Declaration of Dependence
Preached by Benjamin Vrbicek
This morning we are going to look at two chunks of Scripture that come one after the other, and I hope to draw out the threads that link them together. What I want to stress before I read the passages is that, without any overinflating, the outcomes that are at stake in these passages could not be higher.
Let me put it like this. If I told a story or parable about two men, and they each did different things on some afternoon. Then at the end of the story I said, “That afternoon one man went home happy and the other a little sad.” Or if I told a story a different story and ended by saying, “And one woman found $5 and the other stubbed her toe.” You’d hear those and think, Well, generally happy is better than sad, but it was just for an afternoon. And I’d rather have $5 than stub a toe, but the amount of money and the amount of pain isn’t all that significant. These would be the right conclusions in my estimation. But these are not the sorts of things at stake in these two passages. What Jesus describes is how we receive (or do not receive) everlasting joy in the kingdom of God.
Follow along with me as I read from Luke 18:9–17. I’ll read the passage, we’ll pray that God would be our teacher.
9 He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: 10 “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ 13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ 14 I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”
15 Now they were bringing even infants to him that he might touch them. And when the disciples saw it, they rebuked them. 16 But Jesus called them to him, saying, “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God. 17 Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.”
This is God’s Word. Thanks be to God. “Heavenly Father . . .”
When I grew up, the first thing my father did when we returned home from vacation was unload the car. At least as I remember it, that’s what always happened. So, when my family returned home after a quick getaway like we had last weekend, that’s the first thing I did. As I’m standing there at the back of the car a week ago, I’m kind of hoping a few of my older kids might help too, which they did. But also standing at my feet was my soon-to-be three-year-old looking at me asking for something to carry.
The first thing I handed him was too big. He tried to carry it for a second and was like nope. “It’s too big,” he says. So I found something smaller hand handed it to him.
There was a sweetness to his desire to help, but there was double sweetness, if we can put it that way, to the fact that he felt no shame that he could not carry a huge suitcase. He needed me to give him something he could handle, which didn’t bother him.
You and I, don’t do dependence well. We do independence—or we try to do independence—much, much better. Most of us would far rather grab three suitcases and close the trunk of the car with our elbow and open the storm door to the house with our pinky and nearly trip over the skateboard than take two trips. Too big? I’ve got this. To need help is to be dependent, which we never want to admit.
The kingdom of God, however, is a kingdom that belongs to those who can’t earn it, and they know they can’t earn it. For the religious leader and the disciples—even though should have known better—they didn’t. And even if we do know better, we often forget.
1. The unexpected in this passage
Let’s start by looking at the unexpected in this passage, or passages. There are so many things unexpected it’s difficult to list them. This parable and the story that follows is like shotgun blasts of contrasts and reversals: there’s just not one contrast and one reversal but many, and they are all flying through the passages at once.
Consider a few of the unexpected contrasts. First, there is a contrast in the characters. We have a Pharisee, who was a religious giant. Might we even liken him to an evangelical pastor with all sorts of advanced academic degrees? This is a guy who knows it all. And who is he contrasted with? A lousy tax collector. Israel was occupied by Rome, who extracted taxes by contracting Israel’s own citizens to do the dirty work and to do so excessively and with force if necessary. This is how it went down. A tax collector would “bid” on a certain region, saying something like, “Oh, I could get, say, $4 million from this Penbrook neighborhood.” Then whatever they could take over and above that, say, an extra million, they could keep. Tax collectors were the drug dealers of society. So this “battle for the best prayer” between a pastor vs. a drug dealer is the first unexpected contrast.
And you have an unexpected contrast between the disciples and the children, even the “infants” as they are called in v. 15. The disciples are grown men. They think can carry all the luggage from the car for Jesus that would ask them to carry, but these children—the infants especially—they really have nothing to offer Jesus.
Next, there is a contrast in what is prayed, going back to the first story. Both men mention God, but you get the impression that with the Pharisee, his mention of God is nothing more than a perfunctory and expected gesture; it’s the sort of way he’s supposed to begin his prayer. Look again at their prayers to see the contrast:
11 The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ 13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’
To be sure, both men pour their hearts out to God in prayer, and in one we see the ugly thorns of his prideful heart, and in the other, we see the beautiful flower of humility beginning to poke up from the soil.
The Pharisee, in his prayer, manages to use the word “I” five times in just two verses. And he’s the subject of all his verbs: I do this, and I do that, and I do it all better than everyone else. The tax collector, in contrast, only says one short line, and he makes God the subject with himself doing nothing; he’s just a humble petitioner. He even owns the correct label for himself: a sinner. These are unexpected and sharp contrasts.
And there is the contrast of posture and position. The Pharisee goes to the front of the temple grounds and, we presume feels free to lift his eyes whatever direction he chooses, while the tax collector stands far off, not even willing to look up. In a similar way the disciples presume that they belong near to Jesus while these “little ones” should be kept far off. These are contrasts of posture and position.
