Look At Yourself
ow many of you remember coming in from playing in the yard, all covered with mud, and having your mother put her hands on her hips and say, Just look at yourself! We also recall that mother had a remedy for our dirt; a bath and clean clothes. Thats why we played in the dirt for as long as we could: sometimes past dark. In time we learned that the bath was not all that bad: we felt clean and almost new; and mother was not really mad, she welcomed us with open arms.
In Jesus story we see God welcoming a dirty tax collector back home. Not because he was deserving, but because he repented out of a broken heart aware of his own sin: God be merciful to me a sinner! (.13, RSV). He was justified, not because he was deserving, but because he was dirty and knew it, and he accepted Gods remedy; Gods cleansing.
The other man who went up to Jerusalem First Temple to pray that day was a very religious member of the Pharisee sect of Judaism. There always seems to be a kind of holier than thou group as a part of most any organized religious body. Many times these are positive and needed reforming groups. World wide Methodism has our own sub-movements that have kept our feet to the fire and have, in my opinion, salvaged our United Methodist branch from self-destruction, at times. However, the Pharisees were a first century equivalent of todays Ultra Orthodox band that seems mostly destructive. It is said that the Pharisees took the ten commandments and expanded them into ten-thousand picky requirements.
Out of this narrow-minded background came our Pharisee to pray. No wonder he prayed such a self-righteous prayer: God, I thank thee that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. (v. 11). It is true that he in all probability had not committed any of these major sins; however, he was a sinner just like the Tax Collector, who was in touch with is own sin. A part of the Tax Collectors practice was to gouge excessive taxes from his countrymen. His profit was in the unjust extortion that he squeezed out of poor and rich alike. He was guilty of committing grave and public sins; but, the thing that justified him was his ability to see himself as a sinner and to pray for mercy. God always answers the sinners prayer with forgiveness and mercy.
However, we can almost hear Jesus saying to the Pharisee, Just look at yourself! There you are just as dirty as the Tax Collector, and yet you can not see you own sin in your heart.
When someone has done an especially bad or stupid thing we sometimes use the phrase, I dont know how he/she can bare to look in a mirror. Being able to see ourselves as we really are is a real blessing, and usually it will end in humility. When we dare to look at ourselves, especially in a magnifying mirror, we are never as good looking as we think we are. Not long ago I went into one of those Brookstone gadgets that you dont need stores at the mall and looked at myself in a lighted extremely close up mirror. I have been washing my face better ever since, and trimming those ear hairs that guys begin to grow after forty.
This first part of the story seems easy enough to interpret: universally, there would be agreement as to who the good guy is and who the bad guy is. However, this last statement by Jesus sounds like it contradicts many assumptions of pop-psychology and the self-help movement. We have been taught by self-esteem gurus to picture ourselves as winners and not as guys who stand far off from the crowd with our heads hung beating our chests and pleading for mercy. But Jesus says very clear and plain that, every one who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted. (v. 14).
Is the way to success to stand off and not really want it? Can we achieve maximum career goals by being a doormat? Can we find our life by losing it?
My interpretation of this verse, which has caused the major debate among my internet preaching group this week (PRCL-L, Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary List), is that believers need both self-esteem and humility, and that both are a gift of divine grace. Humility, truly seen, is a sober estimate of ourselves. It is the God given realization of just where our place is in the grand scheme of Gods will. God, in the process of maturity and sanctification, allows us to Just look at ourselves! This picture rarely leads to pride. However it always leads to peace. It is the one pathway to inner peace.
As a child I wanted to be a tug boat captain as a result of some short lived television series. I found a captains cap and played Tugboat Captain Bobby. Later I wanted to play pro football; however, those hopes were dashed by a high school knee injury. During my first two years of college I changed my career goal many times: lawyer, optometrist, biology teacher, business tycoon, etc. The truth is that I did not know what I wanted to be when I grew up and all of this pressure to choose, and uncertainty, helped lead me to the foot of the Cross.
I have probably shared before, in your hearing, that a part of my conversion experience at age twenty-one was a definite call to preach. I did not doubt it then and have never doubted it since. Marilyn and I did feel led for a while to me missionaries to Africa, but soon we had the assurance that that was not our calling. Later I wanted to imitate my beloved professors and become a seminary teacher, I even went through the third degree in preparation for that, but soon I felt the clear affirmation of my calling to preach in a local church. This has been my lifes work and I have had an inner peace about it all along. I still feel the power of the Spirits presence when I preach. It is a feeling beyond any other and it is the joy of my calling. Society use to call it the higher calling; to me it still is.
I feel that Jesus Tax Collector must have found a new calling for his life. Although its not told in our story, I like to hope that became a disciple and used his talents in record keeping, accounting and business to further the fledgling Kingdom.
One thing we do know, when we meet the Christ our lives always take on new meaning, purpose and peace. Sometimes we go back home, sometimes he calls us to a new world.
a sermon synopsis
by C. Robert Allred, Th.D., Pastor