With thanks to Fr. Burnell Eckardt, whose radio bible class “Saint Paul’s On the Air” gave me ideas for this sermon. The Pharisee and the Publican, or How We Want Righteousness vs. How God actually Gives It. After the jump.
The third commandment tells us that we are to gladly hear and learn God’s word. That does not only mean learning new things, but continuing to hear and learn even the familiar sections of God’s word. Todays’ gospel reading is one of those. The Pharisee and Publican (or tax collector.) Back then, being a Pharisee was a good thing. They were the go-to people when you needed help. They were kind, generous, the sort that got elected to the town council or state assembly. To be a tax collector was more than just working for the IRS. It meant working for Rome – the hated occupiers of Israel. As long as Caesar got his designated allowance, and there was no revolt, he didn’t care how much you overcharged the people. Whatever number you invented, that was the tax owed – enforced by Roman soldiers. It practically invited fraud. Tax collectors were dishonest cheats who loved money more than they loved their country.
And yet the Pharisee is the bad guy in this parable. We are told who the intended target of this parable was: It was spoken specifically against those who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and therefore despised others. In the first commandment “You shall have no other gods before me” we say that we are to fear love and TRUST in God above all things. We are not supposed to trust in ourselves. Of course, that’s not how we want it. We want to do something for our own salvation, something to prove to God that we are really good people. It doesn’t work that way. For you to be righteous, anything less than total trust in God is despising the very God you are trying to impress. If your attempt to be righteous means that you aren’t keeping the first commandment, then you aren’t righteous.
And when you look to yourself for your salvation, the result is that you despise others. It may not start out that way. Satan is very subtle. A ‘good job’ here, a ‘fine effort’ there. Every so often, just a little bit of pride in what you have done to please God, how your actions have fulfilled this rule, that law, have shown him your faithfulness. It doesn’t take much to begin. Soon, you are impressed with how well you are doing for God, how much you have contributed to his kingdom. And then, you at all those people around you. The ones not quite so dedicated. The ones who aren’t in church quite as often, who don’t spend quite so much time in prayer as you do, the ones who … well, let’s be honest, they don’t really live like Christians at all, do they? I mean, sure on the outside they say they are Christians, but they don’t really walk the walk.
You see, to trust in your own righteousness means that you must lower the bar enough that you can get across it. You must make the standard for salvation less than what God does, because God’s law makes clear that you can not be righteous on your own. Of course, there are areas that don’t tempt you as much as they tempt others. The bar can remain higher there. In the areas you don’t do as well, the bar get’s lower. The law is personalized to your conduct. And since others have problems with different sins than you do, well, those sins are obvious to you. How can they not see that they are not as Christian as they think they are? Perhaps Gossip is not your thing. Any Gossips are very bad Christians then. While your anger problem, well, it’s not really as bad as all that. After all, those people deserved to get a talking to after what they did.
And maybe you’re generous with your money. All those stingy people over there. Terrible example they are setting. But your laziness at your job, well that’s really just not working too hard, going along with the crowd. And so on and so on. Pick a sin, find someone that has more of a problem than you do with it, and poof! You can be self-righteous like that Pharisee. It’s easy. Of course, we are all thankful that we aren’t judgmental like that Pharisee is, and like so many of the people around us… Ahh, there it goes again. The temptation to trust in how good you are, and therefore despise others. It’s always with you. It’s part of your sinful nature. It sneaks up on you when you aren’t expecting it.
There can be only one antidote to such self-righteousness: The word of God. Hearing and confessing that word. Especially the law of God. That is what the Tax collector knew. He knew the many different ways he had broken God’s law. His confession of his condition “A sinner” was made not only in his words, but his location, his posture, his hands. He stands afar off. He does not lift his eyes. He beats his breast. In the old service of confession, the penitent would beat the breast at the confession, “I have sinned by my fault, by my own fault, by my own most grievous fault.”
The Pharisee prays by himself, or perhaps we should actually translate it using the alternate word, “Prays to himself.” After all, he trusted in himself for his salvation. Certainly he gives thanks to God, and we encourage giving thanks to God, but he gives thanks for all that he does. I thank you that I am so awesome. That I do this and that, that I avoid the sins of people like that over there. He is praying to his god: himself.
