Grace At Church

By Greg Albrecht—

To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable: Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 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.
But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
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. —Luke 18:9-14

The core ingredient of being the church is being in Christ. If we are in Christ, and he is in us, we are the church. Notice I said—we are “the” church, which is entirely different from being members of or part of “a” church. The church is the universal body of Christ. It is not comprised of or defined by any specific incorporated legal entity. All of what the universal church is—its entirety, its unity, its beauty and its totality—is not visible. The body of Christ is everyone in whom Jesus lives, everyone who trusts in him, everyone, regardless of their affiliation with a legally incorporated church, or lack thereof.

All of the rest of what we so often think of when the word “church” comes to mind—buildings, special architectural features, “holy” rituals, ornaments and all of the activities, programs, services, small groups, Bible studies, discipleship programs, missions, picnics and softball games—all of it—either can help or harm us. But, such physical properties are not essential, foundational, core elements that determine whether we are the church.

Your attendance, or lack thereof, with a group of people, in a particular building, at a particular time, at a specific address, on a piece of real estate, performing specific religious rituals has little, if anything, to do with whether you are in Christ. Such behaviors and practices may help or hinder your relationship with Jesus, but they do not assure it.

The title of our message this week is Grace at Church and the passage upon which our discussion is based is Luke 18:9-14—well known as the “The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector.”

Did you ever stop to think about the times that Jesus went to church? How did that work out for him? Did he get involved in all of the committees and outreach groups? Did people like him?

Of course Jesus never went to a church, but the Bible tells us that he went to synagogue and temple. The Bible doesn’t tell us how consistently Jesus attended synagogue and temple, but it does tell us of rude receptions he received during specific occasions when he did frequent such gatherings.

This parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector is of course just a story. Parables are stories with a lesson. Jesus doesn’t write himself into this parable about “going to church.” We have to look elsewhere in the four Gospels for his experiences of “going to church.”

It’s not our primary purpose today to study Jesus’ experiences at synagogue, but in the light of our passage let’s take a brief diversion to consider the adventures Jesus had when he went to “church.” One of the most known passages about this subject is found in Luke 4:14-30.

This passage shows that the initial reaction of the people who heard him speak, based on a passage from Isaiah, was positive. But as he continued to speak, they were not happy campers. Let’s let verses 28-29 tell us about what happened on this particular time, when Jesus joined a religious gathering:

All the people in the synagogue were furious when they heard this. They got up, drove him out of the town, and took him to the brow of the hill on which the town was built, in order to throw him down the cliff.—Luke 4:28-29

We can presume they didn’t like some of the implications of Jesus’ sermon! Then there was the time, recorded in John 2:12-17, as well as in similar accounts in Matthew, Mark and Luke, when Jesus went to temple, and he was so upset that he, to use the language the Bible uses, “cleansed the temple.” He was upset with religious practices and manipulative, money-making techniques that had entered into the life of the temple, so he drove all the money-changers out.

There’s not much in that account about Jesus sipping coffee after services, and fellowshipping. I don’t think they offered him a cup of coffee after he cleansed the temple, do you?

In John 12:42 we read that there were religious leaders of that day who wanted to believe in Jesus, but they did not, because they were afraid if they did they would be “put out” of the synagogue. We get the general idea that Jesus’ earthly ministry and message was not welcomed inside the four walls of religious institutions and their edifices.

The parable we are looking at today, the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, offers two options as to how humans may choose to relate to God. This parable is all about Grace at Church. Notice a few important features of this parable:

1) Jesus begins by telling us about two men who go to temple—they go “to church” to pray. He doesn’t tell us that we have to go to church to pray, he doesn’t say that prayers in a “holy place” are more effective. Jesus just relates that two people went to a religious place to pray.

2) Jesus provides us with some details about the two men who are polar opposites. One, the Pharisee, is extremely religious. The Pharisee ensures that other people see him, and hear of him doing the right thing.

Jesus created and composed this parable, and he had a specific audience in mind when he wrote the script and then taught it. The first verse of our passage, verse nine, says that Jesus told this parable to some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else….
So the Pharisee is the man in the black hat. The Pharisee is set up as playing the role of the religious hypocrite, a rule-keeping, hard-headed, hard-hearted legalist who gets his kicks out of doing more religious stuff, and doing it better, than other people.

The man who wears the white hat in this parable, the man who is assigned the leading role, portraying a Christ-centered perspective, is an unlikely character to do so.

The good guy in the parable was one of the worst sorts of persons that Jesus’ audience could imagine. This guy was a tax collector and his mere presence in the parable immediately caused the audience to favor the Pharisee.

