Not Grading on the Curve


Sermon delivered by Howard Baston, pastor of First Baptist Church in Amarillo, T.X., on June 14 2009.

Luke 18: 9-17.

It was the 1980s, and Mike and Marilyn Standefer were directors in the College Department. Sue and Carter Kelly were teachers in there. The lesson was on our very text today – Luke 18:9-17. Mike did the opening assembly and called upon Carter Kelly to lead in the prayer before the college students transitioned to their Sunday School classes. Carter was on the back row and, when called upon to pray, he nonchalantly stood up in his chair, lifted his hands toward heaven, and prayed with all apparent sincerity and seriousness. Not even the directors were aware of what he was about to do.
 
“Thank you, Lord, that I’m so brilliant, so good looking, that I have such a great physique and that I’m so smart. This department is so fortunate to have me as a teacher, and this church to have me as a member.”
 
About that time, students began to open their eyes and look around, puzzled as to why someone would say a prayer like that. But he just kept going.
 
“And I want to thank you so much that I’m so much better than these college kids in this department. Amen.”
 
He quietly stepped down from the chair, acted as if he’d prayed a normal closing prayer, and went to the class – amid some nervous and very uncomfortable laughter. Nobody really knew how to take a prayer like that. Most folks were stunned. Carter just greeted the people and went on to his room as usual.
 
In reality, he’d lived out before them the role of the Pharisee in Luke 18. If he’d simply taught the lesson, they would have forgotten it within a week. But because he became a living parable of the character of the lesson, they have never forgotten it, I assure you.
 
Well, I want us to look at three words today.
 
I. The first word is pride.
 
Look at verses 9-12
And He also told this parable to certain ones who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and viewed others with contempt: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee, and the other a tax-gatherer. The Pharisee stood and was praying thus to himself, ‘God, I thank Thee that I am not like other people: Swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax-gatherer. I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all that I get.’”
 
This parable is connected to the material that came before, and it is also a parable about the subject of prayer. Last week we looked at our need for consistent prayer to God through the parable of the widow and the unjust judge. That parable concluded with the question: “Whey the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on earth?” And this parable describes exactly what it means to really have the faith.
 
This prayer given by the Pharisee was basically a self-eulogy. You notice all the “I”s in his prayer? Look at verse 11: “The Pharisee stood and was praying thus to himself.” That’s an oddity at the very beginning. He ought to be praying to God, not to himself. The prayer never made it to God because of the man’s self-proclaimed goodness. The prayer never made it to heaven because the man was focused on himself. 
 
So we start with the word “himself,” then “I thank God I am not like...I fast twice a week...I pay tithes of all I get.” Notice that he is so prideful in this particular prayer that he doesn’t even ask God for anything. He doesn’t have any need for a petition because he has no need for God. He’s perfect just like he is. It’s really a distorted praise psalm. “I thank you God that I am so great.” He made himself the subject of prayer, not God.
 
We can become quite prideful when we grade on the curve. When it comes to our own morality, our own goodness, we all overestimate ourselves. We stand like the pious, prideful Pharisee and proclaim that we’re not as bad as the other people. “Lord, I am so thankful that I am better than the next guy. I’m not a drunkard. I go to church fairly regularly. I tithe. I have been faithful to my family. I don’t abuse my children. Lord, any way you slice it, I’m an okay fellow. I am better than the next guy.” By comparing ourself to our neighbors and not God’s righteous requirements, we feel better about ourselves than we ought. 
 
The problem is God is not going to grade on the curve.
 
How many times have you had one of your children, your high school students, come in and shout, “Dad, I’ve got some bad news and some good news.”
 
“Well, honey, what’s the bad news?”
 
“I made a 60 on my math test today.”
 
“Oh, that’s bad news. I’m ready to hear some good news – what’s the good news?”
 
“Well, the highest grade in the class was a 65. And therefore, when it’s all graded on the curve, I’m right there with an A.”
 
