October 24, 2010 at Calvary Evangelical Lutheran Church – Mechanicsburg, PA
“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!’ 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.”
Pharisee and Tax Collector: these two characters of the parable are on opposite ends of the spectrum. The Pharisee is well respected, known for all his good works, for his upstanding life, for his devotion and piety to the Torah and all its requirements. But the tax collector is in the lowest caste: he is reviled and hated for his cheating and stealing, known for his lack of morals and his sycophantic loyalty and dedication to Israel’s foreign oppressors. These two characters truly are the high and low of Jesus’ society.
But that is why He tells “this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt.” That people wantonly looked down upon other individuals and believed that they were better had to be addressed. Why could the rest of Israelite society treat the tax collectors with contempt? The Israelites believed that tax collectors were unrighteous, but that they were all right with God. People believed that their record of life granted them a better status than the tax collectors and other sinners had. If they were righteous in themselves, then they have every right to treat others not so with contempt.
What Jesus puts into the mouth of the Pharisee is believable, and not only from a Pharisee: “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.’” He could have gone further: “I have committed all your words to memory. I am an expert in your covenantal text. I have a distinguished record of good works and have separated myself from all the unrighteousness that is tainting your world.” Perhaps not all of it spoken in one prayer, but it was all there to be said.
But note well what the Pharisee’s prayer does and what it does not. It is full of thanksgiving, but the reason for thanksgiving is not what the Pharisee has received. No, his thanksgiving offered is based in what he has done! He thanks God for being himself. There is no mention of what God has given him. His prayer is full of great arrogance, pride in personal accomplishments and deeds. And yet, that isn’t the worst part of the Pharisee’s prayer.
Note again where this prayer is given: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.” The setting should indicate what is to take place. What is supposed to happen in the Temple? The people of God who have committed sin, who are unclean in spirit, who are in need of divine action are present to get what God has promised to give through His established ways. They are to go and offer their sacrifices and get the atonement for their sins that the Lord has made available at the Temple. But no thought of that is found in the Pharisee’s prayer. There is no language of sin to be atoned for. There are no words that express the Pharisee’s record of sins that must be expunged. There is no statement of trust in what the Lord wants to provide to His people. Instead, there is only trust in the Pharisee’s own actions; the only sins mentioned are those attributed to others. He has totally missed the point of the Temple’s existence, why he was to be there in the first place.
But that purpose is not missed by the Tax Collector. He gets it. He knows what he has done, what he truly is. That fact is expressed in his actions, including the words of his prayer: “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!’” The posture, the positioning, the prayer: they all indicate nothing of pride in the Tax Collector. He knows why he is present in the Temple: to receive the atonement that the Lord has for his sins, for every single bit of error and trespass that he has committed. He knows the merciful purpose for which the Lord has instituted the Temple and the sacrifices to be done in it. And making no demand, offering no boast, the Tax Collector simply and humbly asks that what the Lord promised be done: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”
So what does the Lord do for this sinner? He justifies him, just as He promised. That is seen in Jesus’ words: “I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other.” And there is good reason for why that justification is given to the Tax Collector and not to the Pharisee: “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” The Lord’s mercy is frequently shown; He gives it as He has promised. But it is only given to those who believe in what He says, both about sin and about salvation. And to believe in what the Lord says requires humility.
Why does belief in what the Lord promises require humility? Because it requires that a person accepts the fact that he must be dependent upon another. What is spoken by the Lord? Both Law that condemns sin and Gospel that shows salvation. That Law removes all reason for boasting. It puts one in jeopardy of eternal death. It measures the curriculum vitae of an individual and finds it wanting. Think on the words of today’s psalm: “For You are not a God who delights in wickedness; evil may not dwell with You. The boastful shall not stand before Your eyes; You hate all evildoers. You destroy those who speak lies; the Lord abhors the bloodthirsty and deceitful man.” That is the righteous divine attitude toward all who sin. There is no room for boasting; there is only room for fright and terror. “Evil may not dwell with You.” Such a statement puts all people in their rightful low place.
