Trinity 11 – August 26th and 27th, 2017 – 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 +
Alright, I know the last few weeks have been a bit heavy – this stretch of the Trinity season has a lot of texts that call for introspection, that call for us to examine ourselves. And they all drive us to the point where we will confess before God, “I am a sinner.” It's not an accident that in today's Gospel lesson the emotional high point of the text is the tax collector beating his breast and saying, “God be merciful to me, a sinner.” The point is that when the Law of God hits us, shows us our sin, we learn that there is nothing that we can bring to the table in our relationship with God; that there's nothing in us that lets us have leverage or manipulate God into liking us, blessing us, giving us more. Several weeks ago the Epistle had this great line from Romans - Or who has given a gift to Him that he might be repaid? We aren't in control, and instead we are at His mercy. But friends, being at God's mercy is precisely the best and safest place in all the universe to be. Being at God's mercy means, “I tell you, this man went down to his house justified”. It's great to be at God's mercy because God is merciful.
So today we get the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. And the ultimate point of the parable is that we need mercy, we need forgiveness; and that God gives that mercy and forgiveness to us in Christ Jesus. And we know this parable, we know the point – I often will call this the Lutheran Parable. But we can know it so well that we do it a disservice. We hear it and go “Pharisee bad, tax collector humble and good – let's go.” Well, no – the tax collector viewed himself as bad, as a sinner. Before we can get to the happy ending, we likewise need to learn to see and know our own sin. This is another one of those introspection texts, that call us to examine ourselves. What is it that can hit you, O Christian, that can make you forget your need for Jesus and His mercy? Jesus tells us with the set up- “[Jesus] also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt.”
Two things there. First there is self-trust. I'm righteous enough already. This is nothing but spiritual delusion, it's utterly ignoring reality. And if we think of stupid, vain self-trust in the regular world, it can be almost comical. Imagine watching someone who doesn't know how to bake but decides that they are going to make a fancy cake for their kids' birthday, or if I were to try to go and build a tree house because the neighbors built one. Seriously, I am mechanically inept, I can't assemble flat pack furniture. And if we sat around sharing stories I'm sure we could all tell tales of where we went and did something where we were completely in over our head. Most of the time they are funny – but that's because baking a cake or wood working projects aren't normally life or death. If I was woodworking, you could laugh at me. If I said, “Well, I think I've got appendicitis, so I'll just remove that myself with his kitchen knife” - that wouldn't be funny. That would be bad. Very bad. And yet, even more so it is worse to approach God this way, to deal with not just something that could kill you physically but deals with your eternal salvation. You don't saunter up to God when salvation is on the line and say, “Hold my beer, Jesus, I've got this.” And yet, whenever we start thinking along the lines of how we are good Christians, how we're better than those folks over there – that's exactly what we are doing.
You see, the sign of this pride, the warning, the canary in the coal mine if you will, is treating others with contempt. How do you know, how do you spot when your self-trust is rearing its ugly head? When you start treating others with contempt. When you look at them and say, “I could do that better.” Or even worse, when you look at them and say flat out, “I am better.” That's the sign that you are all out of whack spiritually, that you are no longer focused on receiving from God His good gifts by faith but are way off on a sinful ego trip. Where you are no longer seeing the world, seeing yourself rightly.
Consider the Pharisee. Hear again his egotistical, sinful “prayer” - “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.” You can just hear the condescension rolling off of the guy. But here's the sad thing, the bitter irony. Not a single one of those things that the Pharisee mentioned was bad in and of itself. They actually were all good things. It is good not to be an extortioner. Really, it is. It's good not to be a mobster and get involved in all of that. It's a messy, dangerous, violent life that isn't good or enjoyable at all and is prone to paranoia. Frankly, I'm glad I'm not a mobster. Or consider adultery. It's a terrible thing to get stuck in an affair – they are messy and painful and they break things. Affairs devastate families – y'all know this. It's a wonderful thing not to get caught up in affairs – it makes life much better. Or tithing. It's a great thing to tithe – to be generous with your wealth and to take care of the church. I'm never going to preach against tithing. The Pharisee had a good life, he was in a good spot.
