In the name of the Father and of the +Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.
A pharisee and a tax collector—or for our modern ears, think of a really good, active church member versus a corrupt, shady slum lord or loanshark. Those are roughly what Lord’s parable is about. (Luke 18:9-14) And listen to the good church member! He does exactly what we want our members to do. He tithes on everything he gets. He gives 10% of all, off the top, before taxes. (Luke 18:12) Imagine if all our members did that? What could we do? What could we accomplish for the kingdom of God? A lot more outreach and evangelism. We could take better care of our shut-ins. We could have a chaplain going to the hospital daily. We could have a youth director to work with our youth and teach them the faith.
That’s exactly what a church wants: good pharisees. That’s how our Lord’s world thought about them. The Pharisees were the good guys. Now, we’ve been taught by years of reading the Gospels that the Pharisees were the bad guys. After all they were always arguing with the Lord. But not so. They were the good guys—at least in the world’s eyes. That means in our eyes too. We would think they were good. The problem with being a worldly good guy is that you know it. You know that you’ve ticked off all the boxes that your community, your world says are good. You get pats on back for being good. Everyone tells you how good you are. And you expect those pats on the back because you’ve worked hard to earn them and the accolades that come with them. And knowing what you’ve accomplished you assume that your goodness is the reason why you have all you have. Not the Lord’s goodness to you. Not the Lord placing you in the family you had, in a functional culture and country, that for the most part works pretty well. You forget that the Lord has preserved you from debilitating illness and given you a social net that catches you in the occasional misfortunes. Think of all the benefits the Lord has granted you. And repent for not being grateful. For no matter what challenges you have, it could always be worse. Imagine being from one of those failed states taken over by evil men and wicked ideologies, racked by war and bloodshed. Now, I don’t say this to minimize your hardwork. For with hard work, discipline and intelligence in a non-corrupt society you will generally succeed and do well. But don’t forget how the Lord has blessed you with the circumstances you find yourself in. Be grateful for those blessings. For the problem with the Pharisee is not his hard work, but his ungratefulness. Repent.
Now hardwork is good. The world needs it function. The Church needs it too. We need people to work hard to support the work of church with their tithes, talents, and volunteer hours. But while all those things are necessary, can any one of those things convert a heart, bring someone to a more active practice of faith, or get you in the door of heaven? No. Those things are a free gift from God alone. (Eph. 2:8) From His grace to you. Our Lord did not accept Abel’s offering and reject Cain’s (Gen. 4:3-5) because Abel’s was better; nor because God is a carnivore, not a vegetarian; nor because there was any rule yet established that stipulated which offerings God preferred; nor because Cain’s was obviously worse, not of as good a quality as Abel’s. No. Abel’s was accepted and Cain’s rejected because God resists the proud and gives grace to the humble. (James 4:6; 1 Pet. 5:5; Prov. 3:34) Or as our Lord said, “Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles will be exalted.” (Luke 18:14)
Cain was proud. He was a farmer, a gardner (Gen. 4:2), like his daddy in Paradise. (Gen. 2:15) His mom, in faith, thought he was the man (Gen. 4:1) the Lord had promised who would crush the head of the serpent. (Gen. 3:15) Imagine being raised thinking you would restore all good things to the earth. So Cain, the eldest became a gardener like Adam had been in paradise and in the fullness of time he brought some of the fruits of his toil to the Lord, thinking the Lord would be pleased with him. Meanwhile, Abel came, a lowly sheep herder knowing his offering would only be accepted if God was gracious to him. Abel came humbly trusting that the Lord is merciful. Cain exalted himself. (Gen. 4:5-6) Abel was lifted up. Cain was humbled.
Yet, Cain was not cast off forever. He poured out his complaint to the Lord. (Gen. 4:13-14; Ps. 142:2) He says others will kill him for what he’s done. And the Lord grants him protection. (Gen. 4:15) He preserves Cain’s life. And the Lord does this today too. He preserves the life of many wicked people. For He does not desire that the wicked should die, but rather that they turn from their way and live. (Eze. 33:11; 18:23) For by our Lord’s righteous standard ain’t no one righteous in His sight. All are wicked. (Rom. 3:20; Gal. 2:16) Which is why the Lord Himself had to come—according to His own plan long given by the Scriptures. (1 Cor. 15:3) He had to die for our sins and be raised in triumph over sin and its consequence: death. He has done it. It is certain. His resurrection was witnessed by a good 600 people on various occasions. (1 Cor. 15:5-8) This was not just a clever lie, some kind of mass hypnosis, or wishful thinking. (2 Pet. 1:16) For what is more certain than a fact attested to by multiple witnesses on various occasions (whom Paul said you could go and get their account from yourself, because many were still alive when he wrote it, 1 Cor. 15:6)?
And this amazing Gospel that Christ died for your sins (1 Cor. 15:1-3) and rose for your justification (Rom. 4:25) is what exalts a humble man who repents of his sin. (Luke 18:14) - Meanwhile, a man who exalts in his own good deeds done, whether for the Lord or for his own ego, will be humbled. That means that while the Lord exalts you in using you, like Apostle Paul, to bring that message of salvation to others (1 Cor. 15:10), He doesn’t need you. He will raise up and exalt any whom He chooses. He doesn’t need you. Rather, He delights to exalt you when you humbly repent of your sins. He justifies the humble sinner who admits his errors. (Luke 18:13-14) He declares them forgiven. And they go home lifted up, justified, forgiven, free. And lifted up they bloom where they are planted. They work for His kingdom. (1 Cor. 15:10) For they are gracious to those in their home and around their home. And slowly, over time, that humility transforms everything about them. For over time the Lord keeps humbling you so that you repent and receive His grace in one area of life after the next. (Luke 18:14) That’s why the Lord preserves humbled Cain: that Cain might repent. (Gen. 4:4-6) That he might come to the Lord humbly and be lifted up. (Luke 18:14) That’s why the Lord scatters the proud in the imagination of their hearts. (Luke 1:51) For the proud man is a Pharisee. He is good at puffing himself up, at doing the works that look good in the community. But ultimately not one of our Lord’s people. (Luke 18:14a) For the Lord resists the proud and gives grace to the humble. (Jam. 4:6) He humbles those who exalt themselves and exalts those who humble themselves. (Luke 18:14b)
In +Jesus’ name, Amen.