October 27, 2013 at Calvary Evangelical Lutheran Church – Mechanicsburg, PA
“Jesus also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and treated others with contempt: ‘Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.’”
It’s interesting to overhear conversations. People don’t hide their feelings or beliefs when they don’t think that others can hear. You can glean all sorts of thoughts when sitting at a restaurant, as the people in the next booth ramble on and on with no filter. There are other times when the people actually want those around them to hear their conversation. It’s meant to seem like you are unintentionally overhearing them, but it’s actually not an accident or a coincidence of acoustics. No, they desire to have every word from their mouths reach your ears. They want you to receive their message and think about them.
That’s the case with the Pharisee in Jesus’ parable. You were given the opportunity to overhear his prayer. It was a public praying meant for you and all around him to hear. Jesus talks about what this Pharisee said in his prayers: “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.’”
The Pharisee’s prayer is couched in terms of thanksgiving. It’s designed to sound like an expression of gratitude offered to the Lord for what he has received. But when you listen to his words, there actually isn’t any gratitude. The focus isn’t on what the Lord has bestowed to him. No, the Pharisee is thankful for what he has done, for the special status that he has carved out for himself. Thanksgiving is basically offered to himself: “I’m thankful that I’m not like those other people who openly break the Lord’s Law. The stark difference between them and me is based in what I do—my acts that show just how unique my piety and devotion are.”
These words are meant to accent the better status that the Pharisee believes that he possesses. But the words also have a more sinister character. All those around him are meant to hear that. He desires that they see him standing apart from them, separated and distinguished by his godliness. And as they see him segregated from them, they are meant to hear how lousy they are in comparison—particularly that tax collector standing over in the corner of the temple courts. The Pharisee in the parable epitomizes the audience that Jesus wants to hear His story: “some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and treated others with contempt.”
The problem with the Pharisee’s prayer is that it contradicts reality. What he says is not really the case. Not that the Pharisee was lying about his twice-weekly fasting and his tithing of all income; that was very much true. But the reality is that the Pharisee is like the other men in the temple court: he is like the extortioners, the unjust, the adulterers, and the tax collector. There is no difference between them when it comes to the demands of the Lord’s Law. It is the truth expressed in the Epistle Reading for Reformation Day that will be read this afternoon: “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”
But the Pharisee completely misses this truth about himself. For that reason his prayer is not regarded by the Lord. It is rejected, just as the Lord had no regard for Cain and his offering. This is why Jesus says that the Pharisee does not go home from the Temple justified. No, he returns back to his house without receiving what the Lord desires to give: forgiveness, life, and salvation. He goes home empty-handed, as Jesus declares: “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled.”
Self-exalting is not the case for the tax collector. He knows the truth about himself in light of the Lord’s Law: he is a sinner. He takes no pride in that reality. And he doesn’t try to create a fiction that will overlook what is true. You heard how he prayed: “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!’” The ugliness of the situation is put forward before the Lord’s face. It is not hidden. The tax collector does not plead ignorance about what he had done to anger the Lord like Cain did when confronted by it. No, the tax collector speaks the plain truth about himself, even though he is nearly too ashamed to say it.
But note what else is present in the tax collector’s prayer: he believes that God has the remedy to his guilt. The tax collector acknowledges his sin. He faces that truth head on, not concealing any of it. He believes what God has disclosed about his offenses. But he also knows the truth about God. He believes what God had disclosed about divine mercy and compassion. The tax collector is relying on the statements that the Lord had spoken concerning Himself, about the forgiveness, life, and salvation that He wishes to bestow on sinners. So the tax collector places himself completely in the Lord’s hands. In essence, he says to the Lord: “Do with me as You please. But I know what You have said is pleasing to You: to show mercy and steadfast love.” And what does Jesus say about this tax collector: “I tell you, this man went down to his house justified…. The one who humbles himself will be exalted.”
That is what Jesus wants you to know. His parable is a warning against any thoughts that you may have to rank yourself better than others. His parable is also a direct shot against belief that you have established a right relationship with God. Such thinking is not reality; it is a delusional fiction. You have broken the Lord’s Law. You have been extortioners, unjust, adulterers. If those haven’t been your particular sins, pick another of the commandments and evaluate whether you have actually kept them. Will you dare to place before the Lord’s presence a statement that you have never misused His name, never neglected His Word, never felt contempt toward His representatives, never harmed anyone physically, or never spoken uncharitably about another person? If that is the case, Jesus has a message for you: “You will not return home from here justified. Your self-exalting will bring you a divine humbling, especially when I appear at the Last Day.” It is a warning rooted in what was prayed from the Psalter: “The boastful shall not stand before Your eyes; You hate all evildoers.”
Jesus’ parable also warns against making such thinking part of your behavior toward other individuals. Not only is such self-aggrandizing not to be brought before the Lord’s presence, it is also not to be shoved in the face of others. Remember that the Pharisee’s prayer was not only uttered for the Lord to hear, he also desired that those around him could listen in. Such boasting is not to be found among the prayers or conversations of the Lord’s people.
But this need not be the case for you. Each time you have sinned, the Lord’s Law has challenged you. It is a confrontation like the Lord had with Cain: “What have you done?” That divine question is meant to elicit the truth of the matter: “I have sinned against You in thought, word, and deed. I have sinned by what I have done and by what I have left undone.” And the truth about the Lord is to be declared: “You are not a God who delights in wickedness; evil may not dwell with You.”
Yet, you have a prayer to utter. That prayer is rooted in the truth about yourself and the truth about the Lord: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” The tax collector’s words shall be your own. Those words acknowledge that you are in the Lord’s presence now because of His favor. You stand before Him because He has not considered you according to your faults and failures. He actually views you in light of what Jesus has done for your benefit—the great expression of divine steadfast love shown in His propitiating sacrifice offered for you. That is at the heart of your prayer, as you can say with the Psalmist: “Through the abundance of Your steadfast love, I will enter Your house. I will bow down toward Your holy temple in the fear of You.”
So your prayer for divine mercy is spoken. So is your confession of faith in what the Lord has done for you, so that you can stand in His presence. Those are words that can be spoken aloud for all to hear. You can kneel with all the others in this room and say: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” You can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with your fellow believers and pray the Creed that confesses the truth about the Lord’s identity and work. What Paul wrote to Timothy can become your words that you can openly say: “There is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that Day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved His appearing…. The Lord will rescue me from every evil deed and bring me safely into His heavenly kingdom.”
Such words do not boast in what you have done, but in what the Lord has done and will do for you. They are words that do not exalt yourselves. No, they are words that express helplessness and dependence, but that also state trust in where your remedy and support is found. And to those prayers, the Lord has but one response for you: “You will go home justified. You have humbled yourselves, but I will lift you up forever.”
+ In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.