The parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector always gives me a bit of mixed emotions. On the one hand, it is my favorite of the parables. It is the "Lutheran" Parable - it is Lutheranism in a nutshell. It is "Salvation Unto Us Has Come" in parable form. It's the first one I remember learning in Lutheran Day School - the simplest and most basic point of the Christian faith - we are forgiven by God on account of grace, not our works.
But on the other hand, it depresses me. Why? Because I see just how harshly it cuts across the grain of the church today (really, pretty much the church in all times, but hey, I live today).
The parable is such strong Gospel, but the problem is, we've become afraid of the Gospel. We have to add caveats. We want to add on extra stuff to keep us safe from the end - this man went down to his house justified.
But where were his obvious fruits of repentance!?
But where was his progress in sanctification!?
But how could the priest REALLY know he was sorry for his sins!?
But did he stop being a tax collector!?
But did he increase his giving to a tithe level!?
We are so afraid of the Gospel. We are afraid of who might "accidentally" hear it when they aren't "supposed" to. We want to see actions, we want to have something tangible to judge and compare (and line up our contempt) with... and the parable doesn't keep going - it doesn't leave us any latch to continue to judge or compare. It just says that the tax collector is forgiven.
And the dude with all the works - he isn't.
The Gospel terrifies the Old Man because it leaves nothing for man, for the hearer to do. It doesn't revolve around the hearer, it is not curved in upon man. It simply forgives, freely, without any merit or worthiness in the one receiving. And the Old Control Freak that would rather be God Himself is terrified of that.
But now, today - today is the day and age of the Old Adam. The Liar has convinced us that in the face of the moral decline of society and the cultural abandonment of Christianity and the (re-)rise of militant Islam, the Gospel just won't cut it anymore. We NEED to know who is good and who is bad and who is doing the stuff they are supposed to be doing - we need to know the villains of the piece... and the Gospel just gets rid of villains. Shoot, it makes us love our enemies.
It makes us love those people destroying America, and possibly even ending up with them forgiven and with us for all eternity.
Eternity with a tax collector? Surely you jest! So let us thank God that we are not like all these crazy forces around us and talk about how we are growing and maturing and see all that we do, and did we not do great things in your name, Lord?
This man went down to his house justified rather than the other one. God be merciful to me, the sinner!