✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠
All of us know how to play the comparison game. You see or hear about someone or their family, something they’ve done or achieved, and then you line yourself up next to them to see who’s doing better. In your heart you usually come up with one of two conclusions: either you’re proud and satisfied with yourself or you despair and are depressed about yourself. The comparison game is not a good game to play, but our sinful nature can’t seem to avoid it. For the old Adam is always obsessed with the self, and he wrongly judges himself in terms of others rather than in terms of God and His Word.
Pride can rear its head in the comparison game even in something as simple as watching the news. We like to complain about how they so often focus on the negative aspects of the human condition; but then we still keep on tuning in, don't we--perhaps in part because next to all that we seem pretty good. We can virtue signal on social media about how we stand for this or stand against that. We see the racist neo-nazi driving into a crowd of people or the lawless vandal tearing down statues and starting streetfights, or the addicted celebrity, or the corrupt politician, or the tragically broken transgender person, and we think, “Thank God I’m not like those people. I’m certainly doing better than they are.”
But notice how that’s the way the Pharisee talks. He mentions God; He even seems to thank God for His good works, but not really. For notice how it says that the Pharisee prayed with himself. That’s the only safe way to pray if you’re playing the comparison game–with yourself and by yourself. The name of God is used by the Pharisee just once; the word I is used four times. God is not really the focus here; He’s just window dressing for the main attraction, the pious Pharisee.
Now, the Pharisee here seems to be a little bit of a caricature that we can easily make fun of. But be careful, for as soon as you start thinking, “Thank God I’m not a self-righteous snob like the Pharisee,” then you’ve become the Pharisee yourself. Then you’re the one looking down on others. You don’t like it when people act all holier than thou, but the fact that you’ve got to go and point that out shows that you think you’re better than them. And so you’re caught.
Repent. Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall.. He who exalts Himself will be humbled. Turn away from religion which is all about you and your spiritual self-improvement. The Gospel is not “God helps those who help themselves.” That statement is a lie; It’s not in the Bible. Do not trust in yourself to become good before God; it cannot be done.
But at the same time, do not give way to despair, either. For that is the other side of the coin in the comparison game. People who know they haven’t measured up, who have botched things, compare themselves to others and say, “Look at how I’ve messed up and sinned. My life is full of mistakes and failings. I always seem to fall short. I don’t see any future for me, especially with God. How could He accept someone like me? It’s hopeless.”
Those who succumb to spiritual despair are really engaging in the very same sin as the Pharisee, oddly enough. Both pride and despair are obsessed with the self. The proud person looks at himself and thinks he sees good. The despairing person looks at himself and sees bad. But both are engaging in the exact same spiritual activity–navel-gazing, mirror watching. It’s all about me. Jesus told this parable to some who trusted in themselves. Both the proud and the despairing person think that it all depends on them and their efforts and what they do. For one this is happy, for the other it’s sad. But they both believe the same thing, and they’re both wrong. That’s why they both end up despising others, as Jesus said. The proud person looks down on those he thinks to be inferior to him. And the despairing person may well despise those he thinks “won life’s lottery” or who supposedly held him down and kept him from being able to become the person he was supposed to be.
Let go of all the comparing and embrace grace. “By grace you have been saved.” God’s grace and mercy alone. There is no comparison to that. Nothing can compare to what is freely given to you in Jesus Christ. The tax collector’s worship is the right kind of worship, that of humble reverence before the Lord. It’s right because his faith is not in himself in any way but in the Lord’s sacrificial compassion. It all depends on that. He doesn’t presume that he has the right to draw near to God on his own merits. He stands afar off with his face not even lifted up to the King of kings. He beats his chest in sorrow as if to say, “What have I done?” And his only plea is, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”
That may not be the kind of worship that draws crowds and makes you feel all tingly, but it is the kind of worship that Jesus seeks and that He praises here. For Jesus says that it’s the tax collector who goes down to his house justified, right with God. The tax collector comes before God with no illusions that he has some great virtue that he can offer to God. No it all hangs on the belief that the Lord is a God of mercy who will not forsake even him, who will forgive him and raise him up, even though he doesn’t deserve it.
That’s why he came to the temple. This wasn’t the synagogue. This was the temple, where the sacrifices were made that God appointed and where blood was shed to atone for sin. When the tax collector prays “God be merciful to me . . .” the word he uses for mercy has to do with those sacrifices, all of which pointed forward to the coming sacrifice on Good Friday. So as the tax collector offers this prayer, God is already answering it for him there in the animals being offered on the altar to which the Lord attached His promise of mercy. The tax collector trusted in that promise, and he longed for the day when the Messiah would come and bring all of these things to their fulfillment.
Let us also then learn the lesson of the tax collector and take our place with him. Let us come before the Lord with humble reverence, with sincere repentance and true faith. For it is written, “The Lord is near to those who have a broken heart and saves such as have a contrite spirit” (Psalm 34:18). If you know the burden of your fallen nature, if you’ve made some poor choices in life, if this world at times wearies you to death, then the Lord Jesus is for you. Pray “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” And He is, and He will be, and His mercy endures forever. For He has made the sacrifice for you in the temple of Christ’s body on the altar of the cross. There the Lamb of God was offered up once and for all. Through His sacrifice your sin has been fully atoned for. You are released and forgiven. You are freed from all the religious score-keeping and comparison games that divide you from your neighbor. Though Cain and Abel were divided from each other by Cain’s envy and anger, so that the blood of Abel the shepherd covered the ground, yet even this portrays how the holy blood of Jesus the Good Shepherd covers you and atones for you who are made of dust. “Abel’s blood for vengeance pleaded to the skies; but the blood of Jesus for our pardon cries.” Notice how it is written that the ground opened it's mouth to receive Abel's blood (Gen. 4:11). So it is that we open our mouths to receive the blood of Christ that cleanses us of all sin (1 John 1:7). By it you are reconciled to God. As it is written, “You who once were far off (as the tax collector stood far off) have been brought near by the blood of Christ.”
Now you are given to lift up your eyes and see heaven opened through Jesus. It is opened because Jesus fulfilled His own words here, “He who humbles himself will be exalted.” Jesus humbled Himself even to the point of death on a cross. He didn’t say to His Father, “God, I thank You that I am not like other men”–even though He’s the One who actually could have said that. Instead, He made Himself to be like us and bore our sins in His body on the tree, so that we, having died with Him to sin, might live for His true righteousness. And now God the Father has exalted the risen Jesus to the highest place and given Him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, even at this altar rail, as He comes to you by grace.
All of you are freely given to go down to your houses justified and righteous today–not because of what you have done for God, but because of what He has done for you. “It is by grace you have been saved through faith” in Christ, who is your righteousness. And this is “not of yourselves,” from within you, “it is the gift of God” from outside of you, “not of works, lest anyone should boast.” If there’s going to be any boasting, Scripture says, let it be boasting in the Lord. He baptized you and by His Spirit turned you from a child of wrath to a child of grace. He comforts you now with His words of mercy and feeds you His own true body and blood, like a holy medicine, to cure you and to prepare your bodies for the resurrection to life everlasting on the Last Day.
You are justified, right with God in Christ. Therefore, humble yourselves before the Lord, that He may lift you up in due time.
✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