“Who Do You Relate To”
I want to start with something funny: A Sunday school teacher began her lesson by asking, “Boys and girls, what do we know about God?” A hand shot up in the air. “He is an artist!” said the kindergarten boy. “Really? How do you know?” the teacher asked. “You know the Lord’s Prayer, Our Father, who does art in heaven….”
I don’t know why we still use ancient words. As you may know, “Art” is the verb “be.” In other words, it means “Our Father, who is in heaven.” Anyway, that’s a good thought about God from a little boy’s perspective. It makes sense to me, looking at the beautiful leaves turning color. Those are all God’s works of art. Looking at the beautiful leaves, we know God is a great artist. What else do you know about God? We think we know a lot about God. But if we ask ourselves to say something about God, we wonder what we know.
Today’s scripture may tell us how well we know God. There are two men in today’s scripture, a parable story about two men’s prayer. When we pray to God, we know who we are before God, and the prayers show us how we believe in God and think of God. Therefore, Jesus told this story to the people “who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.” In other words, Jesus is speaking to those who think of themselves as knowing God well and to regarding themselves as righteous and faithful believers. Again, Jesus tells us Christians.
Please pay attention to the story and consider who you relate to. There are two men: One a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The two men went up to the temple to pray. So far, hearing Jesus, people might think, “Hum, nothing special.” It is an obvious story about a righteous man versus a sinner because, in that society, the Pharisees are regarded as the righteous, perfect, respectful religious leaders, and the tax collector is regarded as the thief, traitor, exploiter, and representative of the sinners. However, Jesus never told us any common stories.
Let’s see how the story goes. The people went up to the temple three times a day to pray. Some stood to pray, some bent down, and some lay face down. That image made me recall my visitation to Turkey. I have been to Turkey, where 98% of the population is Muslim. They had five prayer times a day. When prayer time came, they rang the bell for everyone to hear. And then everyone and everything paused. Even transportation and people on the street stopped right there and prayed. Indeed, some lay face down on the street, and some stood on the road. I felt challenged by how sincere they looked to God. It seemed like all people gathered at the temple at a specific time for individual prayers. Nobody watched you to see if you came to the temple or prayed, but only God knows. So, everyone came to God, and they met God individually through their prayers.
As we see in the scripture, the Pharisee stood and prayed loudly, saying, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.” Wow, he seemed like a righteous and faithful believer. What do you think? He kept all of God’s Commandments and fasted twice a week. Furthermore, he offered a tithe to God. What about you? Do you offer a tithe, keep all
Commandments, and fast twice a week or more? He seemed to be perfect. He didn’t ask God anything. He seemed to be very proud of himself. He didn’t need any help from God.
How about the other, who was a tax collector? He also stood far from others and prayed with an intimidating voice, beating his breast, saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” What? Is that all? However, Jesus told the people, “this man went down to his home justified rather than the other.” In other words, his prayers were accepted by God rather than the Pharisee’s prayers. How could that be? Let’s consider an example: if a person attends every Sunday service, prays every morning and night, gives a generous offerings, and his/her life looks fine, we may think of the person as a good Christian. But, according to Jesus, that is not all it takes. There is a more important thing before God, which is “humility.” When we are before God, we should feel we are sinners. That’s humility. God knows everything that we think and everything that we do. Even God can count the hairs of our head (Matthew 10:30), and guards us as the apple of his eye (Deuteronomy 32:10). Before such a God, how are we not sinners?
You may have heard what people say when we try to reach out to them. I heard many of them speak about two things that block them from coming to the church; Issues of offering (money) and sinners (sin). Some may say, “I don’t like to go to the church because I hate that they pass the offering plate around the pews; I don’t have enough money to give to the church; I don’t want to make pledges to the church, and other similar things. On the other hand, some may say, “I don’t like to go to church because I hate to hear that I am a sinner. I don’t know why I am a sinner. I didn’t do any wrong.” Christians talk about “sin” more than other groups because we believe that Jesus Christ saved us from our sins. But non-Christians don’t believe in Jesus, and they have sinned as well. I may say, “Christians should be free from money and sin by God’s grace.”
Going back to today’s scripture, the Pharisee didn’t think he sinned, which means he might not know about the Living God, who guards him every moment as the apple of his eye. God didn’t accept his prayers because he did not pray to God but to others, especially those around him when he prayed. It was not prayers but self-complacency and judgment of others. In other words, he lifted himself up and looked down at others. Jesus said, “for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Let’s think of ourselves at this moment if we judge others. Ask yourself, who do you relate to? Are you like the Pharisee, or like the tax collector? We all are different; our faces, hair, behaviors, and hobbies are different. Our family’s history, our ancestors, and our education are different. Because we all are different, we can’t judge all of us with the same rule of our eye. The only reason we, who are so different, gather together in one place is God’s grace and Jesus’ love. It is not because we have enough money. It is not because we are righteous. It is only because we received God’s grace and love for free. Therefore, we have nothing to be proud of other than Jesus, our Savior. We can be one in one God, one Jesus, and one Holy Spirit when we stand by humbly before God. Even though we have small numbers in the church, when we love and care for one another sincerely and faithfully, we can move forward with hope.
In the Book of Revelation, there are seven churches as examples of the church. Among the seven churches, only one received God’s compliment without rebuke. It was the church in Philadelphia (Revelation 3:7-13). The church was the smallest church among the seven, but God said to them, “I know your deeds. See, I have placed before you an open door that no one can shut. I know that you have little strength, yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name.” God’s grace is not a number but a humble mind and faithfulness. God’s grace would be more powerful when we are weak.
Who do you relate to? Thanks be to God! Amen.