St. Luke 18:9-14 (8/7/16)
In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.
Luke 18:14 [Jesus said] “I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be abased, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
Dear fellow redeemed in Christ our Lord… One of the things we do when considering a biblical account and how it applies to us is to figure out where we fit into the story. We ask, “Who am I in this particular portion of the Bible? Which character represents me, my thoughts, my actions?” In this morning’s Gospel Lesson we have two choices. Either you are the self-righteous puritan or you are the thieving, unclean sinner. It’s not much of a choice, is it? But those are our only options; there’s no middle ground.
“[Jesus] spoke this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others.” “Well,” you say, “that is certainly not me. I know I’m not righteous; nobody is perfect.” But be careful not to dismiss what Jesus says. While it may be true that no one here would stand up and say he or she is perfect or without flaws, the problem is that we do not think those flaws are all that serious. We are very good at rationalizing our mistakes.
It’s like this: “Sure, I’m not without sin, but all in all I’d say I am living a decent life. There is more good in me than bad; and compared to a lot of other people in society I think I’m doing pretty OK. Certainly that must count for something with God.” That is exactly how the contemporary Pharisee talks. And 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 sought to live an outwardly righteous life. No; his problem was inward, in the heart. He trusted in himself; he trusted in his own deeds to put him right with God. He did not place his confidence in what God had done for him but in what he had done for God.
And we see that in the way he prays. Five times in this 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,” as if God was a bystander and as if the Pharisee 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 and the worshipping. In the end, that is self-worship and self-righteousness.
God gave His good and wise Law not so that we may justify ourselves, but so that we may see exactly how much we really need His help. The law does not intend for us to see how well we are doing compared to others; it is there in order that we may see how we are doing compared with what God requires. It is there to show us OUR sin, and to expose how greatly we have fallen short of its demands.
When all is said and done, the Pharisee and the tax-collector are in the exact same condition. While one “looks” impressive and the other does not, they both share the same condition called “sin.”
Let me ask you: Who is in the better position, the man about to go in for heart surgery or the one unaware that he has the same condition and is about to keel over dead? Who is in the better position before God, the Pharisee who thinks falsely that everything is fine, or the tax collector who understands the true diagnosis? Learn from the Pharisee and the tax collector. Believe the terminal diagnosis the law had made about you. Humble yourselves before God in true repentance; seek His healing, His cleansing, His righteousness.
Psalm 51:7 says, “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, a broken and contrite heart – these, O God, You will not despise.” Jesus certainly did not despise the tax collector as the Pharisee did. For the tax collector comes not in pride, not in self-righteousness, not with an attitude that says “it’s all about ME.” No, he comes in lowly repentance and faith. It is not a fake humility; he is not just going through the motions. He 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 signifying 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 entrusts himself completely to the merits of God in Christ. He does not rely on his own sacrifice but on God’s. For when the tax collector prays for mercy, he uses the word έλεος. It is the 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 that an animal would be sacrificed on the altar according to God’s command to cover the sins of the people. What that means is that 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 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 by God, declared not guilty of his sins by God on account of Christ. Notice that when it comes to justification – being declared righteous – that God is the one doing the declaring, and not man. The Pharisee declared himself righteous: “I am not like others; I tithe, I fast twice a week, I am not this like tax collector.”
God tenderly and lovingly invites us this day to pray in humility and penitent faith, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” For the sacrifice has also been made for you, not on the altar of the temple, but on the altar of the cross. It is there that 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. And this morning you receive that same shed blood and that crucified body in the Sacrament of the Altar – the real and true body and blood of Christ who again, in this holy meal, delivers His forgiveness, life, and salvation to you.
As St. Paul writes in Ephesians 2:13, “You who once were far off [as the tax collector stood afar off] have been brought near by the blood of Christ.” You are justified before God, declared righteous in His sight through Christ. “It is 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 is all yours because of the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.
This sermon began by pointing out how, in applying a Bible passage to yourself, it is good to find where you are in the story. But even more importantly, it is good 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 sacrifice. And Jesus is also there in the tax collector, the one who humbled himself and was exalted in the end.
The Son of God humbled Himself even to the point of death on the cross, in your place and for your sins. Therefore, God the Father has highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow…and…every tongue should 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 a new life and the resurrection of the body on the Last Day. God grant us all to know the truth and the wisdom of Jesus’ words, “Whoever 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.