✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠
When you are considering a Biblical account and how it applies to you, one of the things to do is to figure out where you fit into the story. Who am I in this particular portion of Scripture? Which character represents me, my thoughts, my actions? Well, in today’s Gospel, you’ve got two choices. Either you’re the Pharisee or you’re the tax collector. Either you’re the self-righteous puritan or you’re the thieving, unclean sinner. Not much of a choice is it? But those are your options. Who are you?
“Jesus spoke this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others.” “Well,” you say, “that’s certainly not talking about me. I know I’m not righteous. Nobody’s perfect.” However, don’t be so quick to dismiss what Jesus says. Sure, I don’t think there’s anyone here who would stand up and say that they’re perfect and righteous. We’ve all made mistakes; we all have our flaws. But on the other hand, most of you think that the flaws you do have aren’t all that serious. And you’ve got pretty good justifications for your mistakes. “Some person did something to me and set me off. This or that happened to me in my childhood; my parents are to blame. The circumstances I was presented with left me no good options.” Trying to justify yourselves and your sin like that is the opposite of being justified by God through faith in His mercy. And it’s certainly the opposite of a repentant heart.
You see, most think, “Sure, I’m not without sin, but who is (as if that were a justification)? All in all I’d say I’ve lived a decent life. There’s more good than bad in me, and certainly that counts for something with God. I try my hardest to do what’s right, and when I mess up, God’s not going to send me to hell for that, is he? I mean, come on, I go to church when I can, I give offerings, I volunteer. Compared to a lot of others in this society, I think I’m doing OK. Look at our presidential candidates and politicians. Look at the immorality and hypocrisy of celebrities; look at all the weirdos and perverts in society. I’m a better person than they are. I thank God that I’m not like that. I’m just regular person, doing my best to live a good life, and I think in the end God will reward me for that.” Does that sound a little more familiar? That’s how the contemporary Pharisee talks and despises others. If that is how you are tempted to think or talk, God help you and grant you repentance.
The Pharisee’s problem was not that he thanked God for where he was in life. We all should do that. If we suffered the worst consequences of our sins, every one of us would be in awful shape, right? As the saying says, “There but for the grace of God go I.” Nor was the Pharisee’s problem that he tried to live an outwardly righteous life. Wouldn’t it be great if all of us would be more pious and zealous in seeking to do what is good and right. Wouldn’t it be great if all of us would give the full 10% tithe in our offerings (especially looking at today’s bulletin). No, the Pharisee’s problem was that he trusted in those works of his as if they were the thing that would put Him right with God. The problem was inward and in the heart. He didn’t place His confidence in what God had done for him but in what he had done for God. He really was worshiping Himself.
You can see that the focus of his religion was backwards in the way that he prays. Five times in his short prayer he uses the word “I.” “I thank You that I am not like other men–extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess.” In fact, Jesus says the Pharisee prayed “with himself,” almost as if God was the bystander and he was the main event. Beware of prayers and worship in which God is simply there as a prop and window dressing while the focus is really on those doing the praying or on their worldly agendas. In the end that is self-worship and self-righteousness. That’s the problem with so much of so-called contemporary worship. God’s name is used, but the center of attention is the people on stage and what they’re doing and how they’re performing and the agendas they’re pushing, not the words and works of God.
God gave His good and wise Law not so that you may justify yourself but so that you may see how much you need His help and deliverance, how much you need Him to justify you. The Law is there not so that you can see how good you’re doing compared to others. It is there so that you can see how you’re doing compared with the holy God and what He requires. The purpose of the Law is not only to show you how you must live but also to expose how greatly you have fallen short of its demands.
When all is said and done, the Pharisee and the tax collector are in the exact same condition. Though one looks good and impressive and the other doesn’t, both share the same heart disease called sin. Both of them are foul and unclean within. The tax collector is showing symptoms of his sin-disease, whereas the Pharisee seems to have his mostly under control (except for pride). But both have the same root disorder; both are just a heartbeat away from death, as the Epistle says, “You were dead in trespasses and sins.”
Let me ask you: Who’s in the better position, the man about to go in for heart surgery or the one unaware that he has the same condition who’s about to keel over dead? Who’s in the better position before God, the Pharisee who falsely thinks that everything’s fine, or the tax collector who understands the true diagnosis? Learn from the Pharisee and the tax collector. Believe the terminal diagnosis that the Law has made about you. Humble yourself before God in true repentance; seek His healing, His cleansing, His righteousness.
For it is written, “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, a broken and a contrite heart–these, O God, You will not despise” (Psalm 51:17). The Lord certainly did not despise the tax collector as the Pharisee did. For the tax collector comes not in pride but in lowly penitence and faith. This is not fake humility or going through the motions. The tax collector stands afar off from those praying in the temple; for he knows how his sin cuts him off from God and others. He does not raise his eyes to heaven; for he knows he deserves no heavenly blessing. He beats his chest when he prays in token that he is worthy to be punished severely. He cries out his only hope, “God be merciful to me a sinner!”
The tax collector places his confidence and trust not in anything about himself but entirely in the Lord and His mercy. He despairs of his own merits and character and entrusts himself completely to the merits and character of God. He relies not on his own sacrifice but on God’s sacrifice. For when the tax collector prays for mercy, he uses a word that has to do with the offering up of the animals there in the temple. He desires the atonement for sin that only God can provide through the shedding of blood. Remember, it was at these times of public prayer in the temple when an animal would be sacrificed on the altar according to God’s command to cover the sins of the people. Therefore, at the very moment in which the tax collector prays, “God be merciful to me a sinner!” his prayer was being answered right there in the sacrifice which the Lord provided. The tax collector trusted in the Lord’s sacrificial mercy, and he yearned for the day when the Messiah would come and bring all these things to their fulfillment.
The Pharisee thought he was righteous, but he is not the one who is justified before God. No, it is the tax collector who goes down to his house justified, declared righteous in God’s sight. And so it is also for each of you who pray in humility and penitent faith, “God be merciful to me a sinner!” For the sacrifice has also been made for you, not in the temple, but in Jesus’ body, on the cross. There Christ, the Lamb of God was offered up once and for all. By His shed blood your sins have been fully atoned for, and you have been put right with 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.” You are justified before God, declared righteous in His sight through Christ. “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.” It’s all yours because of the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. That’s what we boast and brag about. Just as the lifeblood of Abel the shepherd covered the dust of the ground, the blood of your Good Shepherd Jesus covers you who are made from the dust and gives you new life. For His blood cries not for vengeance but for mercy. Just as the ground opened its mouth to receive Abel's blood, so we open our mouths in the Sacrament to receive the blood of Christ for our forgiveness and to raise us up to new life.
I began this sermon by pointing out how, in applying a Bible passage to yourself, it’s good to find where you are in the story. But even more so, it is of utmost importance to find where Jesus is in the story for you. In today’s Gospel He is there in the temple, the place of God’s holy presence; He is there in the sacrifices, which foreshadowed His own. And Jesus is also there in the tax collector, who humbled himself and was exalted in the end. It is written that the Son of God humbled Himself even to the point of death on the cross, in our place and for our sins. Therefore, God the Father has highly exalted Him and given Him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.
Fellow baptized, to be a Christian is nothing else than to follow in this way of Christ–to be laid low with Him through repentance and death to sin, and to be raised up with Him through faith to new life and the resurrection of the body on the Last Day. So don’t look within yourselves like the Pharisee, for there is nothing there but sin and death; look outside of yourselves like the tax collector. Look to Christ alone, for in Him there is full forgiveness and life. God grant you all to know the truth and the wisdom of Jesus’ words, “Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