If those are some of the unexpected contrasts. Consider also the unexpected reversals. Luke loves stories of reversal. Look how vv. 14 and vv. 17 sum things up:
14 I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”
17 Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.”
The hero, in a sense, is the one who is ordinarily considered a loser—and he knows this. “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” But it’s this man who has his prayer answered by God. It’s this man, not the pastor, who goes home justified. I’ll say more about that important word “justified” in a moment.
Consider another aspect of this unexpected reversal. In the temple grounds, one man is esteemed and praised. His supposed righteousness intimidates others. When he strolls into the temple people stare. They whisper in hushed tones. He’s both envied and feared by the people who behold his prayers—and he loves to have it that way. Yet in the court of heaven, Jesus says, his esteem means nothing. That’s a sobering statement. All the public esteem we clamor for might mean nothing for all eternity if it’s not also reflective of God’s estimation of things. God esteems humble, joyful dependence upon him, not independence and self-congratulatory pride.
And how about the unexpected reversal of the children too? In that culture, it would seem that large portions of society did not value children. Children were pushed to the margins until they could grow up an contribute more to society because that’s what mattered. Only people who can carry their weight and be independent matter. I’m told infanticide, the casting off of unwanted infants, was common. But in the kingdom of God, there is a great, unexpected reversal. This man called Jesus, a man who the crowds sometimes wanted to make a king (cf. John 6:15), calls the unwanted, dependent, and needy to himself, welcoming them into his kingdom.
I suspect it could have been easy for the disciples to think they didn’t need to hear this parable about the Pharisee and tax collector. I mean this parable, as is says in his preamble in v. 9, is addressed to those “who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt.” Surely disciples of Jesus don’t need to hear this because they would never treat someone else with contempt, right?
Except that just a moment later—as Luke presents it—you have the disciples rebuking little infants and their parents. These grown men bark at other humans to keep far off because the Savior doesn’t have time for them. And why would Jesus have time for them? These kids are not movers and shakers. They are not wealthy. They can’t give anything back to Jesus that he needs. They are little children, and spending time with little children is not an effective use of the Messiah’s time. Surely there are others—like the disciples—who could give Jesus a better return on his investment.
Like these disciples who needed to receive Jesus’s rebuke, we need to receive his rebuke as well. As I said before, we don’t do dependence well, which is an issue with the posture of our hearts. There are many things we should learn from these unexpected details in the passages.
We learn that every person matters to God, whether they contribute much to society or whether society deems they contribute very little. This is why when people are caught up in the gospel they start to see the implications for dignity at the beginning of life, and the end of life, and every moment in between and for life for every race and ethnicity.
These things about the dignity of every person are being said well by many churches and by Christian publishers, but I’d like to nuance this a bit more. So often the theme of these applications about the dignity of all people lead to the conclusion that we ought to go to the hard place and do the hard things for Jesus. But when we define “hard” we seem to still include “prominent” and “visible” in our definition of hard, when it’s the obscurity and lack of prominence that make letting children come to you hard. I wonder if in our pursuit of an “epic” application and “epic” obedience we miss the point of doing things for the overlooked and marginalized.
It can be flattering to our pride to have our phone buzzing and beeping; it makes us feel like people need us. So just to be very practical, what if the humility that Jesus is after meant something like leaving your phone at home while you take your family out for dinner so they could have your undivided attention. That’s not very epic, not exactly going to the hard place doing the hard thing for Jesus as we normally understand these things. But maybe true greatness and notoriety in the world and notoriety in the Christian subculture are not the same thing. Jesus could have assembled in his entourage the best and brightest, the strong and beautiful, and I supposed that would have made him feel important. Look at all these important people who follow me. But he doesn’t do that.
And that leads to another rebuke for us in this passage. These truths rebuke our evangelical lust for the “celebrity convert.” If we could only get certain celebrities to convert to Christ, then the kingdom of God would advance. Oh, if Justin Bieber would just post more pics on Instagram about Jesus and the cool pastors he is hanging out with, then the world would know how great Jesus is. (This is a thing, by the way.) If such and such a star quarterback would only become a Christian and write a book and go on a speaking tour, then people would listen to us. In the Old Testament God’s people wanted tall, strong giants to fight their battles. And so do we.
As your pastor, I think I’d be remiss if we only saw rebukes in this passage. We can fall into the mindset that if a preacher doesn’t reminder people that we are sinners without any reprieve, well, then it wasn’t a good sermon. But that’s not right—that’s not how Paul’s pastoral letters to churches read.