That might work for a high school math class in which the highest grade is a 65. But it doesn’t work when it comes to God. God doesn’t grade on the curve. God grades us based upon His perfect moral law. He doesn’t compare you to the next guy. He compares you to Christ. By comparing ourselves to the low standards of our neighbors, we’re like the growing child who proclaims to his mother that he was seven feet tall. She watched as he counted the seven on his homemade measuring tape: “See, one, two, three, four, five, six, seven. Mom, I’m seven feet tall.” But his feet were not 12 inches. To himself, he appeared to be taller than he really was because he was using a homemade ruler – a skewed standard of measure.
 
That little boy was like the Pharisee. That little boy is we as we overestimate ourselves. We look at our neighbor and we judge ourselves by his behavior his behavior. We declare with our chest expanded in pride, “I am better than the next guy.”
 
We, like the Pharisee, like the lad, are using a homemade, inaccurate standard of measure.
 
But God doesn’t grade on the curve. You’ll never spend eternity in heaven by being better than the next guy. You have to have perfect righteousness in God’s eyes.
 
Studies show that nine in 10 managers rate themselves as superior to their average colleagues, as do nine out of 10 college professors. Everybody can’t be better, but everybody thinks they are better. According to professor of psychology David Myers, most drivers – even those who have been hospitalized after accidents – believe themselves to be safer and more skilled than the average driver.
 
Dave Barry writes, “The one thing that unites all human beings, regardless of age, gender, religion, economic status or ethnic background, is that deep down inside, we all believe that we are above average drivers.” (www.homileticsonline.com)
 
We all think we’re better than everybody else.
 
You know how that happens, don’t you? We judge others by a different standard than we use to judge ourselves. When it comes to judging ourselves, we know our inward motives. We give ourselves the benefit of the doubt. And we cast everything in a good light. We judge others harshly, censoriously, critically, denying them every benefit of the doubt as we hold them up to the perfect standard of measure. We hold them up to the paragon of perfection.
 
Like the Pharisee, we like the first-person pronouns. We like “I.” We like to talk about ourselves. There is no sin we despise in others more than pride, yet we all have it ourselves. In fact, it may be the sin that is in greatest abundance. For most of us, our favorite topic is ourselves.
 
An elderly minister who survived the great Johnstown Flood of 1889 loved to regale audiences with tales of that harrowing event. When he died and went to heaven, he found himself in a meeting of saints who were sharing their life experiences. He took St. Peter aside and asked if he could tell about surviving the Johnstown Flood. Peter hesitated, then said, “Well, you can tell your story, but just keep in mind that Brother Noah will be in the audience.”
 
There is something in our fleshly nature that tempts us to talk about ourself – how big, tall, great, smart, wealthy, fast, wise we are. Or how great our children or grandchildren are. We might even boast about how humble we are. God says to the likes of us that our great deeds are filthy rags (Isaiah 64:6). God wants us to see that our greatness is because of Christ’s greatness and not because of anything we have done for ourself.
 
II. The second word is humility.
 
Look at verse 13.
But the tax-gatherer, standing some distance away, was even unwilling to lift up his eyes to heaven, but was beating his breast, saying “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”
 
Notice from verse 13 that he stood at a distance. He sensed a personal unworthiness to stand that close to the sanctuary. He beat his breast, a sign of contrition or grief.
 
“God have mercy on me, a sinner.” It means, “God, somehow propitiate my sin. Find mercy because I am unable to pay for my own sins” – asking God to remove the wrath that is due to our account because of our unrighteousness.
 
This man, unlike the Pharisee, has a spirit of total humility. 
 
You know the story. You understand who is the good guy and who is the bad guy. But the first-century listener to the parable of Jesus would have the Pharisee as the good guy. Tax-gatherer in scripture is always followed by the word “sinner” in scripture. The word for the tax-gather, the sinner, is the word “humility.”
 
Think about the story of Jesus. Think about humility. He was born to a poor Jewish family. His bed is a crude feeding trough. His first visitors are shepherds.
 
We can only receive Christ through humility. That’s what He’s saying at the end of this story. Look at verse 15 and following. They are bringing children to Jesus, and the disciples rebuke them for bringing the children. And Jesus says, “Permit the children to come to Me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Truly I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it at all.”
 
