tone of voice, was, "Have you prayed about it?" If said in just the right way, it seemed to settle things.

The bishop himself didn't pray much; he had life wrapped up in a neat package. But one day life tumbled in on him, and he found himself overwhelmed. It occurred to the bishop that maybe he should take some of his own advice. So, one Saturday afternoon he entered the cathedral, went to the front, and knelt on the crimson rug. Then he folded his hands before the altar (he could not help but think how childlike he was).

Then he began to pray. He said, "O God," and suddenly there was a voice. It was crisp, businesslike. The voice said, "Well, what is it?"

Next day when the worshipers came to Sunday services, they found the bishop sprawled face down on the crimson carpet. When they turned him over, they discovered he was dead. Lines of horror were etched upon his face. What H. G. Wells was saying in that story is simply this: there are folks who talk a lot about God who would be scared to death if they saw him face to face.

Yet that is where we are called to live. That is the secret of humility—not looking inward at your deficiencies or weaknesses, not looking outward at other people, comparing yourself with them, their vices against your virtues, their virtues against your vices. Humility comes from looking up into the face of God—who is holy love and loving holiness—to see ourselves and our need of forgiveness, to cry out for grace for daily life. Seeing God is to see ourselves. And to see ourselves is to understand what humility is.

Isaac Watts captured it when he wrote, "When I survey the wondrous cross / On which the Prince of Glory died, / My richest gain I count but loss, / And pour contempt on all my pride. / Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast, / Save in the Cross of Christ my God: / All the vain things that charm me most, / I sacrifice them to His blood."

Haddon Robinson is a professor of preaching at GConwell Theologyical Seminary, author of Biblical Preaching Biblical Sermons, and editor of PreachingToday.com.

Haddon Robinson

Preaching Today Tape # 80


A resource of Christianity Today International

Haddon Robinson was a preacher and teacher of preachers all over the world. His last teaching position was as the Harold John Ockenga Distinguished Professor of Preaching at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.

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Sermon Outline:


I. We must be more concerned with self-righteous comparisons than with conceit

II. We must be more concerned with living in God's presence than with hypocrisy