Trinity 11 – August 6/7th, 2016 – Luke 18:9-14
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 +
“I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other.” Justified. That's going to be the theme, the key idea for the next few weeks here. The last month or so had plenty of heavy, soul-searching lessons, where we pondered in depth and detail our own sin, pondered the ways Satan attacks us – but now we're going to focus in on being justified. It is a big, important word in theology. To be justified is to be made, to be declared, to be proven right, just, and good. And so the question before us this day, my dear friends, is how are you, how is a Christian to be justified, how are we shown and made to be righteous and just? Let us consider our parable, a familiar one – the Pharisee and the Tax Collector.
“He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt.” Now, there should be a big warning sign here going off in your head – a warning from Catechism lesson number 1. What is the first commandment? You shall have no other gods before Me. What does this mean? We should fear, love, and... trust in God above all things. Did you catch it? Some who... trusted in themselves. Trusted in themselves that they were righteous, that they were good enough already. Where's God in that equation? Where's God in that thought process? He's not there. I'm a good human being, see how great I am, and I'm certainly better than that fellow over there. How am I to be justified – why would I need that – I'm already great as is! You see, dear friends, when we get texts in the Church that are heavy with the law, that show us our sin, the point is to remind us of our need for God, our need for a Savior. It is to teach us humility so that we don't run around like a jerk all full of contempt, so that we don't think we are all that and a bag of chips. Because that's a trap we all can fall into. It's easy to be arrogant and cocky and dismissive of others. And so Jesus tells this parable.
“Two men went into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 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. 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.'” And here's where we have a hard time hearing this parable. We associate the Pharisees with villains. We think of the Pharisees as “bad guys” - when in reality, they aren't – not from an earthly point of view. Listen to what the Pharisee says he does – and there's no reason to think he's lying – He fasts, so he's devout in his personal devotion. He gives tithes of all that he gets – nothing really bad about that. I mean – basically, think of it this way. Would I be happy, in theory, if you read your bible every day, did daily devotions, and put in 10 percent of your income into the offering plate? Yeah. The Pharisee is a swell guy – he looks to be the type of guy you'd want your son to grow up into, the sort of guy you'd want your daughter to get married to. And as for the tax collector – well, we tend not to like the IRS that much, but we don't generally think of IRS agents as vile, corrupt, and evil. So we don't get the contrast being set up in the parable. So if you will, let me try to modernize it.
One Saturday/Sunday two folks walked into Trinity here. One was a life long member, born and raised a Lutheran, a fellow who made good on his God given talents – has a good job, shows up to Church, regularly helps out – all his ducks are in a row. Shakes everyone's hand before service because, well, we're all glad to see him. And then, surprise of surprise, in walks a junkie – and not one of our own who has fallen into trouble. I mean a miscreatant – dishevelved,dirty, maybe even still high. The sort you sort of lean away from. And the good old Lutheran boy thinks, “God, I thank you that I'm not messed up like him. I've heard the stories about him, and I'm so glad I've never done anything that dumb.” Meanwhile – the pond scum fellow just sits off by himself, head in his hands just thinking, “God forgive me, God help me.”
Do you get that distinction, that contrast? For the folks that were listening to Jesus, they would want to like the Pharisee, and they would instinctively not like, not trust the tax collector. The Pharisee is the good guy, the Tax collector is the bad guy, and yet, Jesus says of the tax collector, “I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other.” Now hear this rightly – I'm not saying that I want you to stop tithing and start shooting heroin. Not the point. The Pharisee, the good old Lutheran, had by all accounts what we would deem a better life. I'm sure it was more enjoyable, more virtuous. Easier, even. Being in the gutter stinks. I hope and pray that you all stay away from gross and vile sin, from heartache and pain this week in your life out there. But here's the thing – they are in the temple, and in the parable, it was the tax collector who actually understood what the point of the Temple was. The Temple was not the place you went to primp and preen before God and the church folks and show everyone how awesome you are, how much of a good boy you've been. Going to church isn't like visiting Santa at the mall and sitting on his lap and telling him what a good boy you've been so give me a new bicycle. Going to Church isn't the time you get to hold social court and get reaffirmed in how wonderful you are by people whose lives are just as prim and proper as yours. This is a forgiveness place for sinners, this is a mercy house for the messed up. And that, is what you need.
