Sermon — Pr. Mark Preus — Trinity 11: The Pharisee and the Tax Collector

Trinity 11 – Luke 18:9-14
Faith Lutheran Church – Wylie, TX
August 19, 2012 – Pr. Mark Preus

Also He spoke this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, ‘God, I thank You that I am not like other men—extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess.’ And the tax collector, standing afar off, would not so much as raise 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, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

Two men went to the Temple. Why? To pray. Last week we heard Jesus say that his temple shall be a house of prayer, but that the money changers made it into a den of thieves. This week we learn what kind of prayer should be offered to Christ, who is the true Temple made without hands.

The root of every sin is unbelief, and the root of all unbelief is pride. Pride thrives on what is fair and good and right. I remember one time I was in college and a homeless man told me a story about how he needed bus fair to go visit his mom in the hospital or something like that. Anyway, I thought the story sounded sketchy, but I gave him some money. About a month later, I heard him telling the same story to somebody in a different place. So I openly rebuked him. I said, “Sir, you just told me that story a month ago. How can it be that you don’t have enough bus fare. Is your mother alright?”

I ruined whatever deal he was making. Then he proceeded to scold me for ruining his livelihood. He said, “A man’s gotta eat! You’re ruining my business!” Well, excuse me! I didn’t realize that liars had dignity too! But even when it’s ridiculous, pride always appeals to what is fair and right and good. Pride is rooted in a love of self. We love ourselves too much. This is why we don’t by nature love God and love our neighbor.

The temple is a place to pray. It is a place to pray to God. Two men went to the temple to pray. One thanked God; the other asked God for mercy. The one who thanked God didn’t go home justified. The one who asked for mercy did. This teaches us that there can be no thanksgiving without forgiveness. Any thanks we offer to God without relying on his mercy and forgiveness will be rooted in pride, and God will humble those who exalt themselves.

What puzzles me about this lesson is that the Pharisee thanks God that he is not like other men. He gives to God all the glory, or so it seems. He says that God deserves thanks that he is not a thief or unjust or an adulterer or like the tax-collector sitting over there. This is a very interesting point. The Pharisee sounds pious. He sounds like a Christian. I have talked to many Christians who say that they are saved by grace alone, but who believe false doctrines that prevent them from believing in grace alone. But if I haven’t figured it out by now, I should probably just recognize that we stupid human beings believe all sorts of contradictory things.

The problem is that some of these can be deadly to our soul. I just spoke with a friend recently who denies original sin. He doesn’t believe that we inherited a corrupt nature from Adam and Eve. He believes that everybody becomes a sinner by means of his own free will, and that a person is saved because of the decision he makes to believe what Christ says.

He will say, “To God be all the glory,” but he denies God the glory of covering his sin. He doesn’t confess that Christ died for his original corruption because he doesn’t believe his original corruption is even there. Christ simply died for individual sins, but not for that sin that John the Baptist talks about Christ taking away.

There is a difference between sins and sin. John doesn’t say, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” He says, “sin of the world.” Why is that? Because Jesus took on our mortal flesh and blood to be punished for our entire sinful condition. Paul says God made him who knew no sin to be sin for us. Which sin? All sin, the sin of Adam and Eve, the sin of all of us: that immeasurably deep corruption of our highest spiritual powers, especially the distortion of our understanding, willpower and appetite.

When we don’t confess our sin we make God a liar, because God made his Son to be sin for us. It is only when we understand Christ’s sacrifice for us on the cross, when God made his Son to be our sin, that is, he punishes sin in the flesh and soul of his Son – only then will we understand what David meant when he said, “I said I will confess my transgression unto the Lord, and You forgave the iniquity of my sin.”

The Temple of the Old Testament taught this. There was blood everywhere. When the Pharisee and the publican went to the Temple to pray there were animals being killed. There was blood and suffering and death. Thank God that he had the priests burn incense. Otherwise the smell of death may have been overpowering. But the incense was always offered at every sacrifice. Incense represented the prayers of the saints. Just as the incense was offered when animals were sacrificed, so old Testament Christians prayed trusting in the sacrifice of Christ, just as New Testament Christians do.

And that is the difference between the Pharisee and the publican. Both prayed to God. The Pharisee went to God and spoke to him in sincere gratitude that he was not like other men, ignoring the fact that all the animal sacrifices taught him something entirely different. It is good that he wasn’t an extortioner. He acknowledges that God is the source of this righteousness. But the righteousness is still a righteousness that he participates in. Do you understand? When the Pharisee says that he isn’t unjust, he is speaking of his own behavior. Even if he thanks God that he is not an adulterer, he is still happy about his own righteousness, since the Pharisee contributed towards not being an adulterer. He thanks God that he gives God tithes of all he has, and that he fasts twice a week.

Now, it is good to tithe from your gross income. It’s good to fast twice a week, and it was certainly very good not to be a tax-collector. It is good not to steal, or to commit adultery. These are mortal sins, which if a man does them, he shows himself an unbeliever worthy of eternal death. But you don’t go to the Temple to pray about your own righteousness! You go to the Temple to be justified. To be justified means to be declared righteous. But God doesn’t justify you, doesn’t declare you not guilty and righteous because of things that you do. So you don’t go to the Temple to talk about your own righteous deeds. You go to the temple to receive Christ’s righteousness, which is nothing other than his mercy.

The Pharisee sounds reasonable, even humble as he gives glory to God for making him the way he is. Pride always sounds reasonable to the proud person. But God rejects the Pharisees works because of his pride. Pride and boasting ruin any good thing God gives us, and leave us ready for a fall.