But here's the problem. Because the Pharisee was so concerned with proving his own worth, because he wanted to demonstrate his self-trust, he missed the point entirely. The Pharisee would be right to thank God because every thing on that list was a gift to him from God. Every single thing. And even though he knows he should thank God – the Pharisee doesn't get it. He doesn't understand. He thinks this is all about who he himself is, not what God has given him. God had richly blessed him with what we normally think of as blessings – health, wealth. But more than that – God had kept him safe and out of trouble – this is a major theme of the Scriptures, where God prevents people from getting into trouble; Balaam's donkey, Abigal stopping David's rage, Namaan's servant keeping him from leaving Elisha angrily. That's a great blessing. I've messed up enough in my life, my sin has brought me and others enough pain to where I'm glad when I see something that God has kept me away from. But that's about what God does, His blessing, His mercy – it doesn't say anything about me and my virtue. And that's the danger – when we think we have good things because we are good. When we think that way, we forget that it is God who is good.
Then there's the Tax Collector. We know nothing about his life. He could have been a lout – as tax collectors were often assumed to be. He could have been a pious and devoted family man. We don't know. The Pharisee assumes the tax collector is a jerk, but let's be honest; we've all made plenty of assumptions about people that were flat out wrong. But it doesn't matter either way – we don't need to know about the quality of his life, the quality of his moral status because the Tax Collector isn't there on the basis of his quality, of how good he is. The Tax Collector could have been vastly more generous and kind than the Pharisee, but that's not the point. Whether he's better or even if he's worse - meh. The tax collector knows that he is a sinner. No point in comparing. But more than that, he knows something else. He knows that God is a giver, and especially a giver of mercy.
When the Tax Collector walks into the temple, he isn't presenting anything of use to God. There's no bargain, no bribery, no deal making. Simply a request – be merciful, give me mercy, give me mercy God because I need it because my sin is great. I don't care whether it looks bigger or smaller than someone else's sin – it's my sin, and it's horrid, and I need it to be mercied. And I know that you are the God who is steadfast and faithful and abounding in mercy. And He received mercy from God. Went home justified. Because that is what God does. He gives mercy.
When you come here, when you come to this place, to this house – don't come here trying to impress anyone. Don't come with airs trying to show what a nice little person you are. This is God's house – He's not interested in you trying to impress Him. Not in the slightest. He's not expecting you to come here to make a deal, He doesn't need you to make vain promises or swear oaths about this or that. He simply wants to take everything that Jesus did, everything he won by going to that cross and pour it upon you – He wants to richly mercy you, cover you with mercy, dare I even say baptize you with it, feed you with it, make His mercy be the largest thing you see in your life. Why? Well, for one, because that is who your God is – not some angry, petty tyrant but the merciful Lord who sees to your salvation. And He gives you His mercy both for now and for eternity. He gives you mercy now so that you would be forgiven and see all the other blessings He has given you so that you can enjoy them now over and against your sinful, egotistical flesh that wants to and often does abuse them. God says, “Here, receive mercy from Me, and thus be ready to enjoy all the other blessings and good things I give you.” But also God gives you mercy for all eternity. Here, receive mercy from Me, and thus be ready to rise from the dead and enjoy rightly forever all the blessings I will give you in the life of the world to come.
This is Jesus' goal. This is what He's focused on in the text by preaching this parable, it's what He's doing by going to the cross. It's what He's doing by having His font right here to wash people in His Baptism, it's what He's doing by having some fellow stand in His stead and preach His Word of mercy and forgiveness, hand out His Body and Blood to forgive sinners. You are at His mercy, which is precisely where life and salvation are present for you, now and fo rever. In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit + Amen.