You see, God knows you too well. While we all tend to strive to put on the brave face in front of other people – while we all will say as a matter of course, “Oh, I'm fine” - God knows. He knows what's been going on – the troubles at home that you don't tell other folks, the struggles at work. He knows your frustrations. He knows the thoughts that have been flying through your head that you are far too ashamed to mention to anyone. And He knows them – even when you want to saunter around and act as though everything in your life is just perfect and wonderful... even when you've lied to yourself so much that you actually have conned yourself into thinking that everything is fine. He knows what's really going on, and so God has established this place to be a house of mercy and forgiveness for you. A place where you don't have to pretend, a place where you can be honest and simply say, “God be merciful to me, a sinner.”
And He will be. That's the point. “I tell you, this man went down to his house justified.” You see, this is how it works. You don't have to prove anything to God. Being in the Church isn't like going to the fair where you have to be so tall before you can ride the rides. I'm not standing by the door before service saying, “You must be this holy before you can come in here.” Because before God, in terms of how you relate to God, it's not about your works, not about what you've done or have left undone. We confess that's all a mess. No, your relationship with God is this: He is the One who justifies you. God almighty sees you, battered and bruised and broken – sees even those things that you have hidden so well from everyone else – and there is no revulsion, no disdain, no contempt from Him. Rather simple and pure and unadulterated love. Love that drives God to care for you, to take your sin away from you. Seeing your sin, Christ Jesus says, “There's no way I'm going to let that be the story, let that be the tale of your life” - and so He takes your sin upon Himself, and suffers and dies upon the Cross, He rises from the dead – and all for you. And He takes water and attaches His Word to it and washes you with it and claims you as His own. He takes bread and wine and by His Word gives His Body and Blood to you with it – all so that you are forgiven, so that you know it, so that you realize that all this junk in your life – it isn't your junk anymore. It's Christ's junk, and He crucified it for you – and you, now, in the sight of God, are righteous and just and holy and perfect and lovely and wonderful. Because Jesus says so. He shows mercy. You are justified.
Our sinful nature fights against this, though. Since our youth we've become accustomed to telling tales, to putting our own spin on things, to try to explain things away. We want to tell our own story of justification. How many of you got in trouble recently, got caught doing something you shouldn't, and then tried to talk your way out of it? “Well, you see, I was going to do this, but then dut-da-dut-da-duh, and then blah-blah-blah, so I just had to yaddy-yaddy-ya.” You know what that is? That's telling a story to justify myself, telling a story to say that what I did is actually fine and understandable and it's not that bad. That's my story, and I'm sticking to it! Or maybe it's someone else's fault? Or maybe at least we aren't as bad at that other person? And we dig ourselves deeper and deeper. The simple fact is, when we drop the ball, we drop the ball. And the kicker is, we get tempted to try to fast talk God! But this is where God steps in, and He says, “You don't need to try to tell Me any tales – I know what happened. I'll fix it, I'll make things right, and I forgive you.” God in His mercy cuts all that self-justification talk off. He doesn't even want you to think about justifying yourself – He wants to be both the One who is Just and the One who justifies you. Because He wants to exalt you – He wants to raise you up from the dead and give you everlasting life as His own sons and daughters – and it doesn't get more exalted than that.
So let God be God. Let Him be the One who justifies you, who forgives you. And never be afraid to seek His mercy, never be afraid to confess your sin. You don't need to explain anything away – Jesus has already died for you. Rather, be on guard against your own pride, your own ego that you try to pull you away from God and His mercy. Because when it comes to your relationship with God – it's not about what you do for Him – it is all about what He has done for you – Christ Jesus has forgiven you and given you His own eternal life, and nothing tops that. Now, let's have the Supper and go home justified. In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit +