"Know the Generosity of God…and never thirst" (John 4)
Know the Generosity of God…and never thirst! (John 4)

The Great Reversal

Luke 18:9-14

9[Jesus] 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. 11The 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. 12I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ 13But 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!’ 14I 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.”

In his book, The Nones, Ryan Burge wanted to understand how the seven major religious traditions in the United States had shifted in the past two years, by using a gold standard measuring tool that collects data.  He claims that he saw it immediately when he stared at the data:

The percentage of religiously unaffiliated people had steadily risen since the early 1990’s.  The “Nones” – those who do not affiliate themselves with any religious faith tradition – In other words, when asked what your religious preference is, they check the box that said, “None” – or “No Religion.”

By 1996, the “Nones” had zoomed past 10 percent of the population – crossed the 15 percent threshold a decade later – and then reached 20 percent by 2014.

By 2018, it had happened.  The “Nones” are now the same size as both Roman Catholics and the evangelical protestants. 

That means that the religious unaffiliated persons are statistically the same size as the largest religious groups in the United States. 

The author begins to attempt to answer the hard questions:

Why is this happening and why are the “Nones” on the path to being the largest religious group in America in the next decade?

In our Jeremiah text for today (which we did not read) states:

Although our iniquities testify against us,
  act, O Lord, for your name’s sake;
 our apostasies indeed are many,
  and we have sinned against you.

In our bible study on Wednesday, we did not know what the word, “Apostasy” meant.  So, I became intrigued as I pondered what it might have to do with our Gospel reading. 

The word, Apostasy means:  An act of refusing to continue to follow, obey, or recognize a religious faith. 

The book of Jeremiah was written sometime between 300-500 years before Christ came into the world. 

To follow, obey, or recognize a religious faith has been going on for a very long time.

However, now over two thousand years later, our empty pews demonstrate how the apostasies are many…

In our reading for today…

Jesus had been talking to the disciples and telling them parables.  But in this parable that is being told…he is talking to others who are gathered around because the author states:

Jesus is talking to those who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.

In other words, they believed themselves to better than others and despised those who they regarded beneath them.

This bothered Jesus so he tells them a parable two people who are well-known in the community – A Pharisee and a Tax Collector. 

The Pharisee was a religious leader in the community. He would be highly thought of and respected.  Most likely, he was well-educated, followed the Jewish Law, and was responsible for teaching the Jewish Law to others in the Temple.

He appears to be righteous before God in his own eyes and the eyes of the community.

On the other hand, the Tax Collector was not respected and highly dis-liked.  He was known to work in close relations with the Roman government.  The Tax Collector often would demand more than the actual tax so that he could take some of the money for himself.  Whether or not one would pay their taxes, was not an option, much like today.

He would not have been seen as righteous before God from the community’s standpoint.

In this case, the Pharisee is not a bad person.  He does everything that he is supposed to do.  He tithes10 percent of his income, he fasted twice a week, and goes to the Temple to pray. 

On the other hand, the Tax Collector does not give a list of the things that he does right – but acknowledges all the things he has done wrong and begs God for mercy and forgiveness. 

While it seems that the Pharisee has acknowledged before God that he is a good man – Both the Pharisee and the Tax Collector have sinned. 

Both men are equally “Shamed” before God. But the difference between the two is that the Pharisee is ignorant of his standing with God. 

The Pharisee has fallen into the sin of arrogance and pride because he has attempted to exalt himself – put himself above others – in fact – he has put himself even above God.  The Pharisee justifies himself for doing only what he ought to do.

I’ll never forget John.  John at the time was about 75-80 years old.  A good man.  He came to church every Sunday – God willing.  He always gave to the church.  I had heard that in his younger days, he was very active in the church.

One Sunday after church as I was standing in the Narthex, John stopped by to say “hello” as he always did.  John began to tell me about how he didn’t sin.  He said, “I don’t have to worry about sinning – all I do is come to church, go to the grocery store, and then home.  I stay at home most of the time. How can I sin?

While I understood what he was getting at – it took all I had to not respond, “But John, you just did.  Your sin is pride.”

John immolates this Pharisee that we have in the parable.  Both good men.  Both aim to do the right thing…but completely fail in their inability to save themselves. 

The Tax Collector, however, is humiliated before God and others.  He genuinely recognizes all that he has done wrong, and his brokenness is evident in his self-mortification by the beating on his chest.

When talking about the tax collector, Jesus gives us a key word:  Justified.

The Tax Collector will go home – justified.

The doctrine of Justification begs the question, “How do we reach a status of Justification in the eyes of God?”

The answer:  Repent.  Our justification is the recognition of our guilt, shame, and misdeeds…to suggest that we can be justified – saved – by any other means is to reject the free grace of God.

We can take our checklist and check off the boxes all day long about how good we are and how we are doing all the right things – as in the case of the Pharisee –

But our good deeds do not earn our salvation.  It is our recognition that we cannot save ourselves because we are steeped in sin and are totally and utterly dependent on God for our salvation.

