Trinity 11 – Pharisee and the Tax Collector

Trinity 11 2018

Luke 18.9-14

The Confirmation of Maria Kurchevskaya

University Lutheran Chapel, Boulder, CO


In the Name of the Father, and of the X Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

The Pharisee and the tax collector both pray to the same God. Each tells God about himself. The Pharisee thanks God that he is not like others. The tax collector confesses to God that he is a sinner. Each says something about himself. What do you say?

Frankly, there is always a secret part of our hearts that wants church to be about us. Not only is this true in church, it’s true in all of life. We want our families to revolve around us. We want the freeway to part like the Red Sea once we enter the onramp.

And so we all secretly want the church service to be focused on us. Preachers want to use the pulpit to praise themselves and show off. They are tempted to endear themselves to their hearers by flattery, humor, or turning the proclamation of the Gospel into a TED talk. Hearers in turn want to receive praise from the pulpit. Even right now there is a part of you that would like me to call out your name and praise your general wonderfulness before God and his church. Today we rejoice that Maria joins our confession and Eucharistic communion. What shall we say of her and us? Shall we speak like the Pharisee, or the tax collector?

The Pharisee spoke of his gifts and good works. There is no reason to think that his claims were lies. He truly did those things, and they were good works in the sense that they conformed to God’s will. He was upstanding. It is good not to be like open sinners who have no concern for God and the commandments. Jesus himself taught about fasting, giving, adultery, injustice, and all the rest. Jesus does not want to condemn good works and pious living. But he does want to show that they are not the righteousness by which we can stand before a holy God. In short, Jesus depicts for us in these two men the righteousness of works and the righteousness of faith—the righteousness of doing and the righteousness of receiving. The righteousness of doing exalts itself before God. The righteousness of faith confesses one’s sinfulness and seeks the righteousness of Christ given as a gift through his blood.

The righteousness of doing appears to be great before all the world and yet before God it is condemned. As Jesus had just said to the Pharisees: “Ye are they which justify yourselves before men; but God knoweth your hearts: for that which is highly esteemed among men is abomination in the sight of God” (Luke 16:15). The righteousness of faith, however, goes unseen by men, and yet before God it is called perfect and pleases Him. For “without faith it is impossible to please God” (Heb. 11:6).

How then shall we speak of Maria and ourselves today? You are not here because of your wonderful piano abilities or your great taste in spouse-choosing. You are here because you are a sinner, joining a group of sinners, who flee to the righteousness of Christ so that we may stand before God in hope and joy. And when I say that you are a sinner, I don’t mean that lightly in the sense that you aren’t perfect but your peccadillos are still sort of cute and endearing. I mean that in a profound and sad sense. Our sins will bring us death and it will not be cute. We will have to watch one another die. And even before that, the ways we hurt one another by words and deeds, the things we think and our little fantasies are not cute. The world can be bought off and fooled by the righteousness of doing. But God, who sees the heart, will not.

C.S. Lewis once said: “If you want a religion that will make you comfortable I don’t recommend Christianity.” Well said. You see, it comes to this, do we go up to God’s house so that we can say and hear how great we are, or do we come into God’s house because of how great our need is? I do not know that anyone is ever seriously comfortable in the hospital, and yet the hospitals are always full because people know their need.

Just so, our Pharisee had no need. He wanted to say and hear only good things about himself. Many are like him, though they insist they are not. They confess that they are sinners. But then they do not want to hear about it and be rebuked and corrected. They do not want to be made uncomfortable. They do not want to have to bear with the sinner in the pew behind them nor the sinner in the pulpit in front of them. They do not want to amend their lives and change. “Of course the preacher has to preach against sins,” they say, but they always want the preacher to apply God’s Word to the sins of others. They are fine if he preaches against moral decay in society, but if he suggests that maybe you don’t need to be watching the trashy shows that you do, then they accuse him of not “preaching the Gospel.” They will happily hear a sermon against the sin of homosexuality, but they start shouting “legalist” if he suggests that women should dress more modestly and that men should watch where they put their eyes. Such people are like all false, hypocritical saints. They can certainly say that they are poor sinners, but they don’t want anyone to think that it is true.[1]

People want to know why Lutherans kept and still must keep the liturgy. It’s not because we think there’s magic in it. It’s not that we think that whatever is old must be good (though St. Paul does command the conservative principle of “test everything; retain what is good,” 1 Thess. 5:21).  Rather, the reason is that the liturgy forces us to keep the service focused on Christ. When we would like it to be about us, it keeps us focused on him. Where we would like to hear and say only good things about ourselves, it forces us to confess our sins and flee to Christ for refuge. Where we would like to do the talking, it makes us let him do the speaking. Where we would focus on our gifts and talents, it keeps us focused on Christ’s gift of Word, Water, and Blood.

And the surprising joy is that the tax collector, described in church only as “sinner,” went home justified. He went home with a clean conscience that did not have to ask the question: “Have I done enough to make God happy?” Because for all our wanting the universe to be about us and how great we are and how unique our troubles are, when we finally put that aside, stop our balking, and humble ourselves we discover the great news that God loved us all along, before and apart from all that stuff and our talents and works and troubles, all for Christ’s sake because he saw our great need and had compassion.

And if that’s you, if you are wanting and your need is great, then rejoice. Jesus is all things to you. If you are sick, He is the physician. If you are empty, He is fullness. If you are burdened with sins, He is righteousness. If you are lonely, He is your dwelling place. If you are scared, He is the refuge. If you need help, He is the strength. If you fear death, He is the life. If you desire heaven, He is the way. If you are lost in the darkness, He is the light. If you are hungry, He is bread from heaven.[2]

Let us go up, needy sinners all, to the temple of his body and blood, to pray, to taste and see that the Lord is good!

Come soon, Lord Jesus.

The peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.

[1] cf. AE 79:15

[2] This paragraph loosely based on words from St. Ambrose.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Notify me of followup comments via e-mail. You can also subscribe without commenting.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.