From Trusting in ME to Trusting in God’s Mercy

The Pharisee and the Tax Collector

A sermon idea based on luke 18:9-14.

Luke 18:9-14 NRSV

[9] He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: [10] “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. [11] 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. [12] I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ [13] But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ [14] 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.”


The relevant topic I would be addressing, based on this text…

When we trust in our own self-sufficiency and our own righteousness, we miss out on the work God wants to do in our lives on the basis of his goodness and mercy. The real pathway to rising up is bowing down, confessing how short I fall on my own, and trusting in the One who wants to make all things new.


Information about the text that matters to the message, a potential outline, key truths to share, etc.

You can’t skip the first line in this passage.

He told this parable to people who had three terrible but all-too-common habits:

  • They trusted in themselves.
  • They believed they were already righteous.
  • They looked down on everyone else.

But I think there is a deeper foundational issue that is common to all of us and it’s best expressed in a thought-provoking question:

What if I have confidence and assurance that I’m right about my view of God, myself, and my world, but I’m actually wrong?

We live in a rationalistic, post-Enlightenment society in which we have become dependent on black-and-white, dualistic thinking. We believe everything has a distinct category.

  • It’s true or it’s false.
  • It’s right or it’s wrong.
  • You’re in or you’re out.

Dualistic thinking is rooted in the belief in absolute truth, and that’s actually a very good thing.

The problem isn’t with the truth, it’s with me.

I may be fully convinced, completely confident, and absolutely assured of something being true, but if I fail to take into account my own fallibility, frailty, and faultiness, then I can well become stubbornly attached to ideas and concepts that are wrong.

The audience to whom Jesus was speaking believed, with great assurance, that they were okay on their own. That they were truly righteous. That everyone else was beneath them. And they needed a reality check. They needed the mercy of God.

And so do we. We must come to the end of our self-assurance and self-sufficiency and see that we need the goodness and mercy of God at work in our lives.

I don’t believe the point of the story is that we should feel as poorly about ourselves as possible. Jesus wasn’t trying to damage anyone’s self-worth by telling this story. I believe he was trying to get them to open their eyes to the fact that there was more to God than what they thought they already had figured out.

The point is not to move from “I’m good” to “I’m bad.” It’s to move from “I’m good” to “HE is good.”

When we finally see our need for more of God than we currently understand, we enter into the scary process of letting go of our simplified vision of the world. We open ourselves up to allow the Holy Spirit to search all of our inward parts, to expose all that is unholy and unhealthy, and to lead us into repentance.

And to clarify, I believe repentance is a change of our minds from seeing ourselves our own way to seeing ourselves as God sees us, which includes being humbled, confessing our sin, seeing our faults, adopting new ways of thinking, and committing to live differently than before.

Jesus’ goal is not to make us feel good about ourselves, as though we are totally sufficient in our own righteousness.

Neither is his goal to make us feel bad about ourselves, as though we are worthless.

Jesus’ goal is to point us to how good God is, how merciful he is, and how willing he is to take us to a place of spiritual awakening and maturity we could never achieve on our own.

And he’s willing to use the hammer of his word to decimate all of the hard, stony parts of our stubbornness and self-assurance to get us there.


The big call-to-action in the message…

Will you loosen your grip on your own assurance that you must have it all figured out and open yourself to what God wants to show you about who you are, who he is, and how he can change your life forever through repentance and renewal?


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About the Cover Art: The Pharisee and the Publican, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN.

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