August 9, 2009

I Rule – Dan Teefey

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Sermon text: Luke19:9-14

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There is an effect called the overconfidence effect. It is a bias in which people are correct in their judgments far less often than they think they are. For example, for certain types of questions, answers that people rate as “99% certain” turn out to be wrong 40% of the time.

There are very strong indicators of this effect in the Bible as well. Often, those that the Bible describes as super confident are the same one’s that God or Jesus describe as missing the mark. It is the humble and the meek that are repeatedly said to have understood Jesus completely.

Confidence in one’s own abilities generally means that our confidence has been established with reference to a particular set of people that we have chosen in our minds. Over-confidence most often arises with limited expectations on the difficulty of the task. For instance, over-confidence happens when we think a task is too easy. Raise your hand if you think you could cross the street outside our parking lot? What if I told you, you had to do it on one leg and in 3 seconds? The more complicated the task, the less confidence we have in our ability to complete it.

If your understanding of being a Jesus follower is going to church on Sunday, listening to Christian music, and not cussing, then you are likely very confident in your ability to do this. If, however, your understanding of being a Jesus follower is picking up your cross daily, being slow to anger, praying without ceasing, and loving your enemies, your confidence certainly should dwindle.

Overconfidence leads to a heightened focus on ourselves. Oddly enough, one of the best examples I read about this happens in Poker. When someone is over-confident in Poker they generally throw down a great deal of money with very little consideration of the others playing. As a result they do not think about what cards others have or what they might be doing, but simply think about themselves.

In the Christian faith the object for our comparison is perfect, infinitely good, infinitely wise, infinitely right. Over-confidence in our own righteousness is thus either delusional or based upon an enormous underestimation of God and Jesus Christ.

Confidence can also be a covering for a more true hate for oneself. A person’s poor self-image is masked by their insistence that they are great or perfect.

We are called to be confident in Christ, not in ourselves.

We are called not to look side to side, but only upward. (I read one time that when God looks down at Christians, all He sees are the tops of our heads. There is no higher or lower.) We thus gaze upward and not downward or side to side.

Similar to last week, Jesus helps us to understand what our parable is about in his introduction to it. Here, he says, “To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable.”

Notice immediately that Jesus is not going on a tear against confidence. There is nothing wrong with being confident. Jesus is clearly talking about being confident in one's own righteousness. He is additionally concerned with people's tendency to look down on others when they have an inflated view of themselves.

Jesus contrasts the prayers of the tax collector and the Pharisee, but both begin the same way by addressing God. We immediately notice, though, the differences in their demeanor.

Pharisees were highly respected among most Jews and would have been considered righteous, scrupulous in their efforts to obey God. The Pharisee is going beyond every requirement of the Law.

If Pharisees were respected, attitudes towards tax collectors were close to the opposite end of the spectrum.

Basically, the story that Jesus tells is about two guys that go up to the Temple to pray, a Pharisee and a tax collector. The text says that the Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself. “'God, I thank you that I am not like other men—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.”

It seems that the Pharisee stood a distance away or by himself because he either took a prominent position or because he separated himself from others to avoid contact. Generally, the Pharisee's prayer is understood to be pretentious, prideful, and self-righteous, particularly with its fivefold reference to “I.”

Ironically, Jews listening to Jesus would have presumed that the Pharisee was a righteous man. Jesus emphasizes, though, that he thanks God he is not like others and the public, and points to his going beyond the commandments. At the very least, the Pharisee's prayer is self-centered.

The primary problem with the Pharisee is that he thinks he can be obedient to God and still have disdain for people like the tax collector – that is, that he can fulfill what the Torah demands with no attention to the love command. He is certain that his acts put him in a good standing with God and that his pious acts make better than his contemporaries. What may have started as a legitimate affirmation that he has kept the covenant has detoured into disdain and self-congratulation.

The tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up at heaven, but beat his chest and said, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

Jesus then praises the tax collector. By implication, the basis of the acquittal is the tax collector's sense of his need, his throwing himself on the mercy of God, and the compassion of God who forgives sinners, again recurring themes in Luke's portrayal of Jesus' message. The tax collector's prayer is a poignant plea that the sacrifice will be effective enough to enable Go to have mercy on him.

Modern readers must grasp how surprising and stunning for Jesus' hearers it would have been that the tax collector was the one declared to be in the right. That would contravene everything that they knew.

Jesus says, “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted." “Justified” is legal language which means “shown to be in the right” or “acquitted.”

Exactly what should be imitated or avoided here with either man is not clear, and even with the tax collector we could not say, “go and do likewise.”