The audience might have thought, as they heard Jesus give this parable, “The tax collector shouldn’t even have been in the temple. Who invited him to church? What was he doing there?” Tax collectors were commonly seen as traitors, people who worked for the Romans who militarily occupied the land in which the Jews lived. Tax collectors took money from their own people, the Jews, and gave it to the Romans.

Who would be as unwelcome in church today? Someone who performs abortions? Someone who believes in evolution? Someone who is a pornographer? A stripper who “dances” at a local club? A drug dealer? An ex-con? A gay or lesbian? A homeless person? A welfare mother with ten children? An illegal alien? Who would be the equivalent, in today’s society, of the person who Jesus chose to play the good guy in this parable?

3) Of course, in writing and then teaching this parable, Jesus needed to set the script against a scene. He needed a setting, so what did he choose? He chose the temple. He decided to let this parable play out “at church.”

4) Then Jesus gives us the lines he has written for the bad guy, the religious guy. First of all, in verses 11 and 12 we read the prayer of the Pharisee. When we break this prayer down, it’s fascinating.

The Pharisee prayed the prayer “about himself.” Though the first word of the prayer is “God”—making it seem as if the Pharisee was directing his comments to God—the prayer itself is all about the Pharisee. You see, when you are trapped by some kind of performance-based religion, what you do and who you are and how much you achieve is the very center of your religion.

If you are trapped in some kind of legalistic swamp, you may think you have a relationship with God, you may use his name, but your prayers (your communication with God) are all about you. That’s the best you can offer. That’s all you can do if you are trapped by religion and its devices.

The prayer of the Pharisee is so transparent. The Pharisee fashioned his prayer as a prayer of thanksgiving when it really was an exercise in parading his religious pride before God. The prayer of the Pharisee included, as Jesus had said in verse nine, looking down on other people.

The Pharisee looked around the church to see someone to whom he could compare, someone who was so miserable and sinful (in his opinion) that he, the Pharisee, would come out smelling like a rose. Jesus describes the Pharisee as choosing the person who was, in his opinion, the lowest of the low, and then, in his prayer, ridiculing and beating up on that guy.

It’s a common religious technique. Believe it or not (you probably have had a few experiences that would lead you to agree with me!) some people go to church to hear railing accusations, thundering fulminations and fiery condemnations against people they think are really bad people and in the process they leave church feeling better about themselves.

The religious technique is this: If we can just hear how really awful the world is, if we can focus on those really bad people, those sinful people, those perverts, those immoral, permissive, law-breaking people, then we feel so much better about ourselves.

I’ve been in churches when the congregation was encouraged to pray for non-church-going people, but the way the prayer was said suggested that those non-church-going people were little more than dirty rotten scoundrels.

“Let’s pray for them” can turn into just another feel-good-about-yourself device to distance ourselves from those we look down on, another way to express our religious pride, another way to try to call God’s attention to how good we are and how bad others are.

5) Next we read the prayer that Jesus wrote for the good guy in his parable. The tax collector’s prayer isn’t about him, because he realizes he really doesn’t have anything to crow about. He stood at a distance—he didn’t feel worthy to sit in the front row. He couldn’t even bring himself to look up to heaven. He felt that he was not worthy to show his face to God. He just beat his breast, and said, “God be merciful to me, a sinner.”

Jesus concludes the parable with a stunning lesson. His moral to this story turns his audience’s expectations upside down—the bad guy turns out to be the good guy!

I tell you 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 the exalted.—Luke 18:14

I was talking to someone the other day about a church he stopped attending and I asked him why. He said, “You know, I finally realized that my church had no time for tax collectors.” He went on to explain:

“My former church didn’t seem to have any time for anyone who had any real problems, or at least admitted they had problems. My church seemed primarily interested in those people who were in good health—who had lots of money, lots of time and lots of energy to give to the church, and in return, made few demands on the church.”

“My church just seemed interested in winners, not losers, and that’s when I realized I had the wrong spiritual address. That’s why it’s my former church.”
So what happened when the Pharisee, the bad guy, and the tax collector, the good guy, went to church? Grace happened, but grace happened in the most improbable way, and to the most unlikely person.

Grace happened on God’s terms. Grace did not happen because of spectacular accomplishments and achievements the Pharisee paraded before God. Grace did not happen because of the Pharisee’s virtues. And grace did not happen because prayer, a religious ceremony in a special religious place, was taking place. Grace happened in spite of religious stuff.

Grace happened because the tax collector recognized his need. Grace happened because the tax collector knew that there was no way he had earned any spiritual commendations. Grace happened to the “low-life, no account” tax collector because he knew he was not in line for a special religious award. The tax collector was well aware that he wasn’t going to be given a religious citation of merit. He knew who he was, and threw himself on God’s mercy.

And that, friends, is a story of Grace at Church.