In his book, The Nones, Ryan Burge demonstrates those who do not affiliate themselves with any religious faith tradition. 

This group- the Nones -are growing rapidly – It is predicted that in the next decade they will be the same percentage as the religious population that affiliates themselves with a faith tradition.

The author begins to attempt to answer the hard questions:

Why is this happening and why on the path to being the largest religious group in America in the next decade?

He states that he cannot pinpoint the reason to just one thing because people are emotional, unpredictable and unintelligible most of the time. However, his theories include:

  • Secularization – In 1962, a Supreme court ruling stated that school sponsored prayer was no longer allowed in the public schools.  This began the slippery slope to secularization where society has taken God out of our public lives.  We continue to go down this slippery slope to the point that it no longer politically correct to wish someone “Merry Christmas.” 
  • Social Bias – a nice way of saying that sometimes people lie
  • The internet – Anything you want to see or do is right there on your computer.
  • Politics – more so today than ever due to the polarization and division of our country.
  • Socialization – More and more, people are not joining and becoming a member of social groups…most likely due to technology.
  • Loss of Trust – not only in the church, but also in our government.
  • Changes in Family Structure

Throughout his book, the author demonstrates how all factors have played a part in the growing number of “Nones” in the United States. 

But Burge does give us some hope.  Those who check the box, “No affiliation” fall into three categories.



Nothing in Particular 

The “Nothing in Particular” group check the box because they don’t feel strongly one way or another about being attached to a religion – like Baptist, Presbyterian, or Lutheran.

In general, one in five Americans is a “Nothing in Particular.”  They are the fastest growing religious group in America.

Here is the thing…”Nothing in Particular” people are not bad people.  I know many of them.  Often, they are willing to give to others the shirt off their back – they would do anything needed to help other people. 

Sometimes they give to other charities that they believe will make the world a better place. 

The problem, as I see it, is that many people think by being a good person – doing good things will earn them a place in heaven. 

Many people are ignorant of their standing with God – just like we see in the case of the Pharisee. 

Many fail to recognize or acknowledge what Jesus Christ has done for them. 

In Jeremiah, the prophet states:

Although our iniquities testify against us,
  act, O Lord, for your name’s sake;
 our apostasies indeed are many,
  and we have sinned against you.

Our apostasies are refusing to continue to follow, obey, or recognize a religious faith.

Many people today refuse to follow Jesus Christ, obey his teachings, or recognize that it is only Jesus who can offer them salvation.

Often there is failure to acknowledge the free gift of grace that was given to us through the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Many do not understand that to receive grace through the means of the sacrament – The Lord’s Table is only rightly administered in the church.

In other words, they are missing out!

The winds of secularization and polarization are swirling around us like never before. 

The “Nothing in particular’s” are growing at extraordinary levels in our society thinking that they are in control of not only their lives here on earth, but also their eternal life.

Pride is a salvation issue.

Pride is thinking that we are better than others and despising those who are not like us-

There is a warning here…

It is a slippery slope to believe that God loves us more for the good deeds we have done rather than acknowledging the good deeds we have left undone.

It is easy to believe that we are better than those who come to our door seeking help – those who show up at our food pantry – or those who are too afraid to walk into our sanctuary because they feel they will be judged.

The problem is that it is not anything that we would expect. 

Jesus flips everything upside down – inside out to make us think and prayerfully turn ourselves back to Him and keep from backsliding – even though we show up for church on Sunday.

It is the great and unexpected reversal – It goes against everything our culture and society teaches us – those who exalt themselves will be humbled and those who humble themselves will be exalted.

Jesus last words of this parable are the whole point of his teaching and the crux of the text.  To put it differently:

Repentance and forgiveness are the keys to the Kingdom of God.

Hear the words of the Tax Collector:  ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ 

If we cannot acknowledge that we are sinners, regardless of our affiliation or non-affiliation, our salvation is at risk!

Therefore, this text then begs the question as we reflect on ourselves: 

Where do I stand?  Where do you stand? 

Are we most like the Pharisee or are we like the Tax Collector? 

Are we really any different than those who check the box stating we have no affiliation?

Do we depend on ourselves for our salvation, or do we depend on God’s grace – and believe that it is only Jesus Christ who saves us?

Do we trust ourselves to do and say the right thing or do we trust that God is leading us to say and do the right thing? 

Do we proclaim Christ as we have been called?

Do we always stand up for Jesus or is it often easier to keep quiet?

We are human beings…and it is a slippery slope how we respond to these questions…and even slipperier when we refer to others as “those” people.

The Pharisee prayed and thanked God that he was not like the Tax Collector…that he was grateful that he was not like those people who are thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like that tax collector.

What if…the Tax Collector prayed and gave thanks that he was not like the Pharisee?

What if we prayed and gave God thanks that we were not like those people who claimed they had no affiliation or relationship with God, or nothing in particular? 

O Lord, “Our Apostasies are many…”



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