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My title today is 'Humility' – a good one as we look back over the last year and forward to the next. In our journey through Luke's Gospel, after a Christmas break we've come to Luke 18.9-14. Please have that open to look at. And I've got five questions to help us to get to grips with what Jesus is teaching us here in this parable – a pint-sized story with a powerful lesson for us to learn. But let me start with another question. What do you think of yourself? Nowadays we're often encouraged to have what they call 'high self-esteem'. So one self-help blogger says:

"Nothing is more important than how you feel and think about yourself … A high opinion about yourself and who you are and what you do and basically a love for yourself is … one of the things that people often miss or have too little of in today's society."

But it's interesting that some people have begun to question that approach. So one recent newspaper article was called 'The Trouble with Self Esteem', and argued that having a high regard for yourself was over-rated. Well, if they'd listened to Jesus they would have known that anyway. What we need is a right view of ourselves. We need to know what we're really like. And we need to know how God sees us. That's true humility. And that's what Jesus is teaching us here. And, boy, do we need to learn this lesson. In fact, I have a theory that a good deal of the misery that we find all around us comes from the tension between our society telling us that we ought to think we're wonderful, and our own deep down awareness that we're not – not by a very long way.

In our honest moments, in the quietness of our own hearts, we're aware of what can only be called evil deep down in ourselves. We see that we're profoundly sinful in what we think, and therefore sometimes say and do. So when we listen to the world around us telling us we're wonderful, we know in our case it's not true. But we daren't admit it. So we bottle it up and get quietly desperate and miserable.

Well if any of that rings true for you, then there is tremendous hope in what Jesus tells us – because it is both realistic about what we're like, and also offers us a way out of despair and into joy. If, on the other hand, we really do think that, unlike those we have to put up with day after day, we're the bee's knees, and we really are wonderful, then what Jesus tells us here is equally vital. Because he's telling us that unless we change our tune sharpish, we're headed for a fall, and for destruction. So we'd better take note of what Jesus says. Here it is again – Luke 18.9-14:

"[Jesus] also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: "Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The 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. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.' But 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!' I 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.""

I have five questions.

1. Who is Jesus Speaking to?

Well, Luke has told us. Jesus is speaking to "some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt". So there are three things there about these people. First, they consider themselves righteous. By nature. In themselves. So they take credit for the fact. Their moral superiority is down to them. And that has two consequences for how they see themselves and how they see others.

Secondly, they trust in themselves. They are self-reliant. They don't need anyone else. They don't look up to anyone else. They certainly don't need saving or rescuing. If you told them they did, they'd say, 'From what? I'm fine as I am, thank you very much. Who do think you are to say that to me?' So they rely on themselves to avoid condemnation on Judgement Day. They are confident that they are acceptable to God – that is, they presume upon God in an incredibly dangerous way.

Then, thirdly, they are contemptuous of others. That follows from their self-righteousness. They see the best in themselves and credit it to their own account. They shut their eyes to their deep sinfulness, so they completely fail to see it. But their eyes are wide open to the sinfulness and failings of others. So they look down their noses at other people with contempt. They might be too polite to say so, but they despise other people.

In our Bible study group the other week we were told of one old example of such a person, from the time of the Evangelical Revival in the 1700s. The Countess of Huntingdon had put her trust in Christ through the preaching of the leaders of that Revival – John and Charles Wesley (who often came to Newcastle – there's a memorial to John Wesley down on the Quayside), and George Whitfield. Being the toff that she was, and also being bold in sharing her faith with her fellow aristocrats, she would write to them to try to persuade them of their need of a saviour to rescue them from their sin. One woman she wrote to was the Duchess of Buckingham, who wrote back to her in these indignant terms:

"I thank your Ladyship for information on the Methodist preaching. Their doctrines are strongly tinctured with impertinence toward their superiors ... It is monstrous to be told you have a heart as sinful as the common wretches who crawl the earth."

She was just the kind of person who was in Jesus' sights with this parable. But any of us could be, too. You don't have to be a toff to be trusting in yourself and to despise other people.

2. How does the Pharisee in the Parable Fit this Bill?

Well, this is what Jesus had to say about him. Verses 11-12:

"The 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. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.'"

In other words, he fits the bill exactly. Don't be fooled by how he starts his prayer: 'God, I thank you …' It's perfectly clear from how he goes on that that's a hypocritical formality. He doesn't really give God the credit for the goodness that he sees in himself. He takes all the credit himself. So, just like those to whom Jesus is telling this story, firstly, he considers himself righteous – right in his behaviour, and right with God.

Secondly, he trusts in himself. He might as well have said, 'God, I thank myself that I am not like other men.' At least that would have been honest. Not that he is aware of the dishonesty. He has the self-awareness of a slug. So there is no repentance in him – no grief over his sin, or desire to turn from it; no sense of need for atonement for his sin; no love for God or real thankfulness in response to God's redeeming love.

