Jesus is for Losers
We like winners. We wanna be associated with the local sports team when they’re on top. Everyone wants to be your friend when you’re doing well. True for movie stars, musicians, politicians, business leaders. Everyone loves a winner. But winners have to be humble and gracious. Nothing’s worse than someone who puts other people down to make themselves look good. My wife Kim and I moved here 32 years ago but I still can’t get used to the way Texas acts like they have some kind of high school rivalry with the other 49 states. “In your face Idaho! We’re the Lone Star State, we have Tex-Mex with queso! What do you have? Giant potatoes? We also don’t put beans in our chili—because we’re real ‘mericans!” I think Texas is great—I grew up in the Midwest listening to Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings—watching John Wayne and The Lone Ranger on TV. I love Texas. Until I run into someone who acts like they have something to prove. Someone who wants to wear his Texas pride at the expense of everyone else. What are you trying to prove with that Lone Star belt buckle. I have to admit something. I always thought the reason Texas was called the Lone Star state was because the shape of the state kinda looks like a star that was drawn by a distracted two-year-old.
I mean, it sorta looks like a star—kinda—maybe a little melted. I had a bit of a secret attitude about it. Calling it the Lone Star state made about as much sense to me as saying the moon was made of cheese. Then one day I saw the Texas flag for the ten thousand and fifty seventh time.
And I was like, “oh.” One star. Lone Star. I get it.
See, that’s funny, but I almost didn’t want to tell you that story—because it kinda makes me look like an idiot. I don’t want to look like an idiot. I want you to think I’m smart. I want to present myself in the best possible light. I want you to like me. I want you to admire me. I want you to notice how awesome I am. I want to impress you. I pretty much feel like I gotta walk around all day long proving myself to everyone. That’s why I only post flattering Instagram photos of me and my family smiling and doing cool stuff. I want to look happy. I want to say interesting, funny, insightful things on Facebook and Twitter. I feel like I have something to prove to the world. Can you relate to this at all? You ever feel like you have to prove yourself to people?
We want people to think we’re winners, and we wanna hang out with winners, be seen with winners—but the thing is, we’re Christians, followers of Jesus, and He was kinda into hanging out with losers. He had this whole thing about “the least of these” and the weak, and the last—not the first, not the winners—the losers. He always acted like they were the ones who were closest to His heart, like they were the ones He wanted to be with. It’s the ones who didn’t pretend to have it all together that really got His love and affection. We’re definitely gonna see that in today’s text.
Then Jesus told this story to some who had great confidence in their own righteousness and scorned everyone else: (I could probably just stop right there and drop the mic—and we’d all have plenty to think about, plenty to repent of and ask for God’s mercy.) Jesus told this story to some people who had great confidence in their own righteousness and scorned everyone else: “Two men went to the Temple to pray. One was a Pharisee, and the other was a despised tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed this prayer: ‘I thank you, God, that I am not like other people—cheaters, sinners, adulterers. I’m certainly not like that tax collector! I fast twice a week, and I give you a tenth of my income.’
“But the tax collector stood at a distance and dared not even lift his eyes to heaven as he prayed. Instead, he beat his chest in sorrow, saying, ‘O God, be merciful to me, for I am a sinner.’ I tell you, this sinner, not the Pharisee, returned home justified before God. For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
This is the Word of the Lord—Thanks be to God.
The good guy is the bad guy. When we hear that story, we hear “Pharisee” and we think “hypocrite,” “enemy of Jesus,” “religious judgmental person.” Right? That’s what 2,000 years of Sunday school lessons have taught us. But when Jesus told this story that’s not how they would have thought about a Pharisee. The Pharisees were the good guys. They were upstanding citizens who were generous and faithful. In our world they’d be the best people we can think of—pillars of the community. JJ Watt and Mattress Mac and Billy Graham and Kemper Crabb all rolled into one. This is the only time where Jesus has a Pharisee as a character in one of His parables—when He has this guy walk into the Temple to pray, we’re supposed to think of him as one of the good ones. “Two men went into the Temple to pray—one of them was this guy—for all practical purposes a local saint.
