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Tales With a Twist: Sometimes Our Worst Day Can Be Our Best Day

Luke 18:9-14

Over the years, I have learned some great lessons from life, and one of them is this: sometimes our worst day can turn out to be our best day. Sometimes our most agonizing moment can become a stepping stone to spiritual maturity. Sometimes a moment of painful failure can be transformed by the grace of God into a harbinger of glory. Yes, sometimes when we feel the lowest, God feels the nearest. Sometimes we find ourselves saying: “That was a terrible experience, but in some ways, it was the best thing that ever happened to me.” Yes, sometimes our worst day can turn out to be our best day.

Case in point. I was deeply touched by a letter written to Ann Landers written by a twelve-year-old boy. Listen to this:

“Dear Ann Landers:
I am a boy who is twelve years of age. I did something my parents didn’t think was right…and as punishment they made me stay home from a ball game I was dying to see. The tickets were bought and everything. They took my cousin instead of me. It was the worst day of my life. I decided they were terrible to treat me so bad…and I started to pack my suitcase to run away. I finished packing and I thought maybe I should write a good-bye letter. I wanted my folks to know why I was running away…I got to thinking about lots of things as I was writing and decided I ought to be fair and apologize for a few things I had done that weren’t right. After I started to write, I thought of lots of things that needed apologizing for. I then began to thank them for the nice things they had done for me…and there seemed to be an awful lot of them. By the time I finished writing the letter, I unpacked my suitcase and tore up what I wrote…I hope all kids who think they want to run away from home will sit down and write a letter to their parents like I did and then they won’t go.
Signed—A Rotten Kid”

Ann answered…

“Dear Kid: You don’t sound rotten to me. You sound great. I wish you were mine!”

You see, our bad days can turn around on us. Our worst days can become our best days because sometimes our worst days are the ones that bring us to our senses, or even better, to our knees! That’s exactly what we see in Jesus’ Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. Each of the stories Jesus told, had a surprise twist in it, and this one is no exception. Here the little guy comes out on top. The story has two main characters. One is a Pharisee, a devoutly religious person, living an exemplary life, with all of the questions in his life having answers. He had it all together. The other is a tax collector, despised and ridiculed by the people around him and regarded as being unworthy to even set foot in the temple. His life is clearly falling apart.

Jesus then tells us that both of these men went to the temple to pray. The Pharisee marches into the temple with great authority. This is his turf. He knows his way around. He then goes to the most prominent spot in that sacred place to show how pious he is, and he prays this prayer: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people, thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector over there.” By contrast, the tax collector stands toward the back of the temple, far from the altar, obviously uncomfortable and ashamed. He’s beating on his chest. Catch the agony of that, please. “Beating on his chest”, that vivid, dramatic, heart-wrenching symbol of repentance. His prayer is painfully simple. “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”

Jesus is saying that the Pharisee walked into the temple satisfied with himself, but walked out condemned by God, while the tax collector walked into the temple condemning himself, but walked out justified by God. Do you see the point? The tax collector’s worst day turned out to be his best day because his worst day brought him to God.

That’s a great story and there is much to be learned from it, but let me lift up just a few of the insights I find tucked between the lines…

First, arrogance is destructive.

The Pharisee in this story has come to symbolize arrogant pride. His prayer consists of two basic thoughts: “Look at how good I am, and let me tell you about the great things I do.” It’s significant to note that in the Pharisee’s prayer he mentions God only once but he mentions himself five times! He emphasizes his own goodness, and consequently, he misses out on the grace of God. He gets trapped by his own arrogance.

Those of you who are younger missed out on growing up under the influence of Aesop’s Fables, but those of us who are older, fully appreciate the strong messages delivered by those simple stories. Do you remember the fable entitled, “The Mice and the Weasels”? The war between the mice and the weasels had been going on a long time. The mice were losing every battle, and so after one defeat they called a meeting to discuss the situation. “The trouble is that we’re poorly organized”, said one mouse. “No, the trouble is that the weasels don’t fight fair”, said another mouse. “The real trouble”, said a third mouse, “is that nobody is in command. What we need are leaders.” So they chose several leaders and named them commanders. Now the commanders were very proud of their position, and they insisted on wearing decorations which would show their rank. So they put heavy medals on their chests and they placed large gilded horns on their heads. All went well until the next battle. The weasels won again. Once again, the mice had to retreat. Most of them were lucky to escape into their holes, but when the commanders tried to follow the other mice to safety, they could not get into the escape holes because of those tall, fancy horns. The weasels caught them easily, and ate everyone. The moral of the fable is obvious: vanity costs more than it’s worth. Arrogant pride is destructive.

Let me ask you something. Are you beginning to feel a sense of self-importance, and are you thinking that things are going your way, and that you’ve got this business of life all figured out? Nip it! Cut it! Just stop it! The old Proverb is true: “Pride goeth before a fall.” Mark this down: the closer we get to God, the more gracious we become.