Thirdly, he is contemptuous of others – and in particular, the tax-collector who he sees cowering in the corner. So not only does he not love God, he doesn't love his neighbour – the person literally next to him in the temple – either. In other words, he is completely failing to live as God wills and commands. He is totally unrighteous. But he is utterly blind to the fact, in his pride and arrogance.

Now, this is a made-up character, but he reflects some of the kind of people who Jesus keeps encountering. You can see that a few chapters earlier in Luke 5.27-32, which records this confrontation:

"[Jesus] went out and saw a tax collector named Levi, sitting at the tax booth. And he said to him, "Follow me." And leaving everything, he rose and followed him. And Levi made him a great feast in his house, and there was a large company of tax collectors and others reclining at table with them. And the Pharisees and their scribes grumbled at his disciples, saying, "Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?" And Jesus answered them, "Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance."

This Pharisee in the parable is a mirror reflecting back to those Pharisees what they're really like. It's not a pretty picture, but they're blind to it. God help us – literally – if we're like them. Next question:

3. How is the Tax-Collector a Contrast?

Well, he is the total opposite in each of those three characteristics of the Pharisee. You could say his self-esteem was at rock bottom – and for very good reason. Tax collectors were notorious and hated fraudsters. But he knew that the situation was even worse than his outward acts showed, because of what was inward, what was inside him. His eyes were open to the evil in his heart, and he was desperate, knowing that he was helpless to help himself. He saw himself with great clarity and accuracy. He didn't need anyone telling him he is a wonderful person really. Perhaps that was a lie that he had tried to tell himself before, but now the truth had burst in on him with all its horrifying force. What he needed, if there was to be any hope, was to hear about the amazing grace of God, who was his saviour.

So he knows that he is unrighteous. He knows that he is not worthy to look towards God. He knows that there is nothing left for him to do but throw himself on God and his mercy, all undeserving of anything but condemnation, as he knew himself to be. Listen again to what he says about himself, and let's ask ourselves whether we share his heart and his view of himself. This is verses 13-14:

"But 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!'"

So what happens next? How does God respond to these two radically different attitudes and the prayers that flow from them? How does God respond to the high self-esteem and the low self-esteem? On to the next question:

4. What is the Consequence for Each of Them?

This is how Jesus ends his parable – verse 14:

"I tell you, this man [the tax collector] 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."

So what is the consequence for the high self-esteem Pharisee? The Pharisee is not justified before God – forgiven his sin and accepted by God in his grace and mercy – but rather he remains under condemnation and facing the coming anger of God on the Day of Judgement that lies ahead. The Pharisee is humbled. He is oblivious to his humbling, of course. But the Day will come when it be all too clear, and then it will be too late for him. His only hope is that he will come to his senses and see the truth and repent and, of all things, become like the tax-collector who he so despises. Otherwise he is lost.

And what is the consequence for the low self-esteem tax-collector of his desperate prayer, throwing himself on the mercy of God? Amazingly and wonderfully, he is exalted. God is merciful to him – all underserving as he is. That is grace in action. So the cloud of coming condemnation is lifted from him, and the light of God's merciful and forgiving love begins to shine. The burden of guilt is lifted from him. And he will never be the same again. His behaviour will change, out of his profound thankfulness to God for his saving grace. So, finally:

5. What is the Lesson for Us?

Back in the 1700s again, the Countess of Huntingdon, who I was telling you about earlier, had a friend. His name was John Newton. He had been like the tax-collector of his time – a hard-bitten slave-trading sea-captain, who had once been enslaved himself but who survived to turn the tables and enslave others. But God took hold of his life, opened his eyes to the truth about himself, caused him on one dangerous stormy voyage to cry out to God for mercy, changed him utterly, and made him a preacher of the gospel of the grace and mercy of Jesus. Before he died in 1807, he wrote this epitaph about himself, to go on his memorial stone:

Once an Infidel and Libertine [that is, an unbeliever and atheist, and a reckless sinner],
A servant of slaves in Africa,
Was, by the rich mercy of our Lord and Saviour JESUS CHRIST,
Preserved, restored, pardoned,
And appointed to preach the Faith
He had long laboured to destroy"

Some years before, John Newton had written a hymn – not a very well known hymn in his lifetime, but known all over the world today. The first verse goes like this:

"Amazing grace! How sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found;
Was blind, but now I see."

What is the lesson for us from this parable of Jesus about the self-righteous Pharisee and the desperate tax-collector? It's simple, of course. Be like the tax-collector. God help us if we're like the Pharisee. We need to humble ourselves. We mustn't pretend to be lower than we think we are. God sees through all that. It's no good saying to ourselves, 'Thank God I'm humble, unlike that despicable Pharisee.' We must recognise the reality of what we're like deep down inside. We must recognise the seriousness of our situation before God. We must throw ourselves on the mercy of Jesus, the Son of God who died for our sins on that cross.

And then, like the tax-collector, like John Newton, we can experience God's justifying, liberating, transforming, grace. And in thankful response we will live lives of humble love for God and for others, in the service of Jesus, who loved us first, and gave himself for us.

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