But there is a remedy for the problem that the Lord has provided. And yet, to receive that salvation, one must admit total dependence on another. The sinner cannot put his record of accomplishment before the Lord and demand good recompense. That would be a dangerous act. Such a person would go down to his house condemned, not justified. Putting forward a life record and claiming that it is without flaw, that it should attain access to Paradise, would be the greatest of frauds. You heard what the Lord thinks of that: “You destroy those who speak lies; the Lord abhors the bloodthirsty and deceitful man.” Salvation is given, but only in the way that the Lord has instituted: through sacrifice that atones for sin. That is what He has located in His Temple, what is found on His mercy seat. It requires humility and dependence upon His goodness, the humility and dependence shown by the Tax Collector.
What the Tax Collector seeks is what you must have. You also need what the Lord has located in His Temple and placed on His mercy seat. That is what Jesus Christ provides, what He has given for you to find here. You must come with the attitude of the Tax Collector and the Psalmist, not claiming anything good within you, but trusting that everything good for you is found in the Lord. You must believe what the psalmist prayed: “I, through the abundance of Your steadfast love, will enter Your house. I will bow down toward Your holy temple in the fear of You.” The words must come from your mouths: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” These are the words of humility based in full knowledge of what you truly are: poor, miserable sinners, who have sinned in thought, word, and deed by your fault, your own fault, your own most grievous fault. These are the words that the Lord has promised to hear from the humble ones whom He will lift up and exalt.
That is what you speak in the Church, this house of the Lord. Such is the language of the Church’s Divine Service. You do not come here trusting in yourselves. No, you openly and honestly admit what is lacking and deficient in you, exposing your failures and frailties. You admit for all to hear: “I am by nature sinful and unclean. I have sinned against You in thought, word, and deed, by what I have done and what I have left undone.” That is not the prayer of the Pharisee. There is no recitation of how good you are, how you are not like other men, how great your accomplishments are. Instead, there is confession of what plagues you. And in that confession, you speak the prayer of the Tax Collector: “For the sake of Your Son, Jesus Christ, have mercy on me. Forgive me, renew me, and lead me, so that I may delight in Your will and walk in Your ways to the glory of Your holy name.”
Why do you make such confession? Because it is true. Because you believe in what the Lord says. You acknowledge that His Law is just and right, that it applies to you who have not kept it. But you also believe that His Gospel is gracious and merciful, that it is meant for you who cannot demand it, but who have been privileged to receive it. You believe that Jesus Christ is the Savior. You believe that He is the Divine Temple, where the Lord is present among His people to bring them salvation. You believe that Jesus’ cross is God’s mercy seat, where sins have been atoned for. And you believe that wherever Jesus has placed His merits—everything that He has earned for you by His perfect life and work—there your salvation is found. So you come to be baptized, to hear absolution, to eat and drink for the forgiveness of sins.
All of this is the practice of humility. You put your record of life in front of the Lord, saying that it is terrible and rightfully condemned. This is not done looking up to heaven, but staring down at the ground while beating your breast. You put your plight in the Lord’s hands, saying that you trust in His promises, though you deserve nothing good. So the Lord exalts you, calls you His children, extends His mercy and grace to you, welcomes you into His kingdom, and allows you to come near. Boasting will not get you there, but divine action will.
If that is what you do, then there is no room for trusting in yourselves or treating others with contempt, saying: “God, I thank you that I am not like other men.” Instead, there is only room for trusting that Jesus Christ has been righteous for you and that His being treated with contempt is how you have been made great. As you trust in what has been done for you, the psalm describes your changed fate: “But let all who take refuge in You rejoice; let them ever sing for joy, and spread Your protection over them, that those who love Your name may exult in You.” Humbled by your sin and exalted by forgiveness, go down to your homes justified exulting in what the Lord has done for you.
T In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.