Things Done In Secret
Religion is the place where our belief touches our unbelief. If we submitted to close scrutiny many, if not most, would come out looking like practical atheists. We trust God, we say, but we often force out God so long as we have a laxer religious alternative. Pinch the common church-goer and see.
The memorable stories Jesus tells almost always explore the inner workings of a human heart. His parables peel away the religious veneer. Bereft of cover the subjects of His story stand revealed, motivation as open as their actions.
Let’s say it another way.
A young man studied medicine. He wanted to be a surgeon. He passed all the classes with highest marks. He was admitted to more courses which allowed him to see an actual surgery. He did well, until it was time to cut a person open.
He fainted. He passed out. He hit the floor.
“I just could not handle it when I was asked to open up a person that way,” he admitted. He is still in medicine. He is not a surgeon. He is a brilliant, empathetic man but there are times when you need a surgeon who will open up all things just right to heal. You have to open the chest to save the heart.
Durable sin requires surgery. A surgeon of sin is always a prophet. We are long on faith healers these days but very short on surgeons so the whole church seems sick. Jesus cuts away the religion to get to the heart.
Luke really does not like Pharisees. In other gospels the Pharisees get a strict lecture but Luke, a gentile, born of a slave family, trained to see things as they are and express truth in writing, well, Luke skips the lecture and goes straight to the end of class grade. He gives the Pharisees an F every time.
This probably is not fair. The Pharisees are the Puritans, or Fundamentalists of their day, to be sure, but their collective heart is probably not as noxious as Luke thinks. Pharisees support Jesus for awhile. One of them comes to Jesus at night and is perhaps the first person ever to hear John 3:16. He hears it from the Master’s own lips. The Pharisees are teachable for a time.
They just never quite get there with Jesus. Of them and others like them it is said, “They have a zeal but not according to knowledge.”
The Pharisees of Luke mostly get excited when someone else suffers. Their broadest smiles are reserved for the time when others feel the deepest pain. To judge others excites them because in their judgement of others they find great self-approval.
Durable sin becomes durable (it is always sin) quite because it entertains. That is, it scratches an inner itch common to most humans; to know something others do not know, to have access others do not possess, to possess a status above the other fellow.
Durable sin requires self-approval In the Pharisee’s speech in our text for today, he speaks 32 words (Common English Bible). Five times in 32 words he uses the word “I.” Each time it is to approve of his own actions, even to compare himself favorably to the only other fellow in the room.
Jesus thinks self-approving religion is durable sin. He lobbies hard against it.
If there is anything in your religion as you practice it that allows you to overwhelmingly approve of yourself, take care. Self-esteem is not as important to Jesus as the humility that marks true religion.
And true religion would have to be an attitude of the soul that God approves, would it not? Is this why Jesus so often violates the religious norms of His day?
The Pharisee announces his religion. He is not like others, he says. He is not a crook or an evildoer or an adulterer. He tithes and fasts and he prays.
He prays like he is reading a check list. He prays to show publicly the secret workings of his heart. In all the things he prays he is strong.
He is like the fellow who walks into a health club. He does not want anyone to think he is weak so he chooses only the workout stations where he excels. He avoids the lat pulls or the clean and jerk. He strengthens the places where he is strong.
What he does not realize is that he is in workout gear, which tends to hug the body. Everyone can see his sagging belly through his spandex. He only fools himself and, in so doing, he shows himself a fool.
Religious people who do consistent wrong must have a secret place in their heart. Like the Pharisee in the story, they must praise their strengths in order to justify actions summoned from a flawed heart. He has some good points but he makes too much of them. He needs to look into his heart.
Someone has said that a true confession requires honest recounting, deep remorse and true repentance. The Pharisee in the story cannot be said to confess his sin. He just acknowledges his goodness, as far as it goes. If these things he announces are the sum of true religion, then he is fine. If they are not the sum of true religion (they are not), then he is in mortal danger. He is near-sighted. He cannot see God over his own goodness.
How far to you see?
There must be a good reason Jesus so often chooses the Pharisees as his teaching model. We ought to know them better.
They are religious to a fault. Literally, they so rigorously practice their religion that there is no place for God..
The Pharisees do their religion in public and their dirt in secret. The Pharisees are the kind of people who pray in the Temple and plot in the hidden room by night. They could not do their evil plotting by night in secret if they did not do their nominal obedience to God in the light of day.
The Pharisees enjoy their religion and bask in the public glow of prestige. In a less religious day they would have been soldiers or statesmen or businessmen. They would do whatever brought them applause.
They claim to be a simple people but they plot devious plots. They cry about their love of the Kingdom but end up as agents of its destruction.
They take part in secret, illegal, night time meetings about Jesus when He is not present. They send someone else to announce their verdict but can lay no sin to his charge.
In the final, illegal, secret, night time meeting with the Sanhedrin, the Pharisees face the illegality of their actions and they walk out of the meeting. This justifies them in their own minds but they do nothing to stay the hand of the executioner. They do not rescue the perishing Savior. They simply walk away, wistfully complaining of the sadness of the occasion. Not one of them ever stands up to say, “This is wrong.”
In the end, the Pharisees have to be judged according to their self-approval and the absence of honesty in their religion.
And so do men of all generations.
We have now spent about as much time on the setup of this story as Jesus did in relation to the application. He spends a great deal of time in this story showing what is wrong in religion. He then sums up the simplicity of religion in a few words.
The tax collector is an obvious bad man, like the Samaritan man in another story, like the Roman centurion, like the immigrant woman, like the leper. They are stock characters in their culture. Everyone knows they are bad and the Pharisees are good. Jesus stands religious thought on its head. He makes an SNL sketch out of the approved religiosity of his day.
Jesus makes a taxman the hero of the piece. This will not do for the Pharisees. Why bother to be a religious fanatic if you cannot exclude people who offend you?
No, Jesus will not do. Jesus has to go.
If the Pharisees are to have their own approval, if they are going to enjoy their worship, if they are going to have the public end of their secret, private meetings, Jesus has to go.
Jesus puts these words in the mouth of the tax man. He says, “God, be merciful to me a sinner.”
Then, Jesus asks, “Who do you think got right with God that day?”
The Pharisee compared himself favorably to another sinful man. The tax man looked at his own heart and saw his need of God.
Religion is really simple. It is a plain matter of the heart before God. True religion is the place where our belief, which holds our hopes, meets out unbelief, which contains our fears. Where hope and fear meet, we face our need of God.