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Sermons on the Seven Deadly Sins
By William R. White
Abingdon PressCopyright © 1992 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, "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; 1 give a tenth of all my income." Hut the tax collector, standing jar off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, "god, be merciful to me, a sinner!" I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted. (Luke 18:11-14)
The Great Sin
If the events in the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector happened today I expect the Pharisee would find someone to plead his case before the public. It might go something like this:
"Good Morning. My name is Wellington David Cook III, president of the W. D. Cook Company, the oldest and largest public relations firm in the state. Our clients include some of the finest individuals and corporations in the nation.
"I have asked your pastor for just a few moments to right a wrong most ministers continue to inflict on one of my most outstanding clients, Amos ben Jonas.
"By a strange quirk of fate, Amos was included in the parable you read this morning. He is named only by his religious tradition, 'A Pharisee.'
"The parable tells you that my client went to the temple to pray. Unlike some people who only go to worship when they are in trouble, it is the practice of Amos to pray in the temple every day. Amos is a very devout and decent man.
"Some have criticized his prayer that begins, 'God, I thank you that I am not like other people.' Please note, Amos is merely reciting a prayer that is a part of his liturgy, a prayer all Pharisees pray. It is a prayer that some of you have prayed too, for its roots can be found in the Bible's oldest prayer book."
If you try my heart, if you visit me by night,
if you test me, you will find no wickedness in me;
my mouth does not transgress.
As for what others do, by the word of your lips
I have avoided the ways of the violent.
My steps have held fast to your paths;
my feet have not slipped.
"Why is it that people say my client is proud and arrogant, but fail to make the same accusation against the very one he quotes, the psalmist? God has called us to be a holy people and Amos, like the psalmist, is making a simple point: he has made a great effort to be a holy and faithful man.
"Can anyone really doubt that what he says about being more faithful than the Tax Collector is true? Some of you may not like the comparison, but tell me, do you know the background of the Tax Collector? Do you know that like all tax collectors he has made a fortune by extortion and dishonesty? Do you know that he is a Jew who accumulates his wealth by collaborating with the hated Romans? He has used Roman soldiers to confiscate property and goods when people were unable to pay his so-called taxes.
"Before you make the Tax Collector a saint, remember that prior to the events of this parable he had not darkened the door of the synagogue in years. Then one day he comes in, sobs, cries out for mercy, and suddenly becomes a hero.
"By contrast, Amos loves his country and serves his church. I ask, which man do you want as a role model for faith?
"I don't know why Jesus seems to be so upset with Amos and others of the Pharisee party. Most people fast one day a week. Amos fasts two days. He also tithes. I ask, wouldn't most churches be overjoyed to have a liberal giver like Amos in their congregation? In addition, his reputation as a businessman is beyond reproach. He is honest in all his dealings.
"What kind of a religion is it that turns things upside down by praising rogues and slandering decent people? If God rewards crooks and castigates honest folks, what is the advantage of virtue?
"Finally, what is the value of religion? Amos is a religious man, spiritually superior in every way. The Tax Collector seldom worships, prays, or shares his wealth. Why is it that he went away justified rather than Amos? You be the judge. Quite frankly, I think Jesus blew this one."
If Mr. Cook were to make such an address, we would have to agree with almost everything he said. Pharisees were moral, upright members of the community. They were deeply religious and they were honest.
Tax collectors, on the other hand, were often scalawags. They were disloyal to their country and often to their religion. They created personal wealth at the expense of their other Jewish brothers and sisters.
The Pharisee is guilty of only one sin. But that sin is what C. S. Lewis has called "The Great Sin." "By comparison," Lewis writes in Mere Christianity, "unchastity, anger, greed, drunkenness are mere fleabites." The sin is pride.
You and I know pride. We know it in others. We know the man who brags about anything and everything he has accomplished, the athlete who declares himself to be the greatest, the woman whose clothing or walk accents her vanity, the scholar who finds every opportunity to exhibit her mental superiority.
We know pride. We hear those who boast of their fortune, their intelligence, or their skill. As the years pass we hear them boast endlessly about their children or their grandchildren.
But I know pride best by looking at myself. When I become irritated at someone who has corrected me, when I get upset with someone for dominating (that usually means I wanted to be center stage and they beat me to it), when I am offended because someone didn't fully acknowledge my contribution, my insight, or my hard work—it is my pride that has been piqued.
