Connections 10.27.2019: Too Good for Our Own Good

Luke 18:9-17 

If you are of my generation, you probably know the song “Spirit in the Sky.” You may know it even if you aren’t of my generation. It’s been used in lots of movies, television shows, and commercials.

Norman Greenbaum wrote and recorded the 1970 hit. I once had an email conversation with Greenbaum. I was curious about the part of the song that says,

Never been a sinner. I never sinned.

I got a friend in Jesus.

So you know that when I die

he’s gonna set me up

with the Spirit in the sky.

I asked Greenbaum, who is Jewish, if he was being facetious or ironic with the lines “Never been a sinner. I never sinned.”

He replied, “No, I thought that’s how Christians think.”

My first thought was, “Norman needs to hang around a better kind of Christian—ones who know better than to think such things….You know, ones like me.”

My second thought was, “Uh-oh. Did I just count myself as righteous and regard others with contempt?”

If I congratulate myself for my superior perspective that comes from my greater spiritual enlightenment, don’t I have the problem addressed by the parable in our lesson text?

Now, it’s true that anybody who would say, “I’ve never been a sinner. I never sinned” also has the problem addressed by the parable. To believe that about yourself keeps you from throwing yourself on God’s mercy, which is our only hope. If you think you don’t sin, you’re not going to beat your breast and say, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” Or if you do, you’re not going to mean it.

I suppose there aren’t many Christians who think of themselves as being sinless. Maybe a few more Christians think of themselves as being spiritually superior, but there still aren’t many.

Few Christians would admit to thinking they are either sinless or superior. If you ask them if they are, their negative response will come with a hint of don’t be ridiculous: “I would never think that way!” If you listen closely, you’ll hear “I’m better than that!” or “Other people might think that way, but never me!”

What many of us deal with is a kind of practical sinlessness and superiority. The situation is analogous to the existence of practical atheism among Christians. No Christian would ever believe, think, or say that there is no God, but how many of us all too often live as if there isn’t? How often do we make our decisions, draw our conclusions, and plan our actions with no thought of God?

In a similar way, we would never believe, think, or say that we are sinless or superior. But how much attention do we pay to what our attitudes and actions reveal about us? Is our default setting to live as if we are ethically or spiritually superior to others?

If we try to address this matter, we must be careful lest we find ourselves congratulating ourselves on overcoming our assumption of superiority.

Think of it this way: what if the tax collector had gone home and thought, “I’m so glad I’m more humble than that Pharisee”?

Discussion

  1. Luke tells us that Jesus told the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector “to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous” (v. 9). Is it possible to trust in God that we are righteous? If we can, what problems do we still need to watch out for in the ways we feel, think, and act?
  2. Luke also tells us that Jesus told the parable “to some…who regarded others with contempt” (v. 9). What is the connection between trusting in yourself that you are righteous and regarding others with contempt? What should prevent a Christian from looking down on others? What should our perspective on them be? Why?
  3. How can we humble ourselves in a spiritually and emotionally healthy way? What does genuine Christian humility look like? How does it differ from low self-esteem or self-hatred? Why is it important to know the difference?
  4. How do the children in verses 15-17 demonstrate genuine humility? What does it mean for us to be appropriately childlike in our perspective? How can we be childlike without being childish?

Reference Shelf

In the NT the Pharisees are often described as the opponents of Jesus and the early church. Jesus criticized them for substituting their traditions for the revealed will of God, their lack of compassion, their contempt for the common people who could not obey the Law as carefully as they did, and for their failure to practice what they preached. It is important to note that they are also criticized in rabbinic literature. It must not be thought, however, that all Pharisees were hypocrites. Nicodemus and Gamaliel were Pharisees. The Pharisees of Luke 13:31 helped Jesus. A few became Christians, although some of these tried to hold on to their former religion (Acts 15:5)…. Pharisaism represented one of the better elements in first-century Judaism.

James A. Brooks, “Pharisees,” Mercer Dictionary of the Bible (Macon GA: Mercer University Press, 1990), 681.

[Note: in the following, a publican is a tax collector.]

It is not surprising, in light of Jesus’ acceptance of publicans, that they responded to him enthusiastically (Mark 2:15; Luke 15:1). Jesus made a publican the hero of one of his most powerful parables (Luke 18:9-14), and he said that the publican would enter God’s Kingdom ahead of Israel’s religious leaders. It should not be imagined, however, that Jesus held a romanticized or self-deluded idea about publicans; he saw them as sick and needing a physician (Matt 9:10-12). Unlike many of Israel’s religious leaders, publicans sometimes  humbly recognized their own sinfulness (Luke 18:9-14). Zacchaeus was an example of the kind of transformation which Jesus could bring about in the life of a publican; Zacchaeus repaid fourfold what he had gotten illegally, and gave half of his wealth to the poor (Luke 19:1-10).

Fisher Humphreys, “Publicans,” Mercer Dictionary of the Bible (Macon GA: Mercer University Press, 1990), 724.

Convergences

What convergences are suggested between the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector and Luke’s intended audience, as well as between the parable and us?

The Parable with Luke’s Audience

Luke wanted his original audience, mostly Gentile Christians living a half-century after Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, to understand what it meant for them to be faithful in their discipleship. He wanted them to grow in their following of Jesus. Such growth is desirable, but it can be dangerous if the ones seeking such growth come to believe that it’s all about them. One of the greatest dangers is the development of a spiritual superiority syndrome. That is, we believe that we are so right with God that we can look down on those who are not quite so right. The danger increases if we convince ourselves that we are actually humble. “If others were as mature as I am,” we might reason, “they’d be as humble as I am, too!”

We know that such attitudes existed in the early church. Paul, who wrote his letters two to three decades before the Third Gospel was produced, struggled against church members who believed that they were already perfect and so were better than others in the Christian community. Luke wanted his audience to understand that, as they journeyed with Christ and as they grew in their relationship with God, spiritual pride was a real and present danger.

The Parable with Us

We have probably all witnessed how attitudes of spiritual superiority have damaged relationships within the local church. We live in closest proximity to other Christians in our own congregation, and we compare ourselves with each other in order to conclude that our faith, our service, or our ethics are better than those practiced by our sisters and brothers. Some of them may be thinking the same thing about us. We need to guard our spirits against this.

It seems to me, though, that we have an even bigger problem between congregations, between denominations, and between the various segments of our faith families. We compare our churches, our traditions, and our ministry approaches, and we find ours superior and others’ wanting. Or we find others’ ways better and our own lacking (pastors love it when they hear that one!). We’d be better off spending more time and energy asking God to have mercy on us than thinking God needs to have mercy on them.

Michael L. Ruffin, Luke: Parables for the Journey, Annual Bible Study (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2015), 38-39.

Michael Ruffin is husband to Debra, father to Joshua (Michelle) and Sara (Benjamin), grandfather to Sullivan and Isabella. A graduate of Mercer University and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, he has previously served as a pastor and as a university professor. He lives on the Ruffin Family Farm in Yatesville, Georgia. He is the Connections Series Curriculum Editor.

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