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Are Thanks Enough?
Luke 18: 9-14
A missionary tells about how he drove 300 miles to preach both morning and evening services at a little church.
As he was leaving that evening, the church treasurer slipped an envelope into his hand and told him he hoped
he would come back again.
The missionary placed the envelope in his pocket and forgot about it.
Hours later, when he finally arrived home and was getting ready for bed, he remembered the check.
He pulled it out and stared at it.
Across the line where the amount was supposed to be had been scrawled: "A Million Thanks."
In the corner was the name of the church and a Scripture verse.
He thought he must be dreaming.
He read it again.
He held the envelope up to see if he had missed something.
The only thing he had to show for that long Sunday's work was that silly check with "A Million Thanks" scrawled across it.
Sometimes thanks are not enough!
Jesus understood this.
We find it in a parable toward the end of His ministry.
In those last pages of the Gospel, you can almost feel the desperation as He tried to squeeze as much as
He could out of His few remaining days.
And in that setting of great urgency we find a warning about thanks.
Luke called the story a parable.
It was addressed "to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and despised others."
The first was a very good man, a Pharisee, which meant he was a keeper of the rules.
He was respected, upright, and a pillar of the community.
As the parable opens, this good man is praying.
"I thank thee that I am different from all those others, Lord.
You wouldn't believe how they act.
They extort, they are unjust in their behavior, and more than a few of them have committed adultery.
Lord, you know me.
We've been friends a long time.
I fast twice a week.
I give tithes of all I get.
I thank you, Father."
Jesus made the strangest response to these words.
The whole thing was some kind of farce.
- He said the prayer wasn't enough.
- He said the man's words did not matter.
Not enough, He said. "Thanks, but no thanks."
What in the world could be wrong?
Something may have been lost in translation.
The Pharisee did pray.
They were extortioners, and were unjust, and could not be trusted.
- He thanked God right there in the temple.
- He was correct in his evaluation of the others.
And, of course, they were the lusty ones.
Sounds like a pretty good man.
- He had always been faithful, at least in his own fashion.
- He did not lie.
- He fasted and gave a tithe of all he received.
If we had been checking his references, we would hire this man.
Jesus gave a clue to understanding this story in the first verse.
- So what was wrong?
- And what is the danger that can affect all of us who pray in some temple?
- When is our thanks not enough?
He told this parable to "some who trusted in themselves."
Thanks are not enough when the basis of our trust is only in ourselves.
Phillips translates this verse: "He gave this illustration to certain people who were confident of their own goodness."
The target of his prayer was flawed.
He trusted in himself.
Note the pronouns:
"I thank God...," "I thank thee...," "I am not like the others...,"
"I fast...," "I give tithes of all I have."
Always watch the pronouns.
They betray us every time.
Thanks are not enough when the focus is on "me."
Beating our chests, we betray our own ultimate allegiance.
But trust is not the only problem here.
Jesus told his parable to "some that were righteous."
Thanks are not enough when we are confident of our own righteousness.
- The Jerusalem Bible translates these words: "Those who pride themselves on being virtuous."
- The New English Bible may have it best: "They are sure of their own goodness."
The man in the temple did seem to have a lot going for him.
- Doesn't this seem unfair?
- Isn't the result of our faith to make us good people?
- What's wrong with being righteous?
Surely that ought to account for something.
- He fasted.
- He gave tithes.
But one translation reminds us that we can have "too high a regard for our own goodness."
Remember what Jesus told them in the Sermon on the Mount?
"Except your righteousness exceed the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of God."
Do you see what He says?
There is righteousness and there is righteousness.
It's not all good.
Some of the meanest people have claimed to be Christians.
They have never forgotten a single error somebody else committed.
"Do you remember," they say, "back in 1990 when you..."
Or they say: "It reminds me of last time..."
"Last time?" You ask.
"Yes, don't you remember what you did in December of 1997?"
And people all over the community whisper:
"Look what good Christians they are. The best people in this town."
- Their lips are pursed.
- Never do they enjoy life.
- Looking for sin around every corner.
- Looking for something to complain about.
The problem with these people is that they are sure of their own goodness.
But this Pharisee, was so confident that he could have written the book on self-righteousness.
He had never heard Jesus say:
- But they have never seen through a glass darkly -- they know everything!
- They have forgotten that there is a righteousness that is like filthy rags.
- Thank you, we need no one but ourselves.
We are all the same.
- "I am not come to call righteous but sinners to repentance."
- And of course, he had never heard those terrible words of Paul: "There is none righteous... no, not one."
So, we don't come to church with our arms loaded with our own goodness.
- The ground at the foot of the cross is level.
- We all are needy.
It is not enough!
We simply come and stand in the silence and ponder the mystery of God's grace, until by some miracle
we really know in our heart of hearts that it is all given.
It really is grace after all.
But there is more!
Jesus also told this parable to some who trusted in their own righteousness and despised others.
Thanks are not enough, when it cuts us off from our brothers and sisters.
In Jesus' time the pious Jews would pray: "O God, I thank thee that I am not a dog, a Gentile, or a woman."
Our Lord told this parable to some who looked down on others.
A Sunday school teacher was teaching her children's class this story of the Pharisee and the tax collector.
She painted the Pharisee as such a mean man and the tax collector as a good person.
When she had finished the story, she said, "Now, boys and girls, let's get down on our knees
and thank God we're nothing like that old mean Pharisee."
It is so easy to miss the point.
"I thank God," he prayed, "that I am not like other men."
His thanks built barriers and barricades, so that his connections with the human family were minimal.
Religion that isolates us from our brothers and sisters is a terrible thing.
Carson McCullers once wrote: "It is a strange fact of the human race that we all need somebody to look down on."
Jesus said that real religion ties us to those around us.
This is why He said if you leave your gift at the altar while they're singing the doxology and go back to your seat,
and act as if everything is right between you and somebody else when it is not -- it won't count.
And somebody spoke up and asked, "Do you mean to tell me that large gift I left that could mean so much
to so many hungry people won't count?"
Jesus shook His head. "It won't count."
"Do you mean all those times I starved myself, and felt so bad from fasting -- do you mean that won't count?"
Jesus shook His head. "It won't count. Nothing counts."
He said, "except getting reconciled to God, and then coming back and leaving your gift."
And Jesus said, "That's what counts."
Our Lord concluded His parable by telling of a second man who went up to the temple to pray.
"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 he who humbles himself will be exalted."
This man was not proud of his own accomplishments, but was beating his chest, and whispering his confession
and need to an understanding God.
That is what really counts!
That is when thanks are always enough.
Sermon by Dr. Harold L. White
Email Dr. White at firstname.lastname@example.org