A Sunday School teacher had been teaching one of the parables from Luke 18 to a class of boys. The parable tells about two men who went to the temple to pray. One was a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee prayed, “I thank you that I am not like other men - robbers, evildoers, adulterers - or even like this tax collector.” She had done a good piece of teaching, explaining the hard heart of the Pharisee. She said, “What a thing for a man to say: “I thank thee, that I am not as other men are!” At the close of the lesson she had the youngsters lead in short prayers, and one boy, without any apparent beating on his own chest, prayed: “We thank thee, God, that we are not like that Pharisee!”
Last Sunday, we examined the extravagant love demonstrated by the woman in Luke 7. She washed Jesus feet with her tears, dried them with her hair, kissed them and anointed them with perfume. What love she had for him! As we listen to this story, we identify with her and are sure that if we had been in the crowd watching, we would have affirmed what she was doing. We can identify with the prayer of the Sunday School boy that we are thankful that we are not like Simon the Pharisee…or are we?
Today, we will look at the other character in this story. Who was Simon? Why was he critical of the woman? Why did he love little? Are we like the woman, or are we more like Simon?
It is likely that Jesus had been teaching and doing miracles in the town in which these folks lived for some time. Luke 7:11 contains the last geographical reference and indicates that Jesus was in the town called Nain. This story may or may not have happened there. Simon was probably the religious leader of the community and so as Jesus was doing a lot of things that had to do with religion, he may have thought it was time to check this Jesus out and so invited him to dinner.
Jesus accepted the invitation. Even though he often seemed to have more interest in the despised of society, he was also interested in the more respected members of society. They also needed the gospel.
Although the Pharisee was doing what he knew was right, it seems he wasn’t totally comfortable having Jesus come to his house. He knew he had to invite him as the religious leader of the town, but he didn’t want to give the impression that he somehow supported or endorsed what Jesus was doing.
That may explain the less than warm welcome Jesus received from Simon. It was not unusual to bring water for a person to wash their feet, to greet them with a kiss and sometimes, with an especially honoured guest, to anoint them with oil, but Simon did none of these things. He was not being rude, but he was being very guarded. His welcome was not warm and accepting, it was cautious and probably being done as a political move.
As the banquet began, things were probably going along just fine. People were enjoying a good meal and good conversation…until this woman came in. Suddenly Simon was very uncomfortable. He had worked hard to make sure that his house, table, food and he himself was purified and acceptable to God. He assumed his guests were clean as well, but when this woman came and fell at Jesus’ feet, it repulsed him in every sense of the word. His careful preparations of purification were spoiled. He looked with disdain at the woman and wondered seriously about Jesus.
In his mind he had been evaluating Jesus, wondering who he was. His initial thought was that he might be a prophet, but not everything fit together for him. Now as he saw Jesus being touched by this woman he was quite sure that Jesus was not a prophet, otherwise he would know what kind of a woman this was.
But isn’t the irony wonderful? The Pharisee was merely thinking these things and Jesus answered the thoughts of the Pharisee. He was a prophet, because he knew what Simon was thinking.
In order to address Simon’s concerns, Jesus told him the story of the two debtors. Jesus told this story because he knew what kind of a woman this was and he knew that there were some serious problems in the thinking of his host.
When Jesus ended the parable and asked Simon, “who will love him more?” Simon answered guardedly. He doesn’t say, “Well obviously the one who had been forgiven more.” He said rather, “I suppose the one who had the bigger debt cancelled.” He was guarded because he had been caught in a trap and he knew it and was not comfortable with it. Some of his most deeply held values were being examined under a powerful microscope and he felt exposed.
Who was the Pharisee and what did he believe that brought him into this clash with Jesus?
We usually see the Pharisees as bad guys through the lens of what Jesus said about them. But why did Jesus attack them? If we really want to see what made them tick, we need to understand who they were. As we do, we may be a little shocked to find that they were a lot like we are.
The Pharisees were a prominent religious party in Judaism. The origin of their name is uncertain, but likely means “separated ones.”
They came into existence some time after the Babylonian exile. They believed that the exile happened because Israel failed to keep the law. They were very much in tune with the writings of the prophets who had attacked the idolatry and faithlessness of Israel and warned of the coming exile. As a result, they were very concerned that it was the duty of the nation and every individual in it to keep the law of God. They were concerned to keep God’s word such as that given in Leviticus 11:44, “I am the LORD your God; consecrate yourselves and be holy, because I am holy.”
As a result, they kept a strict observance of laws pertaining to purity, Sabbath observance, prayer and tithing. One source says, “They determined that it(the Torah) contained 613 commandments, 248 positive, 365 negative. The next step was to ‘make a hedge’ about them, i.e. so to interpret and supplement them that there would be no possibility of breaking them by accident or ignorance.”
