The Pharisee is a warning to us – but not the warning the world thinks. The Pharisee’s problem is not that he is a hypocrite, or that he is religious. His problem is that he sees himself as righteous. The parable is aimed at those who “trusted in themselves that they were righteous”. If you do not come before God humbly as a sinner, then God has nothing to offer you.
Those who think they don’t need forgiveness will not receive it. The Pharisee was convinced he didn’t need forgiveness. So, he doesn’t ask for forgiveness, he doesn’t look to God for forgiveness, and he is not forgiven. The parable is not a parable against church people. It’s not a parable that says “God is loving so we should just ignore what he says in the Ten Commandments”. This parable is not license to sin any which way you want because God will forgive you anyway, because he loves sinners more than the righteous.
There are a lot of people today who say, “Jesus accepted everyone.” But that’s not true. He didn’t accept the Pharisee in this parable who refused to repent. There are people who say, “Well, Jesus accepted all sinners.” But that’s not really true either – the unrepentant thief on the cross has no word of absolution spoken to him. There is joy in heaven over one sinner who repents – more than over 99 righteous persons who need no repentance. But the difference there is repentance. Those who think they don’t need the Word of God, that they can just continue in their sin – which they refuse to even call sin – will find that God’s mercy has limits. They will find themselves under his wrath. So, this parable stands as a warning.
God gives according to what we ask. The Pharisee did not ask for forgiveness, and so was not forgiven. The Tax Collector knew his sin and pleaded for mercy – and so received mercy. That’s why we pray in the collect today “Forgive us, and give us the things we are not worthy to ask, except through the merits and mediation of Jesus.” It is Jesus merit that stands for us. His mediation that intercedes for us before our heavenly Father.
But those who do not want forgiveness – which is all those who don’t see themselves as sinners – will get exactly what they ask for – nothing. They will not be forgiven because they see no need to be forgiven. They don’t want to be forgiven. Because that would require admitting that they have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.
They don’t want anything to do with God’s Law, and so they can not receive the Gospel either.
That’s the way the world works – license and libertinism as far as the eye can see – but those who humbly submit themselves to the Word of the Lord are decried as bigots and haters. They world mocks and disdains those who hear and receive the word of God, even calling them un-Christian, but they themselves will have nothing to do with that word. The world even celebrates one of the great sins – pride. Content with who they are, proud of their sins, the Lord lets them continue in their sins, and so continue on the path to judgment.
That’s the warning. May it never be so for those in the church. May we never rejoice in our sins. Sin always – and only – separates us from God. We are saved in spite of our sin. not because of it. Our faith increases, our lives continue according to the narrow path of God’s Word only when we turn away from our sins. Sin corrupts, it leads to destruction. It does not increase our faith, or give us a greater appreciation for forgiveness.
As Saint Paul says, “Should I sin more so that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin live in it any longer?” When we stray from the Word of God – especially when we knowingly walk away from that word to our own desires and passions – then we reject God’s Word, we step outside of our baptism, and we risk eternal damnation. May God bring us to repentance, that we return to him. Because there – in repentance over sin and faith toward God is a wonderful and blessed promise. Those who hunger and thirst after righteousness will be filled. Those who repent of their sin and look in faith toward Jesus and his sacrifice will be forgiven.
That is why it is so important for us to keep hearing and learning that word – because Satan does not rest. He is always tempting, always lying to you. Always trying to get one more little dig, one more error. Always trying to make your works seem at least a little bit necessary. So that you too would work very hard to please God.
But your work can not please God. Rather than following the example of Satan – who never rests, we must rest – we must return to the one who promises us rest in him. To Jesus. And we receive the gifts Jesus gives when we come to hear and receive the Word, to taste of the Lord in his Holy Supper. To be joined to him, and forgiven our sins, at his command, “Drink of it all of you. This cup is the new testament in my blood, shed for you for the forgiveness of your sins…” That is the promise we have. It’s what Jesus is talking about in the Gospel reading today – those who repent of their sin, and come humbly before the throne of God, will receive forgiveness.
And so, Jesus gives a warning and a promise. And the promise is greater than the warning. Because the promise is the forgiveness of sins – and Jesus forgiveness is greater than your sin.
And, on this day – when we celebrate Saint Monica, mother of Saint Augustine, we also have an example of this warning and promise. She lived out this Gospel reading in her life. Her son Augustine was not a boy who makes his mother proud. He lived a profligate life. She was a faithful child of God, and so she prayed for him – not like the Pharisee prayed. She prayed in humility, recognizing her own unworthiness, and yet pleading for the grace and mercy of God for her son Augustine.
He would finally repent of his sin, return to the Lord, and become one of the great pastors and teachers in the church. His work was especially comforting and influential to Martin Luther, when he struggled to find the Gospel amid the indulgences and other false teachings in his own time. Augustine’s mother prayed for years for him. It seemed like all hope was lost. And yet, she didn’t give up. She didn’t brag about her own works like the Pharisee. She prayed for him in humility. Knowing she herself was a sinner, and that she needed the grace and mercy of God as much as her wayward son.
We only even know about her prayers because Augustine records her faithfulness. She didn’t brag about it. He did – because she was constant in prayer for him, even in his sin.
So, we have a warning against ignoring the Word of God and thinking we are something we are not. We have a promise to all those who repent of their sin and look to God for mercy. And we have an example of faithful prayer for those who have fallen away from the faith. That we would, in humble and faithful service, and constant prayer for our loved ones, live out the faith we have been given in Baptism. May God grant it for Jesus sake.