Trinity 11 – Luke 18 – August 31st, 2014
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit +
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit +
Today we tend to have a false, shallow understanding of sin. A simplistic view. Today, when we think of sin, we tend to think first and foremost of big, flashy sins that are open and obvious to everyone. We think of the vices as being the big, dangerous sins. Murder. Adultery. Theft. The big, obvious things, the things that would make the cops come and arrest you. And over and against vice, we will pit virtue – being kind, being generous, so on and so forth – keep your nose clean. And we treat the main question as to whether or not you will follow virtue or vice – there’s the distinction, that’s what defines you. Virtue or vice, good or bad, naughty or nice. The only thing is, that’s not the way the Scriptures really speak of sin. Sin is something much more pervasive, something much more dangerous, something mere human virtue is powerless against. And to illustrate this point, Christ Jesus our Lord tells the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, which we will consider today.
“He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt.” And here is the occasion for the parable. Jesus sees the self-righteous treat others with contempt. Jesus sees those who follow virtue, who are virtuous, show scorn upon those less virtuous than themselves, than those who follow the “vices”. Already the comparison game begins, already the I’m better than him game is afoot – and the worst, the dangerous part is, they were probably right. From an worldly perspective, on the scale of virtue and vice, they probably were better than the folks upon whom they had contempt. But does that really matter? Is that really important? Let us listen to Jesus.
“Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.” This is a fantastic set up by Jesus. The two men in question in this parable – they are both in the temple. They both claim to know God, to trust and worship Him. They are both in temple, they are both praying, they both are paying some attention to the Word of God. But the Pharisee and the tax collector had a different way of reading, a different goal in hearing the Word and approaching God. “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.’” There stands the Pharisee. The paragon of Virtue. And if we are to understand this parable, we must accept and believe this Pharisee at face value. He IS a really good guy. And the list of bad, naughty things that he doesn’t engage in – it’s good not to engage in those. Extortion is bad – I’m from Chicago, my grandpa lived in Calumet City 2 miles from where Al Capone set up his suburbian shop – extortion is bad. Being unjust is bad. Giving people the shaft, cheating them, treating them poorly – that’s bad. Having affairs, sleeping around. That’s bad, that’s the path of heartbreak and nasty disease. This Pharisee has read the Scriptures and by golly he has paid attention to the warnings and he has strived to pay heed! And more than that – he is a good fellow. He is a practioner of virtue. He fasts twice a week – that was the good, pious custom. Fast on Monday and Thursday, if you want to be really, really good. And he did. And tithes – oh, never let it be said that a pastor ever speaks against tithing. And he tithes – 10%, off the top, before taxes, before anything else. With no one checking up on him, without someone looking at his books and saying, “You made this much and you only gave that, you cheapskate?” Nope, a virtuous man. Everything he says is true… learned even from the Good Book itself.
But, he missed the point. All the vices he avoided, all the virtues he embodied, those are… nice. They are taught in the Scriptures. But they aren’t the main point. For that, one needs hear the tax collector. “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!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other.” Where are these guys praying again? It’s not just that two men were standing the park one day and decided to pray. It’s not that there was some sort of pray-off challenge thrown down on the school yard or something like that. They are in the temple. The Temple. What is the Temple? It is the place where the sacrifices to atone for sin took place. The whole center of Jewish worship was always the tabernacle and then the Temple, the Ark of the Covenant, the Altar. Yom Kippur – the day of atonement. Passover – where by the blood of the Lamb God makes death pass us over and instead gives us life, even though we deserve death. While the Scriptures do tell us, do teach us about virtue and vice, give us examples enough, that isn’t their point. The point is this – God is merciful to sinners, sinners like this tax collector.
You know, we don’t know anything about the open, outward, public life of this tax collector. In general, tax collectors were thought to be lousy and were hated. This one – we don’t know. Maybe he was harsh, maybe he was kind. Maybe he tithed or even gave more than the Pharisee. Mayhaps he was faithful to his wife, kind to the neighborhood children. Or maybe not. We don’t know. And frankly, for the point Jesus wants to make, we don’t need to know. The point is not about how openly and outwardly virtuous a person is, it’s not about who looks good and who looks bad. Jesus is not Santa Claus – the book of Life doesn’t separate you out into naughty and nice. No, the reality that this tax collector sees first is that he is a sinner. Period. He’s not going to hide behind his virtue. He’s not going to claim that he’s not like other men. No, he is a sinner, and even his righteous deeds are but as filthy rags, nothing where with to impress God almighty. And so how does this wretch, this man who sees his sin dare to come to the Temple? Because the Scripture teach that God is merciful, and he believes.