The proud and arrogant Pharisee wound up being condemned by God, while the humble and repentant tax collector wound up being embraced by God.

Another insight: ingratitude is unattractive.

The Pharisee starts his prayer with the words, “God, I thank you…” and it sounds good. It sounds like the beginning of a prayer of thanksgiving, but as we read on, we realize that his prayer is not one of humble gratitude, but rather one of haughty self-congratulations. And his prayer winds up being most unattractive. One the other hand, nothing in life is more attractive, more appealing than genuine gratitude.

Some years ago, when Dr. William Stidger was a professor at the School of Theology in Boston, he began to think of all of the blessings that he had in his life and all the special people who had encouraged him and inspired him. He remembered one school teacher in particular. So William Stidger sat down and wrote a letter of thanks to his former teacher. Let me give you her reply word for word: “My dear Willie, I cannot tell you how much your note meant to me. I am in my late 80’s now, living alone in a small room, cooking my own meals. I feel like the last leaf of autumn lingering behind. You will be interested to know that I taught school for fifty years, and yours is the first note of appreciation I have ever received. It came on a blue-cold morning and cheered me as nothing has in many years.”

Stidger was then encouraged to write to some others who had encouraged him along life’s way. He remembered one of his bishops who had been helpful to him way back at the beginning of his ministry. The bishop was in retirement and had recently lost his wife. Dr. Stidger wrote the letter and back came this response; “Your letter was so beautiful that as I sat reading it in my study, tears fell from my eyes—tears of gratitude. Then before I realized what I was doing, I arose from my chair and called my wife’s name to show it to her, forgetting for a moment that she is gone. You will never know how my letter has warmed my spirit. I have been walking about in the glow of it all day.”

Let me ask you something: are there some letters like that you ought to be writing today or this week to people who have encouraged you along your life’s way? Just do it. Nice as it is to hear a word of thanks, it is even better to express one. Mark this down: the closer we get to God, the more grateful we become.

The Pharisee was so caught up in himself—in his own credentials, in his own accomplishments, in his own self-interest, in his own vain religiosity that he wasn’t grateful for anything but himself. Consequently, he walked away from the temple condemned by God, while the tax collector walked away embraced by God.

And then this insight: Criticism is corrosive.

The Pharisee tried to make himself look good by trashing the tax collector and it boomeranged on him. That’s the way it works. We bash other people and it comes back to haunt us. That’s the way life works. We try to make ourselves look good by making other people look bad, but in the process, we are the ones who wind up looking bad. We reveal far more about ourselves than we reveal about the one we are criticizing or condemning.

Rod Wilmoth tells of a man walking through a large shopping mall one Saturday morning. He noticed a little boy walking along by himself, looking in the windows. The little boy seemed to be happy and carefree, but he appeared to be too young to be unattended. The man was on his way over to check on the little boy when suddenly a voice blared over the public address system: “Would Christopher Walker please come to the big clock in the center of the mall.” Just then the man heard the little boy mumble to himself: “Darn it. I’m lost again!” Evidently, little Christopher had wandered off before.

That can happen to us in our faith pilgrimage. We can get lost. Every time we wander away from the spirit of love, the spirit of kindness, the spirit of graciousness, we are lost because we have lost the spirit of Jesus Christ.

If Jesus had walked into the temple that day, he would never have “looked down his nose” at the anguished tax collector like the Pharisee did. He would never have sneered at him or criticized him or pointed at him in derision like the Pharisee did. No! Jesus would have gone over and put His arms about the shoulders of that penitent and distraught man and Jesus would have said: “How can I help you?” And that’s the way Jesus wants us to be—loving, caring, kind and generous. He wants us to live in His spirit. He gave His love for us on the cross and now He wants us not to bash and trash other people, but rather to pass his love on to them.

Let me ask you something: are you letting your tongue run loose in idle gossip and petty criticism of others? Are you putting down others in order to build yourself up? Zip it! Stifle it! Just quit it! Someone once said that when you point a finger at someone else, you have three fingers pointing directly back at you. Mark this down: the closer we get to God, the more gentle we become.

The Pharisee tried to exalt himself by taking a verbal shot at this hurting tax collector. As a result, the Pharisee walked out of the temple condemned by God while the tax collector walked out of the temple embraced by God.

So…

This last December, we received a Christmas card from our friends, Claudia and Ted Hastings. Ours is a friendship based on the common bond of having lost children to death. But let me read you the message on the card:

“If our greatest need had been information, God would have sent us an educator.
If our greatest need had been technology, God would have sent us a scientist.
If our greatest need had been money, God would have sent us an economist.
If our greatest need had been pleasure, God would have sent us an entertainer.
But our greatest need was forgiveness, so God sent us a Savior.”

The tax collector prayed: “God be merciful to me, a sinner.” He was praying for us all. Our greatest need in life is forgiveness, so God sent us a Savior, Jesus Christ. Take Christ into your life today and it will seem like Christmas in July!

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