We also learn that “Pharisees lived simply and did not pursue luxury.”
They were also very concerned about other people who did not keep the law with strictness. They were very afraid that if there was too much unrighteousness in the land, God would once again judge the people.
When we look at the Pharisees with that kind of understanding, we look at them in a completely different way. “They really wanted to be good for God.” In fact, their highest value was doing everything right so that they would please God. They were God’s chosen people and knew that they were acceptable to God. On the basis of having been accepted by God, they wanted to do everything possible to please God. They were religious, they cared about pleasing God, they sought righteousness - all things that we cannot really fault.
Simon would have been shocked to think that his life did not please God. Simon would have said he loved God. He had groomed his life to conform to the codes and traditions. He had mastered the smallest nuances of religious requirements. Cringing from the response of the woman was an instinctive religious response. He was not prepared to quickly accept someone who was unclean.
But what the woman did, what Jesus said to him and his response demonstrate the poverty of his spiritual life and may reveal the poverty of ours. What is the problem with his type of goodness?
Remember the poem, “Little Jack Horner?”
“Little Jack Horner sat in a corner eating a Christmas pie.
He stuck in his thumb and pulled out a plum
And said what a good boy am I.”
He said he was a good boy, but you have to ask, “why was he in the corner?” and “What was he doing with a whole pie?” and “What was he doing with his fingers in it?”
Simon would have thought “what a good boy am I.” But was he really?
How much do we resemble Simon in this? We think that we are good. We have accepted Christ. We don’t do really bad things. In fact, we have done many good things. We come to church each Sunday. We serve Him. We keep the rules. We are trying to improve. Just like Simon!!
In Revelation 2, Jesus speaks to the church in Ephesus. They too were very good. He says about them in Revelation 2:2,3, “I know your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance. I know that you cannot tolerate wicked men…you have endured hardships for my name and have not grown weary.” But then he goes on to say in 2:4 “Yet I have this against you: You have forsaken your first love.” It was not that they had left the way they had felt about Christ when they had first come to know him. The problem was that they were no longer in love with the one who should have been their first love. “…their love for Christ was not the moving priority of their lives.”
On February 26, 1979 when we lived in The Pas, we were privileged to observe a total eclipse of the sun. It was very strange to see it becoming dark in the middle of the day. It was not normal and it was not right. The moon is good because its job is to reflect the sun, but in an eclipse, the moon stops reflecting the sun and gets in the way of the sun thus blocking it. What had happened to Simon, what had happened to the church in Ephesus and what happens so easily to us is that instead of being good as a response to the love of Christ, we allow our goodness to get in the way. The focus is taken off Christ and on to us and our goodness.
“The slippery slope is greased by desiring and succeeding at being good.” There are four dangers that threaten any well-behaved relationship with Christ.
One danger of pursuing and succeeding at being good is that the better we become, the more impressed we are with ourselves.
This was one of the problems with the Pharisees. In Matthew 23:5-7, Jesus said of them, “Everything they do is done for men to see: They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long; they love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; they love to be greeted in the marketplaces and to have men call them ‘Rabbi.’” Instead of doing good as a response to God, they began to do good because they were impressed with themselves.
Sometimes I take a little trip in my mind and make a list of all the camps I have served at and all the sermons I have preached and I am pretty impressed with my sacrifice and all my good deeds. When I do that, the focus isn’t on God anymore, but on me.
Not only are we impressed with ourselves, but we also like it that other people are impressed with us. The next step is that we begin to serve, not because we want to serve Christ, but because we want the approval of others. In Luke 17:10 Jesus said, “So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.’” We have a hard time accepting that saying. If we are not able to affirm it then serving isn’t about God, but about us. If we are serving and no one takes notice or we aren’t affirmed and if we become upset about that, it is a sure indication that we are no longer serving out of love for God, but in order to feel good about ourselves and to impress others.
Stowell says, “It is hard to love God when we love ourselves more. Actually it is impossible. Therein lies the irony: We start out to love God and end up loving ourselves.”
The second danger is that when we are good, we begin to compare ourselves with others. This is where the sin of Simon was most obvious. He knew all the good things he had done for God and he knew that the woman had not done many good things for God. He was quite sure that he was better than the woman. In such thinking it is evident that pride had taken root in his heart.
It was exactly to this attitude of the Pharisee that Jesus had spoken in the parable in Luke 18:11 when he portrayed the prayer of the Pharisee who said “I thank you that I am not like…this tax collector.” Stowell says, “Resting on the laurels of external conformity, they are blind to the inner defilement of pride, hypocrisy, and lack of compassion for sinners.”