Think about the last year at our church. As leaders we were feeling the strain on our classrooms for children, as well as our our growing desire to have a space that could hold all of the children in this church so that they could have lessons about the gospel and be trained in the things of God. And we also desired that we could do this in a building that was set up better to keep them safe. Just think how you caught this vision and delighted to be inconvenienced. We sold our church; we sold our office building; we bought this building; we rented a school; we renovated this building—and one of the chief reasons for this was our desire to let the little children come to Jesus. And now that we’re here, this summer we ran the largest vacation Bible school we’ve ever run, which took you volunteering. And over the last two months, we’ve staffed this fall with more children’s classroom teachers and helpers than we’ve ever had. Don’t go praying “God thank you that we have a love for children that is greater than the love for children at other churches.” Don’t do that. But be encouraged.
2. The unexpected in the gospel
Let me stand back from this passage a bit. I’ve tried to point out how some of the specific contrasts and reversals in this passage are unexpected. But I think it would be good for a minute to talk about how in the gospel we also have reversals and contrasts unexpected, and wonderfully so.
Take that word justification that’s used in the passage. In v. 14 Jesus said, “I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other.” What did he mean by that?
Again, I think we need to widen out across the whole gospel of Luke, as well as what is said in the rest of the New Testament. When Christians talk about the doctrine of justification, we mean to talk about two things happening at once. To illustrate this, I want to read something Paul wrote to a church in a city called Corinth. In his letter to them called 2 Corinthians 5:21, we read this:
For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
That’s a mouthful. But let me fill in the pronouns for us to we can read it a little easier.
For our sake [God] made [Jesus] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in [Jesus] [Christians] might become the righteousness of God.
It might be helpful to note that the word for righteousness is the same word for justified, we just translate it a bit differently depending on how it’s used. We see this in v. 9 and v. 14. In v. 9 Luke writes, “He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous,” and then in v. 14 we read that one went home justified and the other did not. Same root words. Now back to 2 Corinthians 5:21, “For our sake [God] made [Jesus] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in [Jesus] [Christians] might become the righteousness of God.”
This by the way, is not a peripheral thing. This is a big deal. Two unexpected things happen in the gospel, and wonderfully so. God makes Jesus to be sin and Christians to be righteous in God’s sight, or we can say justified in God’s sight.
But how do these things happen?
So let’s go one at a time. The way God made Jesus to be sin was through his death on the cross. To give a visual for this, it’s like Jesus was a giant sponge that absorbed all of the sin and shame of God’s people. He absorbed lying and infidelity and love of money and blasphemy of God and our prideful independence, and when he absorbed these things, he bore all the punishment and wrath of God that these sins deserved. That’s an unexpected reversal in the gospel: that he who knew no sin would become sin.
But there’s more. The verse also says that “Christians might become the righteousness of God.” How did that happen? Well, if Jesus is a sponge, it’s like in God’s sight as he is absorbing all our sins, he is also wringing out upon us all his perfections. Every time Jesus obeyed his father, every time Jesus told the truth, every time Jesus looked at a woman without a hint of lust, every time Jesus loved those who were hard to love, every time the most important person in the universe God down on the ground to play with children, in the sight of God, these things are credited to us as though we did them ourselves. He became sin, and we become viewed as righteous, or justified.
Do you see why Christians call what Jesus did the gospel, why we call it good news?
In the garden of Eden, the serpent whispered a lie to Adam and Eve. “You will be like God,” he said. “Just take and eat. You don’t need him. Rely on your own wisdom.” And with this lie and with this temptation, a war began. It’s a war that rages in our hearts to this day. It explains why I try to carry 12 grocery bags into the house at once (pride). It explains why I long for my phone to ping to remind me that I’m important and needed and that I matter (pride). The pride of our hearts explains why we might view wonderful opportunities for ministry that pop-up during the week with hurting people merely as interruptions from doing the “important things” we were up to before we were so rudely interrupted. We need this gospel of justification by faith alone in the finished work of Christ alone. We need it at the beginning of the Christian life, and we need it every day after.
Let me close with this. I believe there are applications here in this passage for how we should relate to others. Clearly we are not to treat others with the contempt that this Pharisee seems to treat everyone else. And clearly we are not to send away people from Jesus who needed him. Clearly from this passage we are supposed to embrace that we ourselves are dependent.
But let’s not miss what this passage says about how God is toward us. You can’t hear this enough. Jesus doesn’t let the children come to him as a political stunt. This is no photo op. This compassion to give mercy to sinners, to welcome those who have nothing to give him but their need—this is actually the posture of his heart toward you. “Let the little children come to me” is not a tagline for his new rebrand. It’s not a calculated move to gain more followers. It’s what God wants to say to you this morning. You can’t hear this enough. God has time for you. He has time for you. If you come to him with the humble joy of a child, then the concerns that weigh heavy on your heart, no matter how small they might seem, are his concerns.
Pray with me as Ben and the music team come back up. Let’s pray . . .