Writings by Cole Huffman

The Sin of Gratitude

What follows is a manuscript of my Thanksgiving Eve mini-sermon from Luke 18:9-14. 

I’d like to spend just 20 minutes or so with you in a familiar text for most of us. In fact, it’s a text I took up Easter morning of 2014. We were in a study then of Jesus’ parables called “Bigger Pictures,” and we took Luke 18:9-14, a parable well-suited to Easter emphasis because of how it ends. In that message I spent more time with the tax collector in this story. Tonight we’ll take this parable from a Thanksgiving angle and spend more time with the Pharisee: vv. 9-14…. 

Now if we didn’t already know about this parable, Luke telling us in v. 9…. The last way I’d expect that “contempt” to present itself is through an expression of gratitude. But that’s exactly what our Pharisee does; v. 11a…. And then he gives his list of behaviors he finds contemptible. Here we have contempt expressing itself through gratitude. This is fascinating to me. We could even call it here the sin of gratitude. Very easy to slip into. Anne Lamott, in her little book Help, Thanks, Wow: Three Essentials Prayers (57), she says gratitude is what makes you “willing to stop being such a jerk,” except in Jesus’ story here the gratitude is the jerkiness.  

We are told this parable is told, v. 9…. And yet the Pharisees were the good guys, culturally. They were the patriots of Israel. They were the ones who preserved Israel’s way of life during the exiles and the occupations. They were upstanding men. Upstanding men and women will feel a little contempt for adulterers, yes? We reserve our respect for men and women who can be counted on. And so we’re not going to really fault our Pharisee for what he says he’s not in v. 11, are we? Or what he says in v. 12 he does with his money? Don’t we honor these things? Aren’t these ways of being even commended in Scripture? Isa. 33:14-16…. 

Besides the prophets there are the psalms that say look, God, at my obedience to you! Isn’t integrity and moral excellence at its best seeking to make much of God, to regard Him as holy, to take Him seriously? Yes, but these can also become vehicles of personal conceit. And this parable—looking at it from the angle we are tonight, on Thanksgiving Eve—shows us how conceit can slip in even to expressions of gratitude and you don’t even know it. I mean, the guy is praying to God here, oblivious to how self-righteous and self-justifying he actually is. We have Kierkegaard to thank for pointing out to us that even the impulse to read this and thank God I’m not a Pharisee is to play the Pharisee. 

Huckleberry Finn said you can’t pray a lie and the Pharisee doesn’t, at least not directly. He’s not lying to God. He prays the truth about himself. He is alive to God’s law, raising God’s profile in the community, defending God’s honor, demonstrating God’s holiness. He’s not lying about himself—ask his wife, check his bank drafts. Here is an upstanding man giving careful attention to his way with God—except God says he’s full of conceit. 

He’s not lied about himself, only to himself. And that’s conceit of the worst kind. That’s the sin of gratitude. The very first words out of his mouth in v. 11: “I thank you that I am not like other men….” He believes he’s God’s man through and through. And yet he believes it in a way that is more about elevating himself over and against others—a kind of exalting God by elevating self. 

In your imagination you might hear this guy praying in a pretentious tone. I hear him praying with sincere gratitude. That’s how I imagine him this Thanksgiving Eve, not ostentatious but occupied with gratitude, and yet he doesn’t realize how infested with contempt his gratitude is. Does this not frighten you a little bit? Like Jon Ronson in his book The Psychopath Test, where he says he read through all 374 mental disorders in the DSM, which is the Bible of modern psychiatry, and instantly diagnosed himself with twelve different disorders (34). 

This is a frightening parable because I’m pretty sure conceit has slipped in to my gratitude. How many times have we said, God, I thank you that I’m not

  • Like those fearful Christians on Facebook. I’m not coldhearted to refugees.
  • Like that guy who failed his marriage this year. I’m faithful to my wife.
  • Like those people so tightly wound by traditionalisms. I am so not a legalist.
  • Like that angry woman I saw berating the store employee like he was her galley slave. I’m kind to clerks and waiters, and I don’t embarrass my kids in public. 
We could go on. I’m not saying we don’t learn from negative examples. The Proverbs in the OT provide the fodder the Pharisee fed his prayers on. Take note of foolish people, Proverbs say. Learn from negative examples. But also know this: When we rehearse for God the faults and the sins of others as a way of commending or reassuring ourselves it feels like gratitude. It comes out like gratitude. But God sees it for what it is. It’s really conceit. It’s gratitude turned to sin. 

I’m not trying to put a damper on your Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving is a great time to count your blessings. But it’s also a great time to kill your conceits. Sniff them out. Hunt them down. The first place you may want to look is your expressions of gratitude. Conceit can lurk in expressions of gratitude. And when you find your conceits there show them no mercy. 

How do you do that? By helping yourself to the mercy of God. V. 13…. That’s how to kill conceit. He stands “far off” because he’s saying I am dead but you can raise me. We’ve been brought near in Christ, and so what we say is: I was dead but you raised me, and that is all that commends me to you. Gratitude washed in the gospel of Jesus always leads with mercy, makes it about mercy received and mercy given. Cause for Thanksgiving indeed.

Posted by Cole Huffman at 10:14 AM
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