Let us be clear, pride is different than self-worth. It is different than self-esteem. Pride is self-esteem at the expense of other people. It is self-worth turned haughty, arrogant, and selfish.
Pride is a swelling of the heart filled with self-importance. It raises me up above others until I begin to look down on them. It is a spiritual cancer, eating up the possibilities for friendship, love, and community.
Pride is a sin, a deadly sin. It is the sin that stands behind Hitler's war on the Jews, apartheid in South Africa, and racism everywhere. In every case, pride causes people to believe they are inherently superior to other people created in the image of God.
Pride is all these things, and more. For finally, the terror of this sin is that it is rooted in idolatry and unbelief. It not only elevates a person above others, but attempts to make that person equal to God. The tempter lures Adam and Eve toward the fruit by saying, "You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil" (Gen. 3:4-5).
The Pharisee in the story was so smug and self-satisfied that he needed and asked nothing from God. By his noble life, his morality, he could make it on his own. Why rely on grace when he was justified by his own efforts? Along the way he assumed the prerogatives of God, judging himself righteous and superior to the Tax Collector. What appears at first glance to be faith is really spiritual arrogance. Charles Talbert notes that "faith never expresses itself as despising others."
The terror, the deadly nature of sin, is that it separates us from God. This is true of any sin, including what we refer to as innocent little lies. Pride is the "Great Sin" because it destroys even those of great moral strength. It turns the finest fruit bitter. It attacks us, like the Pharisee, not at our weakness, but at our strength. Often we have admired a person of great ability or learning from afar, a person of great talent or courage. But our meeting with that person turns sour because we find him or her to be arrogant and conceited. Pride, writes Dorothy Sayers, is "the sin of the noble mind."
The Tax Collector is a despicable and pathetic person. He is not trusted by his own people, the Jews, or by his employers, the Romans. His situation seems hopeless. If he continues to live as a traitor to his people he is cut off from his friends, his country, and his religion. If he repents, he must make restitution for every drachma he has received by fraud, plus one fifth. And he loses his livelihood. His outburst is a genuine cry for mercy. He comes empty-handed, ready for any crumb that will fall from the Master's table. Yet he is the one who goes home filled, because he came empty. "Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth" (Matt. 5:5).
Any honest searching of our heart quickly turns up a field of weeds. We sin against God and our neighbor. Our only hope is that the wonderful love and grace of God will wipe us clean and make us whole.
Two people went up into the temple to pray. Each received what he asked for. The first told God how good he was. He asked for nothing and received it. The second, deeply aware of his sin, cried out for mercy. And mercy was given.
You are free to do likewise.
For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. (Matt. 20:1)
Grumbling Against God
In the startling parable of the workers in the vineyard, we are told that the owner paid all of his employees the same wage, though many worked a different length of time, ranging from twelve hours to a single hour. Matthew reports that those who worked the entire day through the scorching heat grumbled when they received the usual daily wage. Do you think the explanation of the owner satisfied them? My hunch is that they filed a grievance before the National Labor Relations Board. Let's listen in on the proceedings.
Judge: "This special meeting of the National Labor Relations Board will now come to order. The first case is The People vs. Levi bar Jonas. The attorney for the plaintiff may call his first witness."
Attorney #7: "Your honor, we wish to call Eliezer. Eliezer, how old are you?"
Eliezer: "I am 26 years old."
Attorney #1: "And are you in good health?"
Eliezer: "I'm in excellent health. I haven't missed a day of work in five years."
Attorney #1: "Eliezer, tell this hearing where you were one week ago at 6 A.M."
Eliezer: "I was at the town square. Everyone who wants to work in the grape harvest meets there six days a week. We arrive early and wait for employers to come looking for workers."
Attorney #1: "Is this your first harvest?"
Eliezer: "No, sir. I have been working in the harvest since I was 14."
Attorney #1: "And on the day in question, did you find work?"
Eliezer: "Yes, sir, I did. At about 5:45 A.M. Mr. Levi, who has a large orchard, arrived in the square. Eight of us were there and he hired all of us."
Attorney #1: "Did you agree on a wage?"
Eliezer: "We did. He agreed to pay the prevailing wage, a silver coin. We expected to be paid at the end of the day, which was about 6 P.M."
Attorney #1: "Did the eight of you work alone all day?"
Eliezer: "No, sir. A little after 8 A.M., we told Mr. Levi that there were a lot more grapes than we could pick in a day. We told him some would rot if we didn't get help. He left and came back about 9 A.M. with a few other men. The same thing happened at noon and again at 3 and 5 P.M. I don't know why he hired the last two groups. We really didn't need them. By that time most of the work was done."