So this good guy, this model citizen, he stands in a prominent place where everyone can see him and starts praying out loud so everyone can hear him. Except he’s not really praying. He’s bragging. He wants everyone to know that he’s not like the common people—that’s actually what the word “Pharisee” means—one who is separated/holy. He’s not like other people, people who cheat, people who sin, people who commit adultery. He’s better than they are. Everyone can hear him thanking God for how awesome he’s doing at being a faithful pharisee. He thinks God’s gonna be impressed with his religious accomplishments. This is a parable, it’s a story Jesus is making us, so this make-believe pharisee is a cartoon of good deeds. The guy fasts twice a week—God only required him to fast one day a year, but he’s all about it—he fasts 103 more times a year than he needed to. That’s how much “holier than thou” he really is. He tithes on every little thing that comes his way—that means he gives more than ten percent of his raw income to the poor and to help people. He’s super generous—what we’d call a good guy. But, he was also a bit of a self-righteous jerk, too, wasn’t he. “I thank you, God, that I’m not like that tax collector. That one. That one right there. The one who can hear me talking about him. The one everyone can hear me talking about.” The good guy turns out to be the bad guy.
Jesus looks at him and basically says, “what are you trying to prove?” Stop trying to make yourself look good. It’s gross. It ain’t working. Everyone already liked the pharisee, he was a popular guy, but he ruined it by puffing his chest up and opening his mouth—trying to prove how great he is. He ruined it. Pride is ugly.
The bad guy is the good guy. Then there’s the other guy. The Tax Collector. When we think of tax collectors, we think of the IRS—bureaucrats. We don’t like them much, but we don’t really think of them as evil. But when Jesus told this story, the people listening would have heard “tax collector” as the ultimate bad guy. They heard “tax collector” and they thought “traitor,” “criminal,” “backstabbing, greedy, good for nothing, scum of the earth.” The way we’d think of Americans who help foreign terrorists blow up buildings, or like the Jews who helped the Nazis round up other Jews during the Holocaust. These guys were hated, and for good reason.
Israel, at the time of Jesus walking the earth, was an occupied nation. Rome was an oppressive empire that conquered other nations everywhere they went and forced them to submit by smashing them with taxes. Roman soldiers showed up at your house with swords and you paid your taxes. There were no exemptions. No H&R Block refunds. They basically took what they wanted. Pontius Pilate was really only in Jerusalem to make sure the Jews paid their taxes. But the Romans didn’t want to do the dirty work if they didn’t have to, so they recruited local Jews to collect the taxes for them. Greedy, money grubbing traitors who knew where all the good hiding places were. And you wanna know what was in it for them? They were allowed to take whatever they wanted—over tax, steal from their fellow Jewish neighbors—and keep it for themselves. They got rich doing this. But as you can imagine, they were hated. They just went around ruining everyone’s lives. Breaking piggy banks and stealing the money you had set aside for Little Timmy’s operation.
Jesus basically says, “two guys walk into church to pray, one was a good guy like JJ Watt or Mattress Mac, and the other was a bad guy like the Unibomber.” It would have been shocking that the bad guy was in church praying at all.
Jesus says this scum of the earth tax collector can’t even bring himself to look up toward God. He stands in the back like he’s afraid lightning will strike him if he gets too close. He beats his chest in sorrow. Thump, thump, thump. “O God, have mercy on me. I’m such a loser. I’ve done the worst things. I know you’re disappointed in me because I’m disgusted with myself beyond belief. I’m a sinner. No. I’m THE sinner. I’m the worst.”
At this point, everyone listening to Jesus’ story would have been like, “Yep. He’s got that right. Tax collectors are total losers.” They’re hoping for the lightning bolt.
That’s when Jesus blows their mind. “I tell you, the bad guy, not the good guy, returned home justified before God.”