This is a difficult thing for us to swallow. When I tried to write this section, I had a terrible time. I have worked hard at being good and to think that I am not better than people who are careless in their Christian life is not easy for me to accept. But just think of the awful sins involved in such an attitude.
If we think that we are better than someone else, the first thing that we have done is made ourselves like God. We set the limits of what is an acceptable sin and what is an unacceptable sin. Who is the greater sinner, the one who has an affair or the one who gossips about the one who has an affair. Do you see how we set ourselves up as judge?
If we think that we are better than others, we become impatient with those who struggle with sin. Who of us hasn’t thought about another person, “they should know better.” Yet at the same time, we want others to be patient with our little idiosyncrasies. We don’t call them sins, we call them idiosyncrasies. Do you see the hypocrisy in this?
If we think that we are better than others, we have little compassion for sinners. We fail to identify with the person who can’t stop smoking. We think, “We don’t smoke, why can’t they stop?” and fail to understand the struggle they have. We look down on them for their failures. When we do that, we stop acting in love. Stowell asks, “Are the worst of sinners in our world loved and sought by us, or are we more likely to condemn and ostracize them in an effort to keep our lives and culture “clean?””
When we succeed at being good, another danger is that we don’t think that we need God anymore.
Jesus had said to the Pharisees in Luke 11:46, “And you experts in the law, woe to you, because you load people down with burdens they can hardly carry, and you yourselves will not lift one finger to help them.” The Pharisees taught all the right things to do, and by their teaching and life implied that their own effort had made them good. They didn’t need God to change their hearts, they had changed their hearts by hard work.
This is most dangerous and devastating thinking. It is nothing short of humanism. Although we want to be obedient to God and want to learn what it means to do what is right, if at any time we think that we can change ourselves into people who please God, we are falling into the trap of the enemy. This is the work of the enemy who is saying to people in the world today that they are basically good and just need to affirm the good in themselves and others. Such thinking fails to understand that the heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked and cannot be changed apart from a renewal effected by God himself.
If we can make ourselves good, then we don’t need God and that in itself is the worst kind of sin. Communists have always ridiculed Christianity because they say it is a crutch for the weak. Christians have argued against that, but I don’t see how we can. Christianity is a crutch because we cannot change ourselves without the help of God. Being good and succeeding at it is the greatest danger there is in moving us away from needing God!
Stowell says, “The most lethal stroke of the adversary is to make us lose sight of the saving work of Jesus and to take His extensive grace for granted.”
Another danger is that we feel that not only are we impressed with ourselves, but we begin to think that God is impressed with us as well.
Jesus said to the Pharisees in Matthew 23:27, “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean.” The Pharisees, Simon among them, were sure that they were the people most pleasing to God. God’s assessment of them was different.
A man had a dream that he was visiting heaven. In the dream, Peter took him around and he noticed that there were clocks all over the place. He asked about these and was told that they were sin counters. If a person had sinned little, the clock moved slowly, if they sinned a lot, it moved a lot faster. He saw a lot of clocks and they were all going different speeds. He was curious about his own sin clock and finally got up the nerve to ask about it. Peter replied, “we have yours in the office, we use it for a fan.”
If we have succeeded by our own power in doing good, we may believe that God likes us more than others because we are so faithful to him. But the words of Isaiah 64:6 suggest that they may be using our “sin clock” for a fan. In Isaiah 64:6 we read, “All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away.” If that is the case, Stowell says, “Why do we still parade them as a badge of honor in His presence?”
When Jesus said to Simon, “he who has been forgiven little, loves little,” it was not at all to say that Simon was good and had little to be forgiven. Simon was just as perverse as the woman. However, his sin was hidden behind a mask of goodness.
Cars have gotten more and more complicated and it is much more difficult now to fix it yourself than it used to be. Even at that, however, there are still only a limited number of things that can go wrong with a car. However, “Sin, says Eugene Peterson, is exponential.” There is an infinite number of ways in which sin reveals itself in our hearts. That truth is clearly seen as we realize that even in seeking to be good, we are in great danger of sins like those of Simon.
And so we need to examine ourselves. “Do we notice feelings of pride in our goodness? Has our goodness become a habit or does it thrive as a response? Is there hypocrisy in our life? Are we jealous of others who are more revered? Do we have compassion for other sinners?”
It may be depressing to realize the true nature of our heart, but let us not let it become a cause of hopelessness. Rather, let us return to God and ask Him to forgive us and to change our hearts. When we do, we will realize how much we have been forgiven and, then, and then we will join the woman at the feet of Jesus loving him for his grace in our lives.