The Pharisee thinks he is true to the Torah's stipulations but does not see the Torah's intent of love for neighbor. If the parable asks the basic question, “what is it that counts as righteousness?” Then Jesus conclusion must be clear that righteous acts without compassion and love are not considered righteous by God.

This parable, like many others, is a verbal slap in the face. Jesus called a man righteous who was known to be unrighteous and refused this description for a man who everyone would recognize as a righteous person, one who had done good things, even beyond what the law expected – that is, unless Jesus' hearers were keyed in to the importance of the love command.

A proud prayer is a self-contradictory endeavor. Conversely, humility is an essential aspect of true prayer. God is not a God impressed with pious acts and feelings of superiority. He is, rather, a God of mercy who responds to the needs and honest prayers of people. On the other hand, God is not a God whose mercy can be taken for granted. The parable is less about prayer than it is about attitudes toward self and neighbor, nor is this the only teaching about prayer that is necessary.

The parable raises the question of how our assessment of people squares with God's assessment. All too frequently, we secretly judge people as less than ourselves.

C.S. Lewis’ wrote a book called, The Screwtape Letters. In the book there is a character named Screwtape who is a very highly placed assistant to the devil. Screwtape writes a series of letters to his apprentice, Wormwood, instructing him on how best to keep people from worshiping God. The satirical letters are very insightful into the human condition. At one point in Screwtape’s second letter to Wormwood, Screwtape says that one of the great allies of the devil is the church itself. He goes on to talk about how when we, church going people, get to our pews and look around in the morning we see a bunch of broken people, people that annoy us, people that aggravate us, people that we think are arrogant, mean, pushy, passive-aggressive, whatever, and then we start to think, “how can this be the body of Christ.” These people are trouble . . . And then if anyone sings out of tune, starts to clap their hands during worship, has a tattoo, has a double chin, or odd clothes . . . we very quickly start to think that the other people’s faith must be hollow and ridiculous. They can’t be Christians if they are like that.

And before long, after we have beat down everyone around us, we start to puff ourselves up. Man, I am awesome. I put 11% of my income in the collection plate this week and I even gave 3 pennies to a lady in the grocery store checkout. I don't cuss. I always iron my shirts. We begin to say things like, “I know I do not do quite exactly what Jesus wants from me, but neither does anyone else. We pick our friends and then we say, at least I am better than they are.

Our mistake is that we generally grossly underestimate the gravity of our own sin. And we overestimate the purity of our own hearts.

Theologian, Soren Kierkegaard finds 3 strategies in this parable that are important for us to understand our condition before God.

Be alone with God. For when we are alone with God we realize how far from God we are. We can always surround ourselves with people that do not push us and that do not cause to to self-examination. We need to get alone with God and get to know Him more fully, so that we an increasingly know how short we fall.

Look downward. For when we see God's holiness we realize our own wretchedness. One of the problems with understanding God or Jesus as our buddy or even our friend is that it conjures up ideas of equality in our minds. We can have mutual friendships with each other, but not with God. Our relationship with God only goes one way. He does not need us, but we absolutely need Him. He loves us, but He does not need us.

Be aware of being in danger before God. If we feel safe like the Pharisee we really are in peril. That famous line from the Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe hits at this point. One of the children asks the beavers about Aslan, the God figure in the book. They ask whether He is safe. The beavers respond, “no, he is not safe, but he is good.” If you are worshiping a safe God, you are not worshiping the God of the Bible.

If our comparison is to anyone other than God, we will not likely understand our position before God and are vulnerable to pride and self-centeredness.

We began by discussing how overconfidence generally proceeds from choosing objects of comparison that make us look good.

This week I came across an article on dogs. It was primarily about canine intelligence. How smart are dogs? If we compare them to rocks, they are pretty smart. But we presume if we compare then to humans, they are not that smart. It turns out though, that many dogs are smarter than kids. The article actually said that testing has shown that most dogs know 165 words and can count to 5. The average dog has the intelligence of a 2 year old. So Dogs are smart if you compare them with your kids. Not so smart if you compare them with an adult.

Understanding where we are at in our spiritual journeys starts with knowing that the only object of our comparison must be God. Because when God is our measuring stick, we more regularly recognize our need for God and move away from thinking we have the Christian life figured out. God wants us to be like the tax collector, who did not have a perfect past, but knew his position with God. He needed God's mercy. The Pharisee needed God's mercy too, he was just too proud of himself to know it. He believed he was good enough to need God less.

Let us never be too proud to admit how far we still have to go in our faith. As we try to live rightly, may we not become more and more confident in our own abilities, but in our need for God. Let us always be the first to drop to our knees and plead for God's mercy.

References consulted:

Snodgrass, Klyne R. Stories of Intent. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2008.

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