What are you trying to prove? The pharisee was trying to prove he was the best. The tax collector was trying to prove he was the worst. But in the kingdom of God, everything is upside down. The Gospel rules are counter-intuitive. Everyone who exalts themselves will be humbled and everyone who humbles themselves will be exalted.
What are you trying to prove? You need to stop trying to make yourself look good. It’s such a hard lesson to learn. The harder we try, the more impossible it gets. Grace is impossible to grab with both hands. The only way to get it is to let go and trust that God will give it to us anyway. When we try to prove we’re the good guy, we end up looking like the pharisee in our pride and selfish grasping. When we beat our chest in repentance and fall on God’s mercy—He lifts our face and gives us exactly that. Mercy.
Philippi Pride. There was a city in Rome that was a bit like Texas. Some of the people who lived there were kinda proud of it. If you were a citizen of the city of Philippi, you were not only a citizen of the Roman Empire, you were a citizen of Rome. The city of Rome. They thought pretty highly of themselves. I only tell you that because those are the people St Paul’s writing to in the book of Phillipians when he says this in chapter 2:
Is there any encouragement from belonging to Christ? Any comfort from his love? Any fellowship together in the Spirit? Are your hearts tender and compassionate? Then make me truly happy by agreeing wholeheartedly with each other, loving one another, and working together with one mind and purpose.
(Now let’s keep our pharisee and tax collector in mind as we listen to the rest of this)
Don’t be selfish; don’t try to impress others. Be humble, thinking of others as better than yourselves. Don’t look out only for your own interests, but take an interest in others, too.
You must have the same attitude that Christ Jesus had.
Though he was God,
he did not think of equality with God
as something to cling to.
Instead, he gave up his divine privileges;
he took the humble position of a slave
and was born as a human being.
When he appeared in human form,
he humbled himself in obedience to God
and died a criminal’s death on a cross.
Therefore, God elevated him to the place of highest honor
and gave him the name above all other names,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue declare that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
That’s how the Gospel works—Jesus led the way for us. He did it for us. He was more righteous and more holy than any pharisee or good guy could ever be but He stood in the place for all the tax collectors and sinners so we could all be made right with God. So we could all go home justified. Jesus, though He was God, walked around like a homeless slave and was executed in the most humiliating way like the worst kind of criminal. Think about that in comparison to the proud pharisee who prayed, “I thank God that I’m not like that disgusting tax collector.” Jesus thought about the tax collectors and other losers in the world and said, “forgive them. Show them kindness.” He gave His life for them. He gave His life for you and me and everyone who come to Him humbly and asks for mercy.
So what are you trying to prove? You trying to prove that you’re one of the good guys? That you’re the smartest person in the room? That you’ve got it all together? Do you compare yourself to the people who stand at the stoplights with cardboard signs and wonder what terrible sin they did to end up there? That could never happen to you because you’re one of the good ones. An upstanding citizen. A winner.
Or are you willing to humble yourself in the sight of the Lord and in the sight of anyone who might be looking—admit you’re lost without Jesus. Admit you’re a loser without Jesus.
Jesus told this story to some people that had a lot of confidence in their own righteousness and looked down their noses at everyone else. I’m pretty sure He told this story to people like you and me. People who want to look like winners. The problem is when we try so hard to prove how great we are, we end up looking like a fraud. We end up feeling like a fraud. We end up being a fraud. I hope we can leave here today challenged to stop trying to impress people, stop trying to impress God. He’s not that easily impressed. Instead, let’s be thankful for what Jesus won for us. That way when we’re tempted to think of someone as a worse sinner than we are—when we’re tempted to think we’re better than someone else—we can remember the pharisee and the tax collector. We can remember that everyone who exalts themselves will be humbled and everyone who humbles themselves will be exalted. We will remember that Jesus humbled himself in obedience to God and died a criminal’s death on a cross for us. If we confess our sins, He has promised to be faithful and we will return home justified. In the name of Jesus, the name above every name, to the glory of God the Father. AMEN