It is our humility that allows us, eventually, to be exalted God’s way.
 
Of course, we know the story of Christ in Philippians 2:2-9, where Paul says, “Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind let each of you regard one another as more important than himself; do not merely look out for your own personal interest, but also for the interests of others. Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore also God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every other name.”
 
There is a poison in pride, so we’re called to humility.
 
Humility is an odd thing. If you start talking about it, it leaves. If you even ask the question, “Am I humble?” is not to be so. Examining your own heart, even for pride, often leads to being proud about your diligence and circumspection. 
C.S. Lewis said humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less. Don’t worry about yourself. Don’t notice yourself. Don’t even criticize yourself. For when you’re always critical of yourself, you’re still doing it. You’re thinking about self. Don’t always notice how others are treating you or try to find slights in the way you are being treated. If you feel slighted all the time by the people around you, that means you have a great estimation of who you are and how you should be treated.
 
Humility is a blessed self-forgetfulness.
 
Humility comes by believing in the gospel.  In the gospel, we have confidence not in ourselves, but we have confidence in Christ (Romans 3:22-24). The gospel frees us from having to always look at ourselves. Our sin is great – we know it. It takes the death of Jesus to save us. He died for us.
 
We must be careful of being prideful of our own morality. In Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis writes, “If we find that our religious life is making us feel that we are good – above all, that we are better than someone else – I think we may be sure that we are being acted on, not by God, but by the Devil.”
 
In fact, Tim Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan, New York, says, “I think it is fair to say that humility, which is a key differentiating mark of the Christian, is largely missing in the church today. Nonbelievers, detecting the stench of sanctimony, turn away.” (Tim Keller, “The Advent of Humility,” Christianity Today, December 2008)
 
 
Christianity is not moralism. It is grace. People will reject moralism, but they won’t reject grace, if they understand it.
 
III. The third word is grace.
 
Notice Luke 18:14. 
I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for every one who exalts himself shall be humbled, and he who humbles himself shall be exalted.
 
Walter Anderson made an interesting observation in his book, Courage Is A Three Letter Word. He writes, “Hundreds of times I have looked into the eyes of a successful person and asked, ‘When it is dark and you are alone, do you ever say to yourself, “What will I do when they find out I’m me?”’ I’ve never failed to make a friend with that question. And I’ve never failed to get a nod. It was as if I knew who they were, and that I understood and, because I understood, I could be trusted. I’ve seen the cool, disciplined, practiced composure of some of America’s toughest business leaders melt [with that question].” (www.preaching.com)
 
We all need to come to the point where we realize we need the grace of God.
 
Look again at verse 14. “I tell you....” There is a Christological claim in these words. Jesus claimed to know the mind of God. “I can tell you who God is going to accept. Not the one you think in this story.”
 
The audience of Jesus’ day would have seen the Pharisee as a positive example of true piety and the publican as a negative one they should abhor. But it is the tax-gatherer who went home – look at the word – justified. It means more than just being forgiven, for it also involves the gift of a new standing before God. The sinner, the tax-gatherer, actually appears before God as justified. It is just as if he’d never sinned.
 
Justification isn’t a process. It happens all at once – when God see us, because of our faith, through the eyes of the cross. Our sins have already been paid for. Crucified. Nailed to the tree. And we are free from them.
 
So what about you? What about your pride? What about mine? Where is our humility? Where is our willingness to give others the same grace that we want God to give to us? And why do we have this foolish hope that if we’re as good as the next guy, God will grade on the curve? He won’t.
 
Don’t we all need to come today – not like the Pharisee, with poisonous pride, but like the tax-gatherer, with brokenness and with contrite hearts, receiving the justification that comes from a spirit of humility and the acknowledgment of the need for a Savior.
 
So how did you come to church today? With a magnifying glass or with a mirror? And, how are you going to leave? You cannot at the same time think both that you are good and God is great. Make up your mind.

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Tags: Grace, Howard Baston, Humility, Pride, Sermons