The tax collector meanwhile, is simply confessing his sins, and his faith. Declaring “I am a sinner.” That is nothing more than repeating back to God what he has said in the Ten Commandments. You are a sinner. That is what the commandments show you. And so, to say to God, in all truth and humility, “I am a sinner” is nothing more than to confess the truth of Gods word: to say back to God those things he has already said to you about you in the Ten Commandments.
In the first words out of his mouth, “lord be merciful to me…” The tax collector is confessing not just God’s law, but also the Gospel. He is now saying back to God what God has said about forgiveness, about grace and mercy. Jesus Christ, his only son our Lord, who has redeemed you a lost and condemned creature. That Jesus is your Lord means that he has saved you when no one else can. He is now your Lord because he has brought you out of your sin, and into the kingdom of his righteousness. By his death on the cross he has made you his own. You are now his, claimed by him in the waters of Holy Baptism. Made his child in that cleansing flood. Given a new life in him. Not because of what you have done, but because of what he has done.
The word of Jesus at the end of the parable is a word of judgment. The Pharisee did not receive forgiveness for his sins. But then, he didn’t ask for it. He didn’t want it. As far as he was concerned, he didn’t need it. It doesn’t not matter what new miracle cure the medical community has for a deadly disease, if you will not take the medicine. It does not help you that Jesus died on the cross for the forgiveness of your sins if you want none of the forgiveness he offers. The Pharisee got exactly what he wanted from God: nothing. He thought that he had already earned for himself everything he needed, so why take what God was offering?
The tax collector knew that he had no choice. If there was to be righteousness, it had to come from God not from him. So also for you. If you would be made righteous, God must do the righteous-making. If there is to be forgiveness, God must forgive you. Salvation is no a do-it-yourself project. It is Jesus giving his life in exchange for yours, and then offering you the forgiveness, free for the asking.
And all you need to do to get it is … nothing. There is no what now, what next, now do this, “if only you would, then He will.” It is gift. From the moment the infant is brought forward to be saved by Jesus in the water, to the moment the body and blood touch the lips for the first time, to the moment that the frail body can no longer come to church, so the church is brought to them in their home or their hospital bed, to the moment that they come one more time, this time carried into the church, the resurrection candle at the head of the casket, and then they taken to the resting place, committed to God’s eternal care, it is all Jesus doing the saving. There is no other way. The tax collector knew this. He knew his sin. He confessed it freely. God forgave it. As Luther says, confession has two parts: one that we confess our sins, and two that we receive the absolution from the pastor as from Christ himself. There is no third part. No promise to do better, no penance that must be paid, beyond what Jesus paid. Confess, receive forgiveness. That’s they only way. God giving freely from the riches of his mercy. You receiving the undeserved gift.
And then what? Is there some sort of Christian lifestyle that you should live? Is there some perfection after which you should strive? What did the tax collector do the next day?
Luther addresses this masterfully in the Large Catechism:
While sanctification has begun and is growing daily, we expect that our flesh will be destroyed and buried with all its uncleanness. Then we will come forth gloriously and arise in a new, eternal life of entire and perfect holiness. For now we are only half pure and holy. So the Holy Spirit always has some reason to continue His work in us through the Word. He must daily administer forgiveness until we reach the life to come. At that time there will be no more forgiveness, but only perfectly pure and holy people. We will be full of godliness and righteousness, removed and free from sin, death, and all evil, in a new, immortal, and glorified body.
You will always be saint and sinner in this world. Saint by virtue of the gift of salvation and the Holy Spirit given in Baptism, a gift you never outgrow. Sinner by virtue of your frail human flesh in this world. A sin you are never done with. It sticks with you, and as you mature in the faith, you will be more and more aware of this sin. More and more aware of the undeservedness of you. And more and more aware of the grace and mercy of Jesus Christ, who continues to forgive and strengthen you.
The plea of the tax collector is the plea of the Christian, a plea that you always have in this world, “Lord be merciful to me a sinner.” Thanks be to God though Jesus Christ that he is just such a merciful God. Your sins are forgiven. Go in peace.