Sin isn’t just doing bad stuff. Sin is not just vice. Sin is a state of rebellion against God, that constant pull away from Him that we all experience. It isn’t just that there are a few, select deeds that are “bad” and that if we do those then we are sinners. No, we are sinful, everything is tinged and tainted with sin, in all that we do we are sinners. And part of that sin is that we like to set up hedges against God, we like to hide behind our “virtue” or the fact that we are better than others. We will even create new virtues, new vices, to show how good we are. “Don’t drink, don’t smoke, don’t dance – these are the good Christian things. And if you’re a good Christian, why, of course, you’ll do X, Y, and Z – you’ll vote for this party and take that ice bucket challenge but only give money to this charity and not that one… and so on and so forth. And, of course, remember, if you give more money here, surely God will bless you financially in your life, so open up the check books more” – my smile isn’t big enough to say that line properly.
No. We know all that is false. We know that is bunk and coarse. We’re good little Lutherans – we’ve been trained to bow our heads when we pray, just like the tax collector. But some of that is the problem too. We can think that we are good little Lutherans – we know, they don’t, see how much better we are. Always, the sinful flesh loves to separate, loves to pull itself out of the writhing mass of humanity and say, “See, I am better, I am wiser, I know more than they do!” And we must fight against that, dear friends. We aren’t better than anyone. Our confession from the beginning of service rings true – I, a poor, miserable sinner, confess unto You all my sins and iniquities with which I have ever – EVER – that is ALWAYS, Constantly… ever offended You and justly deserved Your temporal and eternal punishment. Deserved. Temporal punishment. God – my week could be ten times worse than it was, and I’d have no ground to complain. Frankly, I deserve hell. Eternal punishment, and if I’m not getting that, I’ve go no room to complain.
And yet, how quickly do we wander off from that confession? How quickly do we stop thinking like that? How often in the course of the week do we lament how things aren’t far, or how so-and-so just isn’t pulling her weight and if only he did things better like me? Does it even have to wait for the service to be over, or have you had thoughts like that since confession this morning? Happens to me often enough. And Luther sums this all up as temptation – Lead us not into temptation. What does this mean? God tempts no one. We pray in this petition that God would guard and keep us so that the devil, the world, and our sinful nature may not deceive us or mislead us into… into what? False belief, despair, and other great shame and vice. The greatest shame, the greatest vice isn’t anything anyone can see. It is false belief, the worship of yourself, self idolatry, the idea that you bring anything to the table, anything to your relationship with God, the idea that God owes you because you are better than your neighbor. And this is something the world around us constantly hammers us with, constantly butters us up with, and we listen.
No, you are a sinner. Plain and simple. Sinful, through and through. This is the truth, a truth that if it were all we saw, we would be left in utter despair. That’s why the world strives so hard to pretend their sin doesn’t exist, or that we are better “them”. If you only see your sin, you despair, so the nice sounding lies continue. But there is a greater truth, a more wondrous truth. Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. For God shows His love for us in this, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Though you were dead in your trespasses, it is by grace you have been saved through faith, a gift, freely given, apart from your works. Your works add nothing to it. Because it is upon the Cross where Christ Jesus, God Himself, wins you forgiveness. There is the true Temple, the True Altar, the True Sacrifice where God is merciful to you, the sinner. Where God takes your sin away and blots it out, where God pours upon you life and forgiveness as blood and water flow from His pierced side – water that flows to this font today, blood shed for you for the remission of your sins and placed upon your lips in His Supper today. This is the great truth – the tax collector prayed wisely – God is merciful to sinners.
What defines you before God, dear friends, is not a list of your virtues and vices. God doesn’t need your virtuous living – you neighbor benefits from it, but before God, it accounts for nothing. No, before Him you remain this – a sinner, a sinner who is covered by the blood of Christ and redeemed by Him, one of His holy saints. Be on guard against any thought, any false pride that would make you define yourself or think of yourself differently. Rather – cling to Christ Jesus, for He is faithful and just to cleanse you from all your iniquity. This is truth. Amen. In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.