2022-10-23 Pentecost 20
Grace, mercy and peace be to you from God our Father and our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen!
Frederick the Great. The King of Prussia. He was out and about visiting the land and came to a prison. He talked with each of the inmates who had been locked away in the slammer. He heard the same thing over and over again. It was endless tales of innocence, misunderstood motives, and terrible exploitation by the oppressive government. Finally the King stopped outside of a cell of a convict who remained silent. “Well,” remarked the King, “I suppose you have a sob story of being an innocent victim too, hmmmm?” Looking at the floor the convict said “No, your Highness, I don’t. I’m guilty of my crimes and I deserve the punishment.” Turning to the prison guard the King said, “Here! Release this rascal at once before he corrupts all these fine, innocent people in here!”
Today we have an awesome parable before us. It’s the familiar story that Jesus tells of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. It’s truly a grand lesson in confession, repentance and humility. King Frederick’s prisoner was released because he was honest and humble, fessing up to his sins. This is the attitude that our Lord Jesus asks that we would have not only as we pray to our Holy God, but all the time. In Luke 17:10 Jesus likewise says “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.’” Now we contrast this with the Pharisee in the parable.
Lest we forget, the Pharisees were the God-guys on campus. They were the righteous, ivy-league educated dudes, living in accordance with God’s commandments all the time. They might also look down their noses at anyone whose blood wasn’t as blue as theirs was! So Jesus decides to take them down a notch with this parable. “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector” (18:10). The Pharisees in earshot of the parable no doubt had scorn for this terrible tax collector. Just like in our day, nobody likes tax collectors. They’re all scumbag, lowlife government lackies who gouged everyone! They take from you what they don’t earn and then some, and then proceed to waste it on a bunch of nonsense you don’t agree with! They’re all like that! And in Jesus’ ministry, the tax collectors were especially shunned because they were Jews who were working for the Roman overlords. Rome had conquered the tiny Jewish nation and made them their vassals. So to be readily working for these pig-eating pagans was not cool and not Kosher! Tax collectors were the ultimate societal lowlifes right beside child traffickers and gas huffing drug addicts!
“The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘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 that I get.’” (11-12). ‘Look at me, God! I’m the best!’ – We’re not even sure if this Pharisee is praying to God or to himself! – People would often gather at the Temple to pray and this prayer was most likely said out loud for others to hear. He was a man transfixed on his own glory and image, completely full of himself. His prayer talked about himself 5 times and God once! He gazed in the mirror and pure awesome was staring back. It’s probably a blessing God had someone like him to remind Him how great a job He did creating this fine specimen of a Pharisee!
Now, on to the scum of the earth tax collector. These guys were rich and powerful influencers! How would he hype himself to the Lord? How would he brag about his greatness and laud himself for others to hear? “But 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!’” (13). This tax collector knew exactly who he was in God’s sight. He was a poor, miserable sinner. And not just a sinner, but the sinner. The original Greek says “the sinner” indicating that this guy was the chief of sinners! He doesn’t compare himself to others. He was only concerned with one thing: how did God view him? What was God’s holy and righteous opinion of him? His point of comparison was not to all the other people around him like the Pharisee had done. His standard was God’s holy opinion and he knew that he missed it. He lived Romans 3:23 that says “for all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” The scumbag, low-life, tax collector knew how short he was of God’s amazing glory and how heinous his sins were before our holy God.
He only had one option and that option was humility. It was to repent and beg for God’s pardon for his sins. He appeals to God’s incredible mercy as he admits his guilt. He confesses it from the heart. Contrast this to the Pharisee specimen of the parable. That guy has a spiritual bag over his head and is blissfully oblivious to his own sins! The tax collector won’t even lift up his eyes but looks down – not on others as did the Pharisee but rather upon his own heart. The Pharisee in comparison relies on his own perceived goodness and vanity. He really has no need for God at all. He pushes God out of the way so that he can bask in his own glory and moral superiority! The tax collector, in comparison, stood a long way off, by himself, as to not contaminate others with his unrighteousness. The Pharisee flaunts himself and his swagger in the temple limelight, boasting about how great he is compared to spiritual peasants around him! The tax collector is so ashamed of his sins and iniquities he pounds on his chest in heart-felt remorse!
“I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted” (18:14). Our Lord’s words here are profound. Being justified means being forgiven. Righteousness means being made righteous by someone else. It’s a declaration of not guilty, despite committing offences. It’s a new relationship where there was none. It’s life where there was only death. Justification is not due to one’s moral perfection and merit but rather it comes from God’s mercy and grace alone. The tax collector doesn’t cry out to God because it was a way to be forgiven. He cries out to God because it is the only way to be forgiven!
The prayer of the low-life sinner was heard. The prayer of the blue-blood proud man was not. The scumbag, deadbeat tax collector went home justified. The self-righteous Pharisee did not. It is only through humility that we enter into God’s Kingdom. This is what makes Baptism so great. As Lutherans, we believe with the Scriptures that “Baptism now saves you” (1Peter 3:21). We believe this washing of grace is God’s doing, not ours. Our Epistle reading spells it out in black and white for us: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Eph2:8-9). God’s grace comes to us through the water and the word of our Baptism by the power of the Holy Spirit.
We continue to fall back on our Baptism through all our lives for this reason. It’s all pure grace and the gift of God for poor sinners like us. If we approach God like this braggart Pharisee, boasting about how great we are or how ‘we chose God’ or how ‘we accepted Him’ or how ‘we decided to follow Jesus’, then we don’t sound like the humble tax collector. Rather we give God the praise and the glory alone for bringing us to faith and giving us new life in our Baptism. St. Peter boldly said it: “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to Himself” (Acts 2:38-39). Here we have God’s rock solid promise that in our Baptism, we are forgiven sinners. He has forgiven our sins richly through our Lord’s cross and resurrection from the dead. We trust and believe His promise of going to our eternal home justified and freely forgiven by His grace alone. Amen!