Attorney #7: "So how long did the others work?"
Eliezer: "It's easy to figure out. Some worked nine hours, some six, some three, and a few worked only one hour. The eight of us worked twelve hours, right through the hottest part of the day."
Attorney #1: "Tell the NLRB how the men were paid."
Eliezer: "Well normally, those that work longest get paid first. For some reason, Mr. Levi had Amos—that's his manager—pay the men who came at 5 P.M. first. He paid them a silver coin. He paid the same to the workers who came at 3 P.M. The eight of us who worked twelve hours figured we were going to get a bonus. When he came to us, he paid us a silver coin."
Attorney #1: "Do you think you were wronged?"
Eliezer: "You're darned tootin' we were wronged. He made the others equal to us and we worked eleven hours more."
Attorney #1: "Levi says he can do what he wants with his money. What do you say?"
Eliezer: "I say we got laws against such things. Whoever heard of a man working one hour getting the same wage as one who worked twelve? Next time I'll show up at 1 P.M."
Attorney #1: "I don't think there are any more questions at this time."
How do you suppose this case is going to come out? Can the owner do what he wants with his money or will the NLRB declare that his is a public business and that he has to pay "fair wages"? If he insists on continuing this method of payment, will any men work for him the full day when they can work less for the same amount? If you were Eliezer, would you feel cheated?
Let's be clear, this parable is not about business; it is about the kingdom of God. As a way of conducting business, this parable may be sheer nonsense, but in the kingdom of God it is a marvelous gift. Jesus is not telling Burger King or General Motors how to hire, he is describing how God provides enough for everyone, even those unable to work the full day. If this seems outrageous it is because the love of God is outrageous.
By its very nature love does not keep score. It cannot. Special circumstances—poor health, unemployment, a recent catastrophe—mean that love gives more to one person than to another. Love responds to need; it is not calculating.
But if love is not calculating, envy is. The workers agreed to the normal day's wage, a silver coin. They received a silver coin. The problem was not their wage but the comparison. They would have been content with the identical wage if others received less.
This, then, is the first characteristic of envy. It is highly competitive; it is always comparing. A chilling Jewish folk tale tells of two merchants who owned shops across the street from one another. Each judged the day successful not on the basis of total sales, but on whether he made more than the other. Upon the completion of a sale, each would look across the street and mock the other. God decided to put an end to this nasty rivalry and sent an angel to visit one of the merchants.
"You can have anything you want in the world," the angel said. "It can be riches, wisdom, a long life, many children. Just know that whatever you ask, your competitor will get twice as much. Thus, if you ask for $20,000, he will get $40,000. What is your wish?"
The merchant thought for a while before he answered, "Make me blind in one eye." Envy is as senseless as that.
Second, envy is known for its sounds, murmuring and grumbling, the sounds of discontent and dissatisfaction. These are irritating and corrosive sounds that eat away at others and the envious person.
Third, envy is blind to its own gifts. The envious person may have many wonderful assets and abilities, but all she can see is the gift she doesn't have. What others have always seems larger and more special than what the envious person has. Envy makes us blind to what the goodness of God has done for us.
Finally, envy creates sadness. Gone is a sense of thanksgiving and joy. How can we be thankful when we are only aware of what we don't have?
Jesus teaches his followers to be content with what they have. "Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow," he says. He opens their eyes to the goodness of God by looking first at the grass and flowers as a lesson. If God has gifted grass and flowers, how much more has God given gifts to his people?
The person of faith lives with a sense of delight and joy because that person believes life is a gift. Alleluia, not grumbling, is the sound of the thankful.
In another biblical story (Matt. 20:20-28), the mother of two of the disciples of Jesus, James and John, asks for special privilege for her sons. "Let them sit, one at your right hand and one at your left when you come into your kingdom," she asks. When the other ten disciples hear the request, they are filled with envy. How dare these two try to worm their way into the good seats?
Jesus heard the murmuring and used the opportunity to teach them about discipleship. He began by suggesting they replace envy with service. "You know that in other cultures the people who are great lord it over others," he said. "It will not be so among you. Whoever wishes to be great among you must be a servant and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave." Then he concluded with a summary of his own ministry. "For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many."
Excerpted from Fatal Attractions by William R. White. Copyright © 1992 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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