In my last post I noted that the great distinctive of Luke’s Gospel is the theme of reversal- introduced by Jesus and completed when he returns. That means that there are dangers for us to avoid (lest we be brought down) and attitudes to cultivate (that we may be lifted up).

The chief danger, of course, is pride. But that is made manifest in two particular ways in Luke’s Gospel- through religion and money. Let me turn to religion first. It is worth noticing that a number of the examples of reversal in the Gospel are connected to the Pharisees- Simon and the sinful woman in Luke 7, the older and younger brothers in Luke 15 and the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector in Luke 18. There is other material as well (not unique to Luke) including the woes that Jesus pronounces on the Pharisees in Luke 11.

Those who have listened to me at church will know that I always find material about the Pharisees challenging. In their study of the Scriptures and concern for public morality they are not unlike conservative evangelicals. So we need to pay particular attention to the reasons that they fall:

1. They forget they are sinners

Why does the woman love Jesus whilst Simon the Pharisee does not? Why is the tax collector justified and the Pharisee not? It is simply that they knew they were sinners who needed to be forgiven. We would acknowledge in our doctrinal statements that we are all sinners. But that needs to be worked out in our daily thinking. It is perhaps one reason why regular confession of sins is vital to the health of our Christian life- consciously reflecting on the ways in which we have fallen short of the Lord. I wonder how we are doing at that. It is not intended to be morbid- rather it opens up for us the opportunity to delight in and love our Saviour who says “Your sins are forgiven.”

2. They focus on externals

One of the reasons that they forgot they were sinners was because they had a focus simply on external behaviour. “Now then, you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness.”(Luke 11:39). It is relatively easy to be an outwardly respectable Christian- attendance at enough meetings, generally getting along with people and doing bits and pieces of service will be sufficient for most people to be regarded as good Christians. And when we focus on the externals that we have done then we will become proud. That is why it is important for us to know our hearts- to see the greed, the lack of love for God, the difference between our public and private personas. Only then will we say as we must, “God have mercy on me a sinner.”

3. They look down on others

Those who have received grace will treat others with grace. But those who haven’t grasped their need of grace will always be critical of others. It is a recurring theme in all of the passages mentioned above. We have to face the question- whose sin bothers me most? Mine or that of somebody else?

4. They love money

One of the interesting things about Luke’s Gospel is that religious pride and love of money often overlap. Whilst the Pharisees gave the 10% that the law required, they are nevertheless still marked by greed. The rich young ruler of Luke 18 is another example of a religious man who was addicted to money. The Pharisees seem to have been tight on sexual ethics (see Luke 7) but weak on giving to the poor. That’s slightly disturbing because I fear that conservative evangelicalism can be similar. What is it that frees us up to give? It is the extravagant grace of God to those who recognize they are sinners. That is what enables a sinful woman to lavish a jar of perfume on Jesus and enables Zacchaeus to give away half his earnings to the poor.

I remember an embarrassing incident a few years ago when I was leading a Bible Study on Simon and the sinful woman from Luke 7. I asked the application question “Who do you think we are most like?” At that moment the Lord convicted me powerfully of the answer in my own life and I was scarcely able to lead the rest of the study. As we think about this theme of reversal and look at the individual stories we need to ask that question, “Who am I most like?”