Reclaiming Genuine Piety

Pastor Dale E. Austin                                                                                               Luke 18:9 – 14

Some of the most spiritual-sounding people in the world may sometimes be far from genuine. When faith becomes self-centered, all about “Jesus and me”, and there is no interest in reaching out to other to minister to their needs or to share the gospel, then the individual’s faith is flawed at best and totally false at worst.  These people may not realize it, but their inward-turned faith actually has become a form of self-worship rather than worship of God.

Such is the case with the Pharisee in today’s story. As Jesus tells it, “he trusts in himself”, and not in God.  As he brags about how he observes his faith, we realize that he is simply patting himself on the back for having done such a wonderful job.  He is confident that his faithfulness to the established practices of his religion will keep him in good standing with God.  Certainly, he believes, he is far more loved and respected by God than is that miserable tax collector over in the corner – who can’t even lift his eyes toward God!  This Pharisee is very much in love with himself and fancies himself a paragon of faith and virtue to be admired and imitated by all.  To all outward appearances, he appears to be incredibly devoted to God.  But when we listen closely, we begin to realize that the real object of his praise, adoration – and even his worship – is himself.

This Pharisee is so wrapped up in himself that he doesn’t even recognize how phony this faith of his actually is. Just in the few words of this story, we hear him express contempt for others who aren’t as righteous as he is.  There is no compassion in his words.  He looks down on those whom he considers to be beneath him.  He is totally unconcerned with others, as his words focus only upon himself and how grateful he is that he is so much better than others.

In a sense, he has become his own God, for his words seem more directed toward himself than toward God.

The piety expressed by this Pharisee is just a little bit perverse. Thankfully, not everyone follows his example.  Not all piety is self-centered, as with this gentleman.  Indeed, Jesus draws a direct contract between him and the tax collector.  Now, it ever there was a model of total sinfulness, at least in the minds of Jesus’ neighbors, this man would be it:

Everyone seems him as a liar, a thief and a cheat.

He can’t be trusted; every word which he says is a lie.

And yet. . . . . he recognizes his sin. He understands his fault and he readily confesses it. Unlike the Pharisee, who sees nothing in himself requiring repentance, this man fully comprehends his state and pleads for mercy from God.

Because his heart is contrite and repentant, Jesus tells us that this tax collector will be the one of these two men who will go home justified by God. He will have experienced God’s grace and mercy.  He will be just a little bit happier and more joyful for it.

If truth be told, the Pharisee probably couldn’t care less about any of that. In his mind, he has no need of God’s mercy or grace. He has nothing to confess. He’s never done anything wrong.  But this self-righteous approach to God will actually prove to be more of a hindrance and barrier to God than he is able to recognize.

True piety, as Jesus indicates, does not boast of ourselves but rather recognizes who we are as imperfect human beings. None of us is so free from sin and error that we can stand before God as this Pharisee did, boasting about how good we are.

And yet, we hear it a lot.

People will boast about their relationship with God or with Jesus Christ with almost a condescending air. They will brag about how holy they are: “I’m all right with God; too bad about you.” That kind of piety is a pretty good indication that we’ve fallen away from the true God and are embarking on the sort of ego-centric self-worship that this Pharisee displayed. He probably was genuinely convinced of his own righteousness and so were all the people around him, his supporters and surrogates. But Jesus came to help us see past such false piety and to recapture piety’s true sense as devotion and submission to God.

Ironically, it is the one whom society rejects as an untrustworthy liar who is truly in God’s good graces. It is only when we are willing to acknowledge before God all the ways in which we fall short, that God lifts us up and gives us another chance.  Also ironic is that both men, the Pharisee and the tax collector, go home having received what they came to find.  One goes with the false good feeling which derives from self-worship, returning home even more convinced of how wonderful he is.  The other, however, goes home a changed man. He has encountered God, acknowledged who he is, received from God the assurance that he is forgiven, and freed to try to live a better life.

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