In the Name of the Father and of the +Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Why do men brag? Because they want to be noticed. They want credit. It is infinitely more satisfying to have your praises sung by someone else, but what if they won’t do it? What if the moment is passing? What if no one notices how hard you’ve worked, how busy you are, how clever you were? The braggart brags because he thinks he has to. If he doesn’t he will go unnoticed and will not get credit, and it is owed to him or he needs it. What the braggart wants, of course, is simply to be loved.
Complaining is the mirror image of bragging. It wants our sorrows, our injustices, known. It demands attention, credit, sympathy. The complainer would be happier if someone else noticed his injustice and defended him, but he cannot wait. He has to speak. He has to tell what he has suffered. He needs the attention.
Bragging and complaining both come from pain. Those who brag and those who complain want attention. They want to to be loved. They are afraid they will not be noticed.
That is what the pharisee wants in the temple. He wants to be noticed, to get credit. He has disciplined himself, denied himself various pleasures of the flesh and vices. He has not done the things done by extortioners, unjust men, adulterers, or tax-collectors. He has gone without. And he has made other sacrifices as well. He fasts twice a week. He gives a tithe of all he possesses to the church.
All he wants is for God to say, “Good job.” But God is not Mr. Rogers. God is not impressed.
God is never impressed with the works of men. It really doesn’t matter how good you’ve been, what great things you’ve done: you are not good enough. The sacrifices of God – the only thing that pleases Him in men – is a broken spirit, a broken and contrite heart. Because what has the pharisee really done? He stopped at all the red lights? He mowed his lawn? He recycled the newspapers? Come on! What has he done? Almost nothing. We don’t even know his name. But worse than that, worse than the fact atht his good works weren’t that good, that he was no Mother Teresa or Ghandi, even as he did those shallow and petty things, he did them with impure desires. He trusted in himself. He thought he was better than others. He may not have murdered his brother, but he grew angry in his heart. He may not have ever had an extramarital affair, but he knew lust. Would he then dare to stand before God and boast of his works?
Here is a secret: everyone’s life is hard. Everyone hurts. Everyone struggles, loses, is afraid. Everyone has a broken heart. Some people deny it out of pride. They are afraid to show weakness. Some people hide it in shame or think it is none of your business. But no one sails through this life unscathed. No one. No one is free of doubt, regret, or sorrow. Nothing has befallen you that is not common to man. If your works do not impress God, neither do your sorrows or the injustices and sleights you have endured.
Do not think that you are better than others, that you work harder, are busier, or are smarter. And do not think that your life has been more difficult, that you have suffered more. The difference between you and the drug dealer, or between you and Mother Teresa is the difference between two pieces of straw in a pile the size of a house. It is not great enough to be measured, statistically it is non-existent. Get over it. Get over yourself. Repent.
Repent and be humbled. Pride is the way of death. Your bragging and complaining expose you along with your gossip and jealousy. We do not give thanks by speaking ill of others. The Pharisee went to the temple to pray. But he went home damned. Don’t you do the same.
Consider the tax-collector. He is the model of Christian prayer. He is more blessed than the pharisee because he knows and feels his sins. Do you know and feel your sins? Have you been cut to the quick? Does it make you angry to hear me say that you have not suffered more than others? Repent. And be glad for the tension, for the pain, for it is evidence of faith. Confess your sins. You have been proud. You have been jealous. You have been angry with God. Repent and throw yourself upon God’s mercy. You have no right to it. But so also your sins are not worse than the tax collector’s and he went home justified, forgiven, righteous by the grace of God in Christ Jesus. So also do you. For God is merciful.
God is not impressed with your works or your sorrows, but He is deeply in love with you. They are not unnoticed in heaven. What you do in faith is deeply interesting to Him who counts every hair on your head. Your works are nothing to brag about, but they are valuable and critical to the Kingdom of Heaven. The Lord has given you a place in, and a part of, His Kingdom. You are His steward. You manage His stuff. The garden is before you without any rules. It is His stuff, but He gives it to you. What you do with it is up to you, according to your freedom. You can make spaghetti sauce or salsa for the future. You can slice the tomatoes and eat them now. You can give them away. Or you can let them return to the earth as compost for next year. It doesn’t matter. Whatever you do, He will bless, and He will delight in it. These are not the works of the pharisee. They do not cause God to love you or you to love God. Rather they come from love. God loves you so He gives you a place in His Kingdom. You find things to do, according to your freedom, because He loves you and you love Him. And if you do nothing, that is fine as well. For these is also a time to rest. Let no one judge you in what God has given and so also judge no one else.
The same is true of your suffering. It is not meritorious, but it comes from Fatherly care. Your Father knows what is best. He chastises you and He intervenes in your life for your good, often in ways that conflict with what you think you want. That often means sorrow and pain. Who can know the mind of God? His ways are not our ways, nor His thoughts our thoughts. He sends you crosses for your good, to purify you, to keep you from things that would hurt you, to teach you to live by faith and to pray, and He also sends them for the good of your neighbors.. We would not choose these things for ourselves. We rightly pray for relief. But we are only children. We do not know what is best. These crosses do not merit God’s love, but come from God’s love and from our love. Because we love God, who has loved and forgiven us, we submit to His will and wait for the time when all things will be revealed. Sometimes relief does not come until we are transferred through death and into life.
Sometimes we see nothing in the garden but weeds while it looks like our neighbors are hauling in every exotic and delightful fruit known to man. The tax collector is often tempted to be jealous of the pharisee. Do not be. You have no idea what your neighbor is enduring. Everyone of us suffers from secret sins and sorrows, which we rightly keep private: mental illness, infidelity, financial trouble, family squabbles, unfulfilling work, a history of abuse, and so forth. If we had Zoloft dispensers in the Narthex I’d have to refill them twice a day. Do not judge your neighbors, your brothers and your sisters. Your Lord designs unique crosses for each of us. None of us is spared or has it easier than the others. Everyone’s life is hard. To each is given what He can handle. You might look at someone and think he has it easy because he only has to juggle one ball. What you don’t realize is that he only has one arm and no hands.
In all this, we look back to the tax collector. He found mercy from God, not because he deserved it or had tried hard enough or suffered enough, or because it was his turn, but because God is merciful and sent His Son to ransom creation back from the devil. If you must boast, boast in the Lord: you are forgiven. You don’t have a great story about your conversion, didn’t have a Damascus road experience, haven’t lived a terrible life and then seen the light in the sort of way that makes for good TV drama? Good for you. Boast in the Lord. You haven’t amassed riches and honors, you are unknown outside your own family, people find you average and dull? Good for you: boast in the Lord. You are forgiven. And what if you haven’t done great things in the kingdom, your church isn’t growing, you haven’t converted scores of people, your house is in disrepair? Good for you: boast in the Lord. You do not need fame and fortune. You go home justified. That is what matters. Jesus loves you. You are not insignificant in heaven. You are the cause of angelic rejoicing: boast in that and let that be enough.
And if you hunger for honor, find it in your table mates at the Lord’s Supper. For if there is honor in being invited to the White House and eating with the heads of state, how much more honor is there in being received at the Lord’s Table, not simply to eat with the Lord as a guest, but to eat the Lord, to be united to Him in a marital con-joining whereby He enters into you, and to kneel next to His own saints and loved ones, as a family member, as Hostess, Bride of Christ. Look not to the heaven to find the great saints and holy angels of God. Look around you: these people gathered here are God’s saints. And look also in the mirror. Because the Lord notices and loves and delights in that person.
In +Jesus’ Name. Amen.