Of Dirt and Men
“Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ 13But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ 14I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”
When Jesus told this story about these two men, He didn’t really comment about how full of himself and pompous the Pharisee was; he didn’t comment about how openly honest the tax collector was. He simply lets the story unfold for those who were listening. At the end he finally makes a comment and it’s a big one: One of these men is in right relationship with God, and the other is not. But its not what you think. The man who did everything in his life in an attempt to be religious ultimately had no right relationship with God, but the man who had lived a terribly sinful life did.
And if you had been in the original audience it would have great impact on you. For you see, the Pharisees were the guys who everyone thought had it all together. If you were a business owner seeking employees, you would hire a pharisee. They were the lauded establishment people of their day. you would never hire a tax collector for fear that they’d trick you and take advantage of you and rob you blind.
How revolutionary it was for Jesus to even suggest that the tax collector had the approval of God and the Pharisee did not! But that’s grace: the revolutionary understanding that we are saved not by what we do, but rather by the forgiveness of God. God saves us not because of the outwardly righteous things we do, but because of his mercy.
But this grace of God is not something to be trifled with. One cannot choose to live sinfully all during their life and then seek to come in for a soft landing on God’s grace. If that’s your game you better give that up. You don’t know when you are going to die. You don’t know if you are going to have another opportunity for Grace. When you dabble in sin it can so captivate your mind that your faith can be eroded away. In this parable Jesus is not teaching that you can live a life of sin because Jesus saves sinners. That’s the devil’s interpretation, and if you follow it, you will soon become his child.
The point of this parable is that there is one thing that can can block all that God would otherwise do for you by grace through faith in his Son, and that would be sinful pride. pride. Jesus says at the end. “everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
I did a rather interesting word study on our English word human. The Latin root word for “human” is “humus… meaning dirt. Human therefore means “of the dirt.” That really fits. because technically if you break down the chemical composition of humans, you will find everything that we are made of in the dirt. And in the beginning God scraped together a dirt, molded it shaped, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of the life.
Then I got more curious and thought about other English Words that are based on the humus root. Humble would be one of them. Humble means “on the dirt” Another would be humiliate…which means “brought down to dirt.” To be humble, therefore is to recognize that you are from the dirt and the only reason the molecules of your body come together to make the unique person that is you is because God says so. To be humble is the active recognition of who you really are before God, you are the dust of the earth held together by the love and will of God. You really really want to be humble, and admit that truth every day of your life. To be humble is something that you strive to be. You can humble yourself now or you will be humbled later. In other words, humiliated. The ultimate day of humiliation will be on the last day when the books are opened and the truth will out and the time of grace for you will be passed. So much better to be humble now.
The tax collector understood this. He humbled himself before the Lord. The pharisee, not so much. Instead of recognizing the centrality of God for his existence and future, he pridefully believed that he didn’t really need God’s grace. He had saved himself, or so he thought. He praised himself when he worshipped. A person smitten by sinful pride finds it very difficult to actually worship God. They don’t see the reason. The don’t admit that God has anything important to give them. Whenever someone says they don’t get much out of worship in a church that is Christ centered and thoroughly biblical, they are revealing more about themselves then they might realize.
The Pharisee in the parable Prays to himself in a congratulatory way patting himself on the back for how faithful he was. Jesus said his worship amounted to nothing. The tax collector prayed to God. Prayed for mercy. Jesus said he went home justified.
So a humble person is honest about how he needs God. A humble person focuses on God’s mercy rather than on his own achievements.
And now one more. A humble person does not compare himself to others, but rather tries to see others through God’s eyes. The pharisee stood up and prays “I think you that I’m not like other men, robbers, evildoers, adulterers--or this tax collector here” You see, that’s the sinful pride thing again. To maintain the illusion that he is great. He compares himself to the tax collector. His reasoning, “If others are worse than I, then I must be good right?” But you see he’s missing the point. God never said that’s the basis on which he saves people. He never said, Hey I’m going to save you on the basis of how you compare to each other. He never said that. No human being will be justified by what he does. Not the pharisee, not the tax collector. All human beings are completely dependent on God’s mercy for salvation.
The Tax Collector could have certainly found some miscreant that worse than him. He could have found a wino someplace to point to or a murderer perhaps. When it came time to compare himself to others, He didn’t look downward, he looks upward. God himself is the standard. And when he evaluates himself by that standard he becomes fully aware of how far removed he is; how far he has missed the mark; that he possesses no righteousness of his own. He does not seek to justify himself in any way. He seeks mercy. And he has it For God says “A broken and contrite heart, I will not despise.” He went home forgiven.
You too can go home forgiven. You can be honest about who you are and what you’ve done. Why? Because your sins have been paid for completely at the cross of Christ. The first thing that Jesus said to his disciples after he rose from the grave was “peace I give you”. He says the same thing to you today, and every day. Take him up on it. know the peace that comes through Jesus to you. AMEN