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Our highest priorities in life are often the very same things the devil wants for us. Like fire, money and success can be a good thing, but they can also be incredibly dangerous. Our Lord’s warning about wealth is well known: it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God (Matthew 19:24).
It’s easy to take excessive pride in our achievements, even to the point where we look to those things for contentment rather than Christ. So the prophet warns:
“The Lord of Hosts has a Day against all that is proud and lofty, against all that is lifted up,” (Isaiah 2:12).
The devil tempts you with the fleeting glory of wealth and accomplishments. We love the praise of others, and nothing gets us that praise (or envy) quite like money or success. But the praise of man is the most fragile kind of glory there is; it can be taken away as easily as it’s given.
Ecclesiastes uses the word “vapor” to describe life in this world. Like vapor, the things of the world are fleeting. Just when you think you’ve got ahold of something that will finally make you happy, it slips through your fingers. Ever notice how money has a tendency of leaving your account more quickly than it comes in? The world chases after money and success, but no amount of wealth can make you truly rich.
Consider the pitiful scene from today’s Holy Gospel: that Pharisee was as poor and sick as can be, yet there He stood in the temple, bragging to God about how great he was! He thanked God for making him so much better than everyone else. When he looked into the eyes of others all he saw were specks, failing to notice the massive log in his own (Matthew 7:3). He bragged about his fasting and tithing as if they were something really special, when in fact he was only doing what was required of him. As our Lord says,
“So you also, when you have done all you were commanded, say, “We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty,”” (Luke 17:8).
The Pharisee sounds very much like the church John described in Revelation 3:
“For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked,” (Rev 3:17).
The only thing that’s worse than a beggar is a beggar who thinks he’s rich.
Cain was just like the Pharisee. Eve thought Cain was the Christ—can you imagine the complex that must have given him? It’s bad enough Cain was a firstborn—I know, I’m one too—now he’s got mom literally worshipping the ground he walks on! So Cain came before God, just like the Pharisee, thinking he’s really going to amaze God with his pathetic little sacrifice—and I’m sure it was a big deal to Cain.
But to think you can impress God, even with your greatest sacrifices, is self-righteousness. All flesh is, as Scripture says, “wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked”—yet we think we’re rich. We’re beggars who think we’re kings.
You can’t even claim the good things you do as your own. As the apostle says,
“What do you have that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if you did not receive it?” (1 Cor. 4:7).
To brag about something that was done for you as if you did it robs Christ of His glory. It’s to take the credit for the things God has done for and through you, Who gave you everything you have (James 1:17), in Whom you live and move and have your being (Acts 17:28). Again, the apostle writes:
“Not that we are sufficient in ourselves to claim anything as coming from us, but our sufficiency is from God,” (2 Cor. 3:5).
The Pharisee “treated others with contempt.” He thought he was better than everyone else. Be warned, and repent! The higher you exalt yourself, the farther you have to fall. The Lord of Hosts has a Day against all that is proud and lofty. He brings down the mighty from their thrones and sends the rich away empty (Luke 1:52–53).
Money and success will not endure. If you have anything left when you die, you’ll leave it all to someone who didn’t work for it (Eccl. 2:21). The memory of you is no more enduring than your money and possessions. Give it a generation (if you’re lucky), and then you’re long forgotten. As Solomon says,
“For of the wise as of the fool there is no enduring remembrance, seeing that in the days to come all will have been forgotten,” (2:16).
If you’re unlucky enough, you might gain the world for a fleeting moment—and the headaches that come with it. But what does it profit you if you gain the whole world and forfeit your soul? (Mark 8:36) Like the grass and the flower, the things of this world wither and fade (Isa 40:8). Don’t store up treasure where moth and rust destroy and thieves break in and steal. Repent of your fascination with the temporary and seek a glory that endures.
