Today we hear from God’s Word about true and false worship. As usual we see it first in the collect – the prayer that we pray before we even hear the readings. Why is that? Why is it ordered that way? Because without the Spirit to open our hearts, we can not even hear the Word of God to our benefit. The Spirit works faith where and when he chooses in those who hear the Gospel. And so, before we even hear the Word of the Lord, we pray that we would hear it rightly, that it would dwell in our hearts and minds throughout the week, and bring forth abundant fruit. Today, our prayer is that we would be forgiven the sins that trouble our conscience, and that we would receive the good things God promises that we are unworthy to even ask for.
Troubled consciences – that is what forgiveness does – it brings peace to a troubled conscience. When we commit real sins – sins that offend against our neighbor, and that means family too – sins that cause trouble, that break up relationships, that cause us to wish we could go back in time and undo the damage that we have done. Those sins – the ones that come in the dark of night and plague our thoughts and minds – that is a guilty conscience. God wrote the law on our hearts when he created us. He gives us a conscience so we would be able to know and use that law. That makes us different from animals. A lion or monkey can not evaluate conduct and feel remorse. We can. When animals act, they act according to how God created them to be. Dogs as companions to man, Lions as hunters, mice as scavengers, and so on. They don’t reflect on what the things they have done. That is unique in humanity. And it is because God gave us a soul, a mind, a conscience. And when we offend against that conscience, we can tell ourselves everything is ok. But the heart knows the pain it caused another. It is not so easily dismissed as that. Days, weeks, years, even decades later the regrets come pouring in.
That’s what we see in the tax collector in the reading for today. God be merciful to me a sinner. This man when home justified – forgiven, says Jesus. God gives forgiveness to all who believe on his name, without any work or effort on our part. Jesus won the forgiveness with his holy precious blood and his innocent suffering and death – we can’t add to that. God’s blood poured out on the ground for you. Your little efforts to earn his favor just look petty by comparison. And so we ask forgiveness for the things we are even too ashamed and afraid to ask for forgiveness. God gives a wonderful treasure in holy absolution – the ability to confess the specific sins that trouble you and receive forgiveness from the pastor as if from Christ himself. That’s the grace and mercy of God. That the sins that make us most aware of our unworthiness are the sins he especially forgives. So that our conscience would be cleansed from dead works to serve the living God. What does that mean? That’s what our readings teach us today.
In the first article, we confess that everything we are given – body soul eyes ears, reason and senses, as well as food clothing, house home, and all we need to support this body and life is a gift from our heavenly Father “without any merit or worthiness in me.” There is nothing God gives us that we are worthy to receive. And yet, in his Fatherly Divine goodness and mercy he provides for all our needs of body and soul. For all this, we are to thank and praise serve and obey him.
What does it look like when we do that? In the readings we hear of two pairs of worshippers. In the Old Testament reading, we heard of Cain and Able. Able’s sacrifice was received by God according to his grace and mercy. Cain’s was not. The difference between their sacrifices was not that God prefers sheep to fruit. But Cain brought some fruit – begrudgingly, only as much as he had to. Able brought the fat portions, the good stuff. He came with a faithful and loving heart before God. And so his sacrifice was accepted. Cain’s, offered out of obligation and the belief that if he did this, he would have fulfilled the law and earned the favor of God, was not.
We see the same sort of response in the parable. The Pharisee comes to fulfill his duty – not in faith, not to receive the gifts which God promises to give. He comes on his own merits, and with no faith in God to save. He is convinced of his own righteousness. And so, he receives exactly what he requests – nothing. He has asked for nothing. He only brags about his accomplishments. “I fast, I give tithes of all that I get…” You see, even the unrighteous, even the non-believer can fulfill the outward show of the law – fasting and tithing. It earns nothing. God does not such a sacrifice. He does not need your possessions or your praise to make himself a bigger God. He is already the maker of heaven and earth, he reigns enthroned in glory. There is nothing we can do to make that more majestic. We don’t polish his throne with our praise and offerings. What he wants from us is a humble and repentant heart. “A broken and contrite heart oh God, these you will not despise.” It’s the same thing we heard in the account of Cain and Able. God doesn’t have regard for an offering made in unbelief. It does nothing for Cain to sacrifice fruit, for the Pharisee to give money to the temple. Because neither of them are doing it from a pure heart. They are doing it with idolatrous intentions. It earns them nothing. It profits them nothing.