Jesus chooses an outwardly pure person in order to compare him with an outwardly wicked person. You wouldn’t like a tax-collector. He contracted himself out to the Romans to raise a certain amount of money for them. Rarely were tax-collectors audited, so they would go and squeeze the livelihood out of people’s homes. They robbed their sweat and blood for their own pleasure, and they made themselves rich by it.

Nobody liked the tax-collector; he could buy his friends for a while maybe but eventually God’s word got to him. The word his father and mother had spoken maybe came back to haunt his empty heart. When he saw how vain it was to spend life looking for pleasure under this and that, all at the expense of his neighbor, he saw also how far from God he was.

And this publican, this tax-collector, didn’t debate what he had done. He didn’t try to recall every sin he had chosen to commit, as if it were merely actual sins that held him bound. No, he was unrighteous – thoroughly unrighteous. He was guilty before God of breaking the whole law, because his whole heart had departed from his Lord. He calls himself the sinner.

A sinner. This word is an awful word. It is an insulting word. It doesn’t allow for any pride at all. This is what people called prostitutes. They didn’t use the term like people today who say “Well, everybody’s a sinner” while thinking that sin isn’t really that bad. They only used the term for people like murderers and thieves and pimps and call-girls. Don’t get used to calling yourself a sinner. Be shocked by it. It is a horrible insult. Every Sunday you are insulted when you call yourself a poor, miserable sinner. A sinner is someone who hurts other people and runs away from God. A sinner is someone utterly beyond help – whom nobody can change, because he will remain a sinner no matter what he does or decides or wants or thinks.

There is no other name to give yourself when you come into the temple of God, because there is no room for pride in the presence of the almighty God who requires of you an account for how you used your body and your talents and your mind and your time and your money and your affection – how can pride exist before the God who made us? This is why the Scripture says that God resists the proud and that he knows the proud from afar.

And there is one name that is the antidote to pride, because it is this name that strips us of any excuses, any plans to make up for what we’ve done. It is a name that makes us helpless, because it declares us worthy of death and the devil’s dominion. It is the name of sinner.

There is no other name to be identified by when you come face to face with the death that your sins cause in the temple. The bleating of the sheep and oxen and goats prefigured the agonized cries of Christ, whose soul God made a sacrifice for sin. This is why the Lord’s Supper, where we proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes, teaches us to regard our sins as very serious. Sin means death. And it requires God’s anger to be turned away.

The temple always involved eating a meal. After the priest sacrificed the animal, those who brought the sacrifice would take their portions home and have a feast. Jesus went to such feasts with the Pharisees, and he went to such feasts with tax-collectors and sinners. He knew who went home justified, and who went home trusting in his own righteousness.

So which are you? I suppose you could try to dig up some sort of sins that resemble the tax-collector’s sins, but that would be missing the point. It is not merely your sins, but it is your sin that you need to repent of. Your condition that causes all the sins that you see in your heart and mind and mouth and hands – that you are a sinner – this is to be lamented and mourned, and this is nothing other than the pride of that Pharisee, our clinging to our own goodness when God has commanded everyone everywhere to repent, not just once, but every day he carries with him his sin.

It is when we forget the horrible shame of the name sinner that we forget why we come to Church at all. We forget that Jesus receives sinners and eats with them; that Christ Jesus came into this world to save sinners; that man, once so lowly, was even then the true and only God who came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance, and so he calls today, again, to the weak, the poor, the real and actual sinners, who can’t even diagnose their problem properly, but have to throw all their sinfulness into a heap, and say with the tax-collector, “O God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

And this word, “have mercy,” it means “be propitiated,” that is, “take your anger away!” Why? Because I have wept long enough? Because I have planned to change my life? Because my remorse is great enough? It is true that we should weep, and it is true that the one who feels no remorse desires no forgiveness; it is true that we desire to be rid of our sins – but these do not atone for sin. God’s anger against us is only taken away by the innocent tears of his Son, whose life was holy, whose remorse was not for his own sin, but for yours, the whole world’s; and not just sins, but sin – everything about you that harms your relationship with God and men – all of that Christ took away from the tax-collector because he bore his sin.

And so we come to this earthly temple to pray to our Lord who raised the temple of his body to justify us, to declare us righteous. And we do thank God. We enter his gates with thanksgiving, and his courts with praise, but our thanksgiving is not for our own righteousness – but for Christ’s. Our praise is not for something we are honored for, but for the honor and glory of Christ who took our shame away from us by taking it on himself.

And this is why we don’t stop singing, “Lord, have mercy! Christ, have mercy! Lord, have mercy!” simply because people by their own pride have made saying it vain repetition. We don’t stop saying “Christ, have mercy” because that is central prayer of the Christian religion. It illuminates the Ten Commandments, the Creed and the Lord’s Prayer. It explains what the sacraments are and why God gave them to us. Asking our Savior for mercy is the true temple worship, and that is why God continues to offer to you, a sinner, the sacrifice that Christ made once and for all upon the altar of the cross. He tells you to eat the body in which he bore your sins and to drink the blood that silenced the judgment sinners deserve. And that is how you meet your God. That is how you come to know Him. It is in your need that you are joined to the God who helps you in your need. It is in confessing your sin that you meet your Lord as the forgiver of sins. Then there is communion with God and man, because God justifies the ungodly. And when you depart from this temple in peace, you don’t depart from Christ, who is the true Temple, because he won’t depart from those who trust in Him. Amen.

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