Jesus is for Losers – Luke 18:9-14
[Jesus] also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The 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. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ But 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!’ I 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.”
Several years ago, some of you may remember, that I changed the sign out front, by the road, to read, “Jesus is For Losers.” I got the idea from my favorite seminary professor, Mark Allen Powell, who told a story about having seen that at the mall one day, printed on a high school kids’ t-shirt. “Jesus is For Losers.” Shortly after the sign went up, I got a phone call, from someone who lives nearby, complaining about how inappropriate and offensive the sign was for them. And they asked me to take it down.
At first, my professor was offended that day at the mall, too. Not surprised really, but somewhat offended, I think. It seemed like this kid was going out of his way to be cynical and to put down the faith so many of us hold dear by declaring, on a t-shirt: “Jesus is For Losers.” But then Dr. Powell noticed what our not-so-happy neighbor didn’t see on our sign – a Bible book, chapter and verse, just beneath its bold statement – and Dr. Powell realized the shirt was actually a Christian proclamation, witnessing to the Gospel somehow. “Jesus is for losers.”
Of course! “Jesus is FOR losers.” “Jesus IS for losers.” “Jesus is for LOSERS!” No matter how you say it, it is – plain and simple – the message of God’s grace for the sake of the world.
Jesus IS for losers, not against them. Jesus came into the world to dine with outcasts and misfits and sinners; to proclaim the good news to the oppressed, the disadvantaged and the abused; to love the unloveable, the unwanted, the unlucky and the lost. “Jesus is FOR losers.” It is the Gospel in four simple words.
Still, no matter how many times we hear it… no matter how much we preach and teach and worship and learn… this notion of grace is as hard to comprehend as it is to accept and live into as followers of Jesus Christ. And apparently, we’re not much further along enough of the time than the people who listened to Jesus that day so long ago.
See, the prelude to this morning’s parable, as the Bible tells us, is that Jesus was speaking to “some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.” It means he was speaking to people who were pretty confident that they were on the straight and narrow and who took it upon themselves to judge others who they believed were not. So he tells them this story about the Pharisee and the Tax Collector.
What we’re supposed to know is that Pharisees and Tax Collectors existed on opposite sides of the social spectrum in Jesus’ day, which is precisely why Jesus casts them as players in this particular parable. Pharisees were religious, righteous and “right” about most things when it came to issues of faith and theology – at least as far as most people, and they themselves, were concerned. They followed all the rules. They made all the right sacrifices. They read scripture, gave their offering, showed up for worship – and everyone knew it.
Tax Collectors, on the other hand, weren’t the most popular, well-liked people in town. A Jewish tax collector was seen as a puppet of the occupying Roman authority who often took advantage of the power he had to swindle his fellow Jews out of money – some of which he paid to the Romans, and some of which he kept to line his own pockets.
So it would have captured anyone’s imagination to see these two strolling toward the temple together to pray. The Pharisee, right and righteous as he was, toots his own horn and thanks God for just how good it is to be a Pharisee. “God, I thank you that I am not like other people:” he says, “thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.” And the Tax Collector, standing somewhere off in the distance, prays the opposite. Unable even to raise his eyes toward heaven, beating his breast with shame, guilt and remorse, he begs simply for forgiveness, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”
And I don’t think how or what these two prayed would have been much of a surprise to Jesus’ listeners. Everyone knew Pharisees did what they were supposed to do – that they followed the rules and towed the line. And everyone knew, too, that Tax Collectors were sinners and they were probably thrilled to hear of a tax collector who felt the weight and shame and guilt of his sins. But what would have surprised any of Jesus’ listeners – and what I hope surprises us still – is what Jesus has to say about it all:
Jesus promises that the Tax Collector went home justified, forgiven, redeemed, in spite of his sins, and that “all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Or, to say it another way, “Jesus is for losers.”
What the grace of God does in this parable, as ever, is it levels the playing field on which the Pharisee and the Tax Collector stand. Not only does it bring down the high and mighty, but it raises up the down and out. It exposes the sinfulness of both men and lets the love of God do the rest. And, since you and I don’t come across Pharisees and Tax Collectors in the same way that we might have back in Jesus’ day, we’re invited to fill their places in this parable with names and faces that might be a little more familiar and meaningful for where we live.
Like, maybe we need to see the Democrat and the Republican; or the Christian and the Muslim; or the Lutheran and the Catholic. Maybe we need to imagine the jock and the geek; the starting quarterback and the bench warmer; the kid who aced the test and the one who failed or never even made it to class in the first place. I don’t have to tell you in which shoes to place these “opposites” in, in Jesus’ story – that might be different for each of us. And the point of it is that it doesn’t matter one bit. Jesus is for losers because we’re all losers in more ways than we’d like to admit or can even see too much of the time.
The Bible verse on that t-shirt my professor saw – and on the sign when I posted it – was 1st Timothy, chapter 1, verse 15. Could you all pull out a Bible from one of the chairs in front of you and look up 1st Timothy 1:15 (it’s on p. 963, near the back)? So-and-So would you mind standing and reading the verse out loud for us? And So-and-So, would you stand and read it, too? How about you? And, could you give it a go, too?
“The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners — of whom I am the foremost.”
Grace does not mean God chooses us even though we are sinners. Grace means God chooses us precisely because we are sinners – even the very best and brightest among us. Jesus is for you. Jesus is for me. Jesus is for us. Jesus is for “them.” Jesus is for losers. And because of that, we know none of us is lost for good.