Satan sought glory apart from God, and everything he did was a spectacular failure. Nothing turned out the way he wanted it to, and it’s all because he sought glory apart from God. In trying to separate us from God, he condemned himself to eternal death. The trap he laid for the Lord caught him instead. Satan was destroyed by the same cross he had intended to destroy Jesus.[i]
It never goes well when you exalt yourself and seek glory apart from God. To exalt yourself is to follow in the footsteps of Satan and to do exactly the like Pharisee and Cain. We like to think we’re less like Cain and more like Abel, but in fact you share the same sinful flesh that prompted Cain to murder his brother and Hitler to kill millions.
Only the self-righteous think they are above doing some evil. Those who rely on Christ for their righteousness know that apart from Him, they are nothing but wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.
Peter insisted he was above denying Jesus—how could he, of all people, possibly do such a thing?—but no sooner did the rooster crow than did he deny his Lord three times. If you believe what God says about your sinful flesh, you know that there’s no sin to which you’re immune.
There are only two options: try to justify yourself (in vain), or repent. You know what happens to the former. Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted (Luke 18:14).
To recognize your spiritual poverty is the first step toward wisdom. “Blessed are the poor in spirit”, our Lord says, “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven,” (Matt 5:3). Not will be, but is, already, now. For Christ has already laid hold of you and claimed you as His own in Holy Baptism. The Lord has had mercy on your wretched heart, which, as another pastor once put it,
“is like a rusty old can on a junk heap… But a wonderful Lord passes by, and has mercy on the wretched tin can, sticks His walking cane through it and rescues it from the junk pile and takes it home with Him.”[ii]
You have not laid hold of Christ because of your virtue; it is Christ, Who through His Coming, has laid hold of you.”[iii] As our Lord says, “You did not choose me, but I choose and appointed you,” (John 15:26).
Acknowledge the truth about your poverty like the tax collector. The only offering He brought to the temple was his sin, crying out: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” (Luke 18:13). Never think you’re better than someone else, but rather confess, with St. Paul, that Christ came into the world to save sinners, of whom you are foremost (1 Timothy 1:15).
Seek not your own glory, a glory that withers and fades, but the glory of God, a glory which endures forever.
“Thus says the Lord: Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom; Let not the strong man glory in his strength; Let not the rich man glory in his riches. But only in this should one glory: In his earnest devotion to Me. For I the LORD act with kindness, justice, and equity in the world; For in these I delight — declares the LORD,” (Jeremiah 9:23-24).
Glory in the Lord, Who, though He was wealthy beyond all comprehension, lived as a beggar. Let His Body and Blood—given and shed for you—be your highest good (LSB, 619). He who humbles himself will be exalted—like Christ, who came down from heaven to live in our poverty, to suffer and die for the sins of Cain, the Pharisee, and especially yours—Who was indeed raised in glory on the Third Day.
Jesus shows you the path to true glory is the way of the cross, the way of lowliness and self-denial. In the words of St. Basil:
“As a Child He lay in a cave; and not in a bed, but in a manger. In the house of a carpenter, and of a poor mother, He was obedient to His mother and to her spouse. While being taught, He listened; learning what He had no need to learn…
[Like Christ,] In everything refrain from seeking to appear important.
Be a help to your friends, kind to the ones who live with you, gentle,
patient with those who are troublesome,
loving towards the lowly,
comforting to those in trouble, visiting those in affliction,
never despising anyone,
gracious in friendship, cheerful in answering others, courteous,
approachable to everyone,
never speaking your own praises, nor getting others to speak them,
never taking part in unbecoming conversation,
and concealing where you may whatever gifts you possess.”[iv]
Don’t rob the Lord of the opportunity to sing your praises before the Father by doing it yourself. His glory endures forever, and in Him, so will you.
Soli Deo Gloria
+Rev. Eric Andersen
St. Luke 18:9–14: “A Beggar Who Thought He Was Rich”
The Eleventh Sunday after Trinity, 2015
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[i] Basil, “On Humility,” (2). http://www.lectionarycentral.com/trinity11/Basil.html
[ii] Giertz, The Hammer of God, 147.
[iii] “On Humility”, 4.
[iv] Ibid., 6, 7.