Monday, October 24, 2016

Sermon on Luke 18:9-17, for the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost, "The Pharisee and tax collector"

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. Of all the topics debated during the Reformation, and of all the teachings of the Christian faith that the Lutheran Reformers stood for, justification was the most important. Martin Luther and the Reformers called the teaching of justification the article on which the church stands or falls.” If the article of justification is destroyed, the church falls; so we have the highest duty to get this teaching right. The main question is whether justification includes our good works, or rests on faith alone. Our Gospel shows our salvation depends on this teaching!
How does “justification” tie in with our reading today? The parable of the Pharisee and tax collector, says it was that the tax collector, not the Pharisee, who went home justified. Probably if we use the word “justify” in our daily conversation, it’s almost always to describe someone trying to excuse or defend their own behavior. “You’re just trying to justify what you did…” In the reading, the Pharisee tries and fails to “justify himself”, but ordinarily in the Bible it’s not something you do for yourself, but has the positive meaning of someone being “declared righteous”. It’s courtroom language. To be “declared righteous” or “found innocent”, is one possible verdict—and the other is to be “declared guilty” or condemned. And using the legal language, the Pharisee was trying to be both the defendant and the judge at the same time. He presumed to declare his own verdict! That doesn’t work too well under God’s judgment.
But notice the two important words we’ve brought together: “justification” and “righteous.” In English they sound nothing alike—but in the Greek of the New Testament, they are one thought, one word family. To be justified is to be declared righteous. It’s getting an innocent verdict or being acquitted of any wrongs. The Bible also pays attention to whether this verdict is being given by God or by man. It’s one thing to be “declared righteous” by other people—this might just mean that you are a good citizen and not a lawbreaker. Many of us may meet that criteria in the eyes of men. But to be declared righteous by God is another thing. In God’s economy of salvation, no one “deserves” a place in heaven, or has earned it by what they have done. And no one is without sin. That’s part of what this “justification” parable is all about.
So why does the Pharisee fail to be justified before God? Jesus told the parable to people who “trusted in themselves that they were righteous and treated others with contempt.” The first mistake and sin is to trust in your own righteousness! You decide you are good enough to meet God’s approval. I’m sure it’s very self-flattering to think that we are righteous in ourselves, but is it true? Self-righteousness just doesn’t give us any credit before God. It’s empty and worthless. One should never be so foolish as to boast before God. This leads to the second sin of treating others with contempt. The Pharisee despised people who were not so “holy” as himself. His measure of his own righteousness made him treat other people as poor inferiors.
Jesus recounts the Pharisee’s prayer: “God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all I get.” Now “God, I thank you…” is a perfectly good way to start a prayer, but the rest of it is really a train wreck. Ultimately it fails to even be a prayer—either to thank or praise God for anything He had done, or for the Pharisee to confess any of his sins, or to even ask anything of God! The prayer ends up being an excuse to boast about how he was better than everyone around him, and state to God that he had out-performed the duties of his religion. He has elevated himself upon a pedestal, and is looking down on everyone else.
Now make no mistake, it was a good thing that the Pharisee wasn’t thieving, sleeping around, extorting people for money, or breaking the law—a good thing both for himself and his community. Obeying the law is a good thing. But just a chapter ago in Luke 17:10, Jesus describes how we should stand before God if we have obeyed His law: ”So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants, we have only done what was our duty.’” If we have been good citizens, if we have obeyed God’s law, even outwardly, so that we are not murderers, thieves, or adulterers—even if we are good parents, children, students, or workers—Jesus tells us we should still only plead before God: “We are unworthy servants, we have only done what was our duty.” Why do you think Jesus spoons out such generous doses of humility to us, on a recurring basis?
How easy is it for us to unconsciously elevate ourselves so that pretty soon we are up on that same pedestal of self-righteousness as the Pharisee. So easy to trust in ourselves that we are righteous because of what we have done, and to look down on others with contempt. How easy is it? We might even think to ourselves, “Thank God I’m not like that Pharisee! What a hypocrite!” And before you know it, you’re actually on the pedestal looking down on him (or calling other people Pharisees)! Ironically, this attitude shows we are just like the Pharisee. Whenever we compare ourselves with others, the little self-elevator unconsciously starts to move us up. In fact, we can even turn our humility into a show of self-righteousness, so that we try to make others think we are more humble than everyone else—and surprise!—this false humility is just another form of pride in disguise! We always find a way to pivot and to feel we are better than others. We always find ways to credit ourselves for our own actions, and to despise others for theirs. This will only bring contempt back upon us, if we despise others. And as we’ve hinted at already, we aren’t supposed to play both defendant and judge. God is judge.
So then how does the tax collector get his “innocent” verdict? Isn’t he supposed to be judged guilty, as he admits? How is he judged to be “righteous” or justified, when the Pharisee was not? “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!’” The tax collector takes up an inconspicuous place in the temple to pray, out of the center of attention, and is ashamed to look up to heaven. He strikes his chest, a bitter sign of grief in Jewish culture. The only other time in the NT when people beat their chests, is after they have crucified Jesus, and the people of Jerusalem realize too late that they condemned an innocent man. Whatever sins the tax collector carried on his heart, it was a grievous burden, and he made no boasts and didn’t claim any right to stand before God or others. He prays the prayer we need to pray, and takes the humble posture that Jesus would have us learn from this.
Instead of boasting in himself, or comparing himself to others, he confesses his sin and appeals to God’s mercy. What else could he do? He knows that he has not met with God’s approval, and seeks God’s merciful forgiveness. He acknowledges his need, and pleads for God’s help. The incredible thing is he gets both God’s character and his own right! Humbled, and acknowledging his utter dependence on God’s mercy, he receives what he seeks, and is justified. God declares him righteous—though his sins were very great, God acquits him—gives the innocent verdict. Are we prepared to humble ourselves and confess? Not to compare ourselves to others, but rather to reflect on our great sinfulness before God, and appeal to His great mercy? Do we know God’s merciful character, or do we think so much of ourselves that we expect God’s approval of our good deeds, without confessing our sins, or asking for His mercy?
But the tax collector doesn’t just make a generic request for mercy. If we dive into the original language again, we find out this isn’t the common word for “have mercy”. Rather it’s a word that relates to God accepting a sacrifice. And what was happening in the Temple, twice every day—perhaps even while he was praying? Lambs were being sacrificed for the sins of the people. The tax collector knew this, and pleaded for God to accept the sacrifice for him, a sinner. Psalm 51:17 says, “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” God received this sacrifice of his broken heart, and justified him.
The tax collector trusted God’s mercy because of the received sacrifice, which in turn points ahead to Jesus, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world upon His cross. We poor sinners plead for God’s mercy on the basis of Jesus’ sacrifice for our sins. And God will not despise our broken and contrite hearts. Contrite means that we are truly sorry for our sins. Jesus, and His sacrifice, stands at the heart and center of God’s mercy to us sinners. God justifies sinners for Jesus’ sake—because God received His sacrifice on the cross.
Our whole question began with what justification is, and why it’s the article on which the church stands or falls. Here we see that to count on our good works for justification, is to ignore both Christ and our sinful unworthiness. On the other hand, to cling to Jesus’ sacrifice, admit our sins, and to seek God’s mercy, is to have it, by God’s Word and promise. We will be justified by faith—trusting in Jesus—not by our good works. One way is built on our pride and lifting ourselves up, and the other way is being humbled before God, and seeking His mercy.
Jesus closes this teaching by turning to the example of infants—nursing babies. He instructs the disciples that “whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” What infants and the tax collector have in common is that they are utterly dependent on God—not on their own resources or ability, for salvation. They receive the kingdom of God, not from a position of self-righteousness, of having earning it, or by superiority—but from a position of humble reception: undeserving or unable to gain it themselves. This is the posture of faith. The posture of humbly trusting God for all His help and mercy, and gratefully receiving help from His hand.
There are two outcomes for our salvation—being justified by God, or being condemned by God. To receive His kingdom and be justified, we must humble ourselves, confess our sins, and seek His mercy. God is judge, but when we lay hold of Jesus’ Christ as our Defender, we will surely receive His mercy, as God has surely received the sacrifice of Jesus for our sins. In Jesus’ Name, Amen.

Sermon Talking Points
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  1. What two errors does Jesus teach against through this parable? Luke 18:9. What does Jesus say His servants should say, after they have done everything they are commanded? Luke 17:10. What does the Pharisee praise himself for instead?
  2. If we start to think to ourselves, “Thank God I’m not like that Pharisee!”, how does it show that we are indeed very much like him? Why is it so hard for us to resist the urge to compare ourselves with others? By contrast, who is the tax collector comparing himself to? Luke 18:13.
  3. The Pharisee judged himself to be worthy, and the tax collector judged himself to be unworthy before God. How did Jesus judge the situation differently? Luke 18:14.
  4. What is false humility, and how is it just a different variety of pride? See Matthew 6:1-18 for examples. What does Jesus advise in Matthew 6, about a better way to practice our charity, prayer, or fasting. Who should see it? When is the reward of doing such good deeds wasted or lost?
  5. The tax collector’s prayer (Luke 18:13) doesn’t use the common Greek word for “mercy.” Rather it uses a word connected to atonement, or sacrifice. That God would be pleased with the sacrifice made on behalf of a sinner. What kind of sacrificing was daily happening at the Temple? Numbers 28:1-4. By appealing to God to accept the sacrifice for his sins, how was the tax collector pointing ahead to the way we are justified in God’s eyes? Hebrews 2:17; 9:26; Romans 3:23-26.
  6. It’s a recurring theme through the Gospels that the one who exalts themselves will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted. Why does this make pride (and it’s sibling “false humility”) a constant enemy of faith? If genuine humility is essential to faith, what does that humility recognize about our dependence on God?
  7. Who else comes to the kingdom of God from a “disadvantaged position” (in human terms)? Luke 18:15-17. Why isn’t this an obstacle for God? Can even infants “believe” or trust in God? Matthew 18:6.

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