As Saint Paul says in the Epistle – this is not your own doing. It is a gift so that no one may boast. If you think it your work, you are looking in the wrong places for your salvation. And your works will earn you nothing. By grace are you saved through faith. That is the path to a cleansed conscience.
And that’s the difference between the upstanding Pharisee – who followed all the laws, but went home without forgiveness, and the hated tax collector, who was not even supposed to be in the temple, who was considered outside of the community because of his very public sins against the nation. The Pharisee figured he was going to earn it all. The Tax Collector came in humility and did nothing more than plead for mercy.
Very often, God gives us what we ask for. The ambitious are given careers of ambition. The Greedy are given wealth to chase after. Those who are angry are given things to be angry about. The Pharisee valued his works – so he was given many works to value. But they earned him nothing. Being given the things we ask for is not always a blessing – it can be a punishment. So the greedy are never satisfied with what they have – they always need a bit more. The Ambitious need to move just a little bit higher up the ladder. Those who keep account of sins committed against them, instead of forgiving, become bitter and resentful. And those who trust in works become judgmental of others, and also proud and arrogant about their own works.
The Old Testament and Gospel readings are a warning against such things.
And the Epistle reading explains to us how things should be. We can not trust in our works to save. Forgiveness, life and salvation are a gift of God. Jesus says it explicitly in the Gospel reading – The tax collector is forgiven in spite of his unworthiness. That’s the point of forgiveness. You can not earn it. The grace and mercy of God is given freely to those who believe. To receive the gifts of God, to believe his promises – that is true worship. It is what we see in the Tax Collector. It is what we see in Able. It is what we don’t see in the Pharisee and in Cain. They think they earn something. You can’t earn anything before God – not the smallest part of your salvation.
So the Pharisee, with his fasting and his tithing, was wasting his efforts – because his efforts don’t get him anything.
But that’s not the end of the story. After Saint Paul says we are saved by grace, not works, he also adds – For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.
God does have work for us to do. He calls us into various stations or in life. We begin as children – son or daughter of parents, oftentimes sibling as well. We are to obey parents, show love to those around us, learn from teachers. When we grow and get jobs, we are to work hard and honestly for our employer. You are to be good citizens; if married, then faithful and loving to your spouse, a good parent, etc. The ten commandments guide us in all of these different callings in life. God places us in the world so we can do those things. So we can follow his holy ten commands, showing love to our neighbor, as we receive by faith the forgiveness of sins. If we think we are earning something, then we have nothing. Like the Pharisee – his many works earned nothing, because he thought they earned everything.
But for those of us who are reconciled to Christ through his work on the cross for the forgiveness of their sins, we have been given work to do. Now, our worship and our tithes and offerings, now our fasting and prayers are good works – redeemed by Christ – and so we do those things which “God prepared for us in advance.” They aren’t incredible hero of faith things. No walking on water, or speaking in strange languages required. We simple live lives of humble service, knowing that in Christ our work in this world is given meaning, and God is well pleased with us as his dear child. This is a grace and mercy. God commands us to do good works, not that we would be saved through them, but so that we would be given the opportunity to support the work of the Gospel, given the opportunity to show love to a neighbor.
Outside of faith, your and tithes and offerings, your acts of love and sacrifice get you nothing. But done in faith, Luther says that even changing a child’s diaper is better than all the works of the monks. Because it is done in response to the love you have been shown through Christ’s death and resurrection. You have been forgiven your sins. And now you can do the works God has prepared in advance for you to do. The things commanded in the Ten Commandments. Fasting and tithes now are of great benefit – not because you earn anything by them. But because they are done out of joy, not obligation. Because they are a response to the love and mercy of God.
If we want to make it our work and earn it, then it is still done in our sin. The works mean nothing. But if it is done in faith, then it is a good work in Christ – whether it be a parent cleaning up after their child, or supporting the church with our tithes, or offering, or prayers for those in need. That is the grace and mercy of God in action through you.
May God grant unto each of us such a willing heart of service, in humility and love, for Jesus sake and in his name. Amen.