For the last several years I have done a sermon series over the summer called, “Is that Really in the Bible?” I have so much fun introducing you to the stories in your Bibles you never knew existed. I have found over the years that the Bible has some wild stories in it. In fact, next week Pastor Tom is going to introduce you to a scripture in the Bible you probably haven’t read before that I think will amaze you. I have loved introducing you to Bel and the Dragon, Ehud, Tobit and so many more.
But this summer I decided to turn my sermon series on its head because the opposite happens to me all the time. On a regular basis people quote sayings from the Bible that simply aren’t in it. For example:
• Give a person a fish and she will eat for a day. Teach her to fish and she will eat for a lifetime.
• God won’t give you more than you can handle.
• Love the sinner, hate the sin.
• God works in mysterious ways.
• Everything happens for a reason. (Please never say this to anyone who has just lost a loved one. It is brutal to hear.)
• God helps those who help themselves.
We are going to take a look at that last one today because 80% of Americans believe that “God helps those who help themselves” comes directly out of the Bible. Ever had someone say to you when you are discouraged, “You know, the Bible says that God helps those who help themselves”? The truth is that Benjamin Franklin put that one in his book Poor Richard’s Almanac. He is quoting an English politician who got this saying from Aesop’s Fables. The Bible does not say that God helps those who help themselves…in fact, it sounds more like it comes from a billionaire who believes he got where he is today by pulling himself up by his own bootstraps….instead of the fact that he was blessed with all kinds of advantages.
I’ve actually always thought this saying was a bit mean. Can you imagine saying to someone living with mental illness or who is differently-abled or lost her home because of rough financial times or just had her children taken from her at the border, “Come on. Get up and go deal with life. You know that the Bible tells us that ‘God helps those who help themselves’”?
The reason so many people believe that “God helps those who help themselves” is in the Bible is because we are always working to remake God in our own image. We raise our children on this Protestant Work Ethic principle. We say to our kids, “Sure we will help you pay for college but you have to get a job and help pay for college….at least your books. You will thank me some day.” We are teaching our young responsibility and so we think that is the kind of relationship God offers us.
But actually “God helps those who help themselves” runs completely counter to what the Bible tells us about God. To illustrate what I mean let’s look at the scripture for today. It is the well-worn parable about the Pharisee and the tax collector, two people who are similar in that they have gone to the temple to pray but otherwise they were very different.
Pharisees were part of a Jewish sect known for their strict observance of the traditional and written law. The Pharisee goes to the temple to pray. We are told that the Pharisee prays standing up and looking up…the traditional way to pray for his time. The Pharisee prays like this: “O thank God I am not like the unrighteous of this world. I’m not a thief or a scoundrel or an adulterer or like that dirty tax-collector over there, working for Rome and extorting from his very own people. I do what you expect of me, O God. I fast and I tithe.” It really wasn’t much of a prayer. It is more like a cover letter for a job. He addresses God but after that all of his sentences begin with the word “I”. Martin Luther writes: “Two things especially make our prayers void and of no effect: confidence of our own righteousness, and our contempt of others…”
The parable juxtaposes the Pharisee’s prayer with the prayer of the tax-collector or publican, the one that the Pharisee found so unrighteous. A publican was one who bid on a contract to collect taxes for the Empire. If he got the contract he paid Rome the amount of tax due and then he sent out his staff of collectors to extort if from the populace. He collected more than he had paid out and kept the difference. The more he extorted the more money he made. As you can easily guess, Publicans were detested by their fellow citizens. Fred Craddock describes the tax-collector as one who is “working for a foreign government collecting taxes from his own people, a participant in a cruel and corrupt system, politically a traitor, religiously unclean.
The tax-collector stood off to the side well aware that he was offensive to his fellow worshipers and to God. He kept his head bowed, afraid to look up and he beat his chest. His posture was different and his prayer was simple: “God be merciful for I am a sinner.” The tax-collector does no justification because there is no way to justify his behavior.
We find this story in the Gospel of Luke and we know how Luke felt about the religious elite. It is obvious in this parable that the Pharisee is not the hero here and so we offer up our own prayer when we read this parable: “Thank God, I’m not like that self-righteous, hypocritical Pharisee.” And there we are. We have become the Pharisee.
The truth is that we act like the Pharisee often. We drive past a homeless person living in a tent and think, “Thank God. There but for the grace of God go I.” And then we keep driving. We see an addict on a bench with the shakes and we say a silent prayer, “Thank God I have the moral fortitude not to use drugs.” This parable is an unending trap because we spend much of our lives comparing ourselves to others.
But the real sin of the Pharisee wasn’t that he compared himself, although that was pretty bad. It was that because he spent all of his time comparing himself to the tax-collector he totally forgot God in the equation. He truly thought he was a blessed person because of his own adherence to the Law…of his good, sacrificial work. He smugly thought to himself, “God helps those who help themselves. I am blessed by God because I earned it….I deserve what I have.”
The tax collector, however, comes without any of that confidence. He knows that he has offended God’s law. He comes to the temple to pray out of complete desperation. If he believed that God helps those who help themselves he wouldn’t have shown up at the temple in the first place. In fact, he would have felt completely justified in doing the work he is doing. After all, he is taking care of himself and his family, right?
Jesus ends the parable by telling us that the tax-collector went home “justified” while the Pharisee did not. I don’t think I can fully convey to you just how offensive this parable would have been to Jesus’ listeners. We have been raised with the idea that anytime we hear the word Pharisee we think hypocrite. If you look up the word Pharisee in your dictionaries, “hypocrite” will be listed as one of the definitions. Because of that we lose the punch this story has to offer us.
Craddock writes: “The Pharisee is not a venomous villain and the publican is not a generous Joe the Bartender or Goldie the good-hearted hooker…If the Pharisee is pictured as a villain and the tax-collector as a hero, then each gets what he deserves, there is no surprise of grace and the parable is robbed. But in Jesus’ story, what both receive is ‘in spite of”, not “because of”.
The idea that “God helps those who help themselves” has no room for God’s grace and therefore is antithetical to what the New Testament has to tell us about God. Early in my vocation as a pastor, I preached a sermon on the offensiveness of God’s grace and a man in my congregation proved my point. He met me at the door with extreme frustration. How could I say that he didn’t deserve grace? I said, “That is the very definition of grace. It is the unmerited blessing of God.” He said, “I deserve what I have. I am a good person. Why be good if it doesn’t mean anything? Don’t you know that God helps those who help themselves?”
Grace is so offensive to us good, Protestant Work Ethic people who believe we deserve our blessings. But God is not made in our image and that is the best news I can share with you today. God’s job is not to root for us to pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps. God is not our coach. God is our redeemer. God helps those who cannot help themselves…God loves those who are unlovable…God gives grace to those who don’t deserve it….which in truth is all of us….Pharisee and Publican….soccer mom and hooker….Sunday School teacher and drug dealer. “O God, be merciful to us for we are sinners.” Amen.