The Way Up is Down

Read Luke 18:9-14

Ping Pong Champ

I was quite the ping pong player when I was in high school. I was really good. I held many tournaments in my garage, most of which I won. You would have been impressed with my ping pong prowess. I certainly was.

And that’s why I signed up for the big Ping Pong Tournament for incoming freshman during my first week of college. I thought the least I could do was put my skill on display to impress everyone.

I got beat 21-8 in the first round.

“Those who exalt themselves will be humbled.”

Martin Luther

On a more significant note, this Thursday, October 31st, will be the 502nd anniversary of the birth of the Protestant Reformation. 502 years ago, an obscure German theology professor and former monk, wanted to talk about some concerns he had with the Roman Church, to which he belonged.

And so, he did what was often done, he wrote his concerns down on paper and nailed them to the church door for folks to read. It was sort of a modern-day bulletin board.

And boy did people read it! In fact, some folks took Martin Luther’s 95 theses to the local printing press and printed many copies for others to read as well. What should’ve been an ordinary exchange of ideas ended up turning much of the world upside down. Sort of like Facebook.

Among Luther’s concerns was this question: How can a person be made right with God?

He wanted to know how a sinful person could be made righteous before a holy God. Was the answer good works? That is, if you did enough good works, could you earn your way into heaven? Or was it something else? Luther wanted to discuss it.

That’s the very question Jesus addresses in our Scripture: How can we be right with God, or put in a right relationship with God?

A Tale of Two Men

Two men went to the temple to pray: One was a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisees were well known for their “strong commitment” to keeping God’s Law. They were experts in the Law and very disciplined in how they lived.

Tax collectors on the other hand, were considered traitors by the Jews. They worked for the Roman government. That, and their “excessive profits,” created a lot of hostility between them and most of the Jewish population.

Therefore, Jesus tells his audience, many of whom would’ve been Pharisees, a parable.

Luke even tells us why Jesus told it. Take a look at verse 9…

To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable:


Jesus often rebuked the Pharisees for their showy piety. He accused them of hypocrisy – doing all the right things on the outside but having the wrong motivation on the inside. According to Jesus, they didn’t obey out of a desire to glorify God but to look good to others.

Both men go the temple to pray. But that’s where the similarity ends. What did the Pharisee say in his prayer?

‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’

He addresses God, and then makes the prayer all about himself. Four times he says, “I.” I do this. I do that. Just look God at all I do.

No humility. Just self-exaltation (like a certain freshman ping pong player). No dependence on God, just self.


In my Sunday School class we’ve just started working through the Beatitudes, which are in the first 12 verses of The Sermon on the Mount. The first three Beatitudes focus on this issue of our posture or attitude before God. Read what Jesus says in these verses…

“Blessed are the poor in spirit,

for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are those who mourn,

for they will be comforted.

Blessed are the meek,

for they will inherit the earth.

The poor in spirit, those who mourn, and the meek, all focus on acknowledging our spiritual poverty before God. Why? So that we’ll fully depend on God’s grace, and not ourselves.

The Pharisee showed God his spiritual resume. It was all about him – his holiness, his efforts, and how glad he was that he wasn’t like those “sinners” out there. There was no sign of grieving over his own spiritual poverty which brings humility of spirit and complete dependence upon God.

You’re not likely to cry out for mercy and grace when you’re so full of yourself. Jesus hammered this point home to the Pharisees, and all his listeners, again, and again, and again.

Confirmation Class

Some of our youth are going through confirmation right now and will be confirmed in a couple of weeks. And one of the theological ideas they’re learning about is grace. Every confirmand learns that grace is, God’s unearned and undeserved favor and blessing.

Those who are spiritually broken, heart-broken over it, and humbled by it are called blessed by Jesus. They are the ones who understand their need of God’s unearned and undeserved favor and blessing. It wouldn’t even occur to them to try to show God how good they are.

The Sinner’s Prayer

We find that very attitude in the heart of the tax collector. There was no pretense that he was righteous. He knew himself. He knew the God he addressed in prayer. Even his physical posture showed remorse before God. Look what the text says…

13 “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast…

This is the posture and attitude of true repentance in the Old Testament. Jesus knew his hearers would know that. And then the tax collector cried out with what we might call the original “sinners’ prayer.” He prayed, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’

This is the prayer of a person who is spiritually broken, heart-broken over it, and humbled by it.

It’s at that point Jesus says these important words…

14 “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

What a role-reversal! The pharisees in his audience must have been fuming. Others must’ve been confused. Still others must’ve been celebrating, because they saw themselves in the tax collector.

All About Jesus

Martin Luther wanted to know how a person could be justified, that is, how a person could be made right with God (brought into a right relationship with God). Jesus knew, even as he told this parable, that he came to save sinners. He knew the Cross awaited him, but also his Resurrection.

On this side of the Cross and Empty Tomb we cry out to God by placing our faith in Jesus. By depending on and trusting in his work on our behalf, and not our own righteousness. When we do, we too will be made right with God.

Jesus tells us the way up, is down. That those who are spiritually broken and mourn over their sin are blessed. That those who humble themselves will be exalted.

It’s all about the attitude of your heart. It’s about being God-dependent and not self-dependent. But more than that, to be right with God requires we cry out to God in faith – for his mercy and grace offered to us through his Son. And when we do, then we can know that 1 John 1:9 will be true of us…

If we confess our sins, [God] is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.

Just as God did with the tax collector.

And what’s true of the tax collector can be true of each one of us as well. If you’ve never cried out to God before, then he’s calling you to do so, to reach out to him in faith, to put your trust in Jesus Christ. And to do so today.

And if you already have, then he’s calling you to remember to walk by that same faith, each and every day.

Thanks be to God for his grace and mercy. Amen.

Walking Points

  • Do you ever find yourself identifying more with the Pharisee in the parable? When do you experience those moments? Why do you think you do?
  • Why do you think God calls us to plead spiritual poverty, grieve over our sin, and humble ourselves before him?
  • Is that hard for you? Why or why not?
  • Besides our salvation, (which is reason enough), what other blessings come from being poor in spirit, mourning, and meekness. (Read Matthew 5:3-5 and put the blessing in your own words).
  • Who do you know who needs to hear this good news (about how they can enter into a right relationship with God)? Make a plan for how to have that conversation with them. Start with prayer.

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