Trinity 11 – August 31st and September 1st, 2019 – 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 +
The Pharisee didn't know who he was. Oh, to be sure, the Pharisee was confident in himself, and he was smug, but the Pharisee didn't actually know who he was. We have the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, so familiar to us that we can want to speed through it, pass on by it, but listen again and note – the Pharisee doesn't know who he actually is. “Two men went up 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.” Well, you know Pastor, it seems like the Pharisee had a pretty good idea of who he was to me. No he didn't.
Consider, first he thanks God that he is not like other men – but then he doesn't give attributes of people – short, dumb, rotund. He doesn't even list bad or wicked attitudes – greedy, selfish. He just goes to specific sins. I have never extorted – I've never made anyone pay protection money, nor have I blackmailed anyone. I'm not unjust – I've never started a ponzi scheme or a phone scam (by the by, never pay anything over the phone on an incoming call, people). I've never slept around. Those are certainly good things to avoid – I'll grant the Pharisee that, but none of that says anything about who the Pharisee IS. Well, I'm not a tax collector – well, that's nice, and I'm not the second baseman for the Pawtucket Red Sox – that doesn't say anything about who we are. And then the Pharisee lists off nice, pious things that he does. He fasts twice a week, and he gives tithes. Good. Seriously – these are good things. If you fasted as a Pharisee in the ancient world, you not only didn't eat, but you took the money you would have spent on food and gave it to the poor. That's good. And tithing – well, frankly you will never hear a pastor gainsay tithing – and frankly our general operating budget would be a bit nicer if there was some more of that around here. These are all good actions, things he does – but they still don't say who the Pharisee actually IS. Because there the Pharisee is – he's come into the presence of God and is praying, and is supposedly laying himself bare before God Almighty – but he hasn't actually said anything about who he is.
Now, the Tax Collector – he knows who he is. A quick word on Tax Collectors in the ancient world. While we might complain that the State of Illinois is a thief when it come to taxation, it had nothing on the ancient world. If you were a tax collector, you would be assigned an area and told you had to collect so much money. Then you walked around and charged taxes – the collectors set the rate. And if they over collected, they didn't do refunds in April – they kept it for themselves. So do you see how someone who was a tax collector would be shorthand for a sleezeball, the emblem of the lousy, bad dude? Jesus tosses a tax collector into this story – but this tax collector actually knows who he is. 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!” This tax collector knows who he is. And I don't mean his humble actions that we still mirror today – you realize that this is the reason we bow our heads. The classic posture of prayer was this [hands open and wide, eyes up, ready to receive good things from God]. Give us, give us this day our daily bread. And the beating his breast – well, in Lent when we do the “my fault, my fault, my most grievous fault” I'll beat my breast three times. That can all be for show. But this tax collector – did you hear him? He knows who he is. A sinner. Actually, I'd translate it “The Sinner” - for as far as this fellow is concerned he is the biggest sinner in the world. And this isn't a statement about the quality of his actions – he's in the temple praying, he might have just been the best tax collector in Jerusalem. It's not a statement about his job. It's about him – who he is and how he relates to God. God, be merciful to me – God forgive me, God atone for me - because what am I? I am a sinner.
Luke notes that Jesus tells this parable to “some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and treated others with contempt.” That they were “righteous.” Ah, there's the key word. To be righteous is to be right with another. It is to be all square with them, or if things get out of line able to fix things – let me make this right. And all too often people think that they themselves are righteous. See, that's what the Pharisee was actually saying – see how righteous I am, see what a capital fellow I am. I am here chatting with You, God, because I am just that good of a fellow. You and I, God, we're alike – two peas in a pod, two righteous dudes. Not like those jerks. Oh, ew, and then the disdain comes out. The casual hatred and dismissal of another of God's beloved children. Ew.
See, the point that the tax collector understood and that the Pharisee didn't get is that we of ourselves are not righteous. We are sinners. Period. In fact, each of us is the biggest sinner we know, and that is what we are. And sin isn't just a matter of doing bad things – it isn't measured by how many naughty things get put on your list. To be a sinner is to be unrighteous – to not be right with God. To be in a state of rebellion against God – and by our sinful nature, that's what we and every person in the planet are. Unrighteous. Sinners. Sinful – full of it. However individual sins manifest and pop out in your life – whether they are big and technicolor and out in the open where folks see, or whether they dwell mainly in your heart (at the moment) – still sin. Still vile, still ready to destroy you and your neighbor. Cain's sin was just in his heart – pouting at God... and then that burst forth in murder.
And we can't fix this. We can't make ourselves, our hearts, righteous. We might discipline ourselves – which is certainly a good thing and a benefit to your neighbor – so work on those good habits – but they still don't fix ourselves. We remain sinners, sinners who fall apart and die. You realize that's the proof – the wages of sin is death, and there's not a one of us in this room that is going to get our act in gear so much so that we don't die eventually. See that's the temptation – we are unrighteous, but we think to make ourselves righteous by what we avoid and by what we do. I'm not that Epstein fellow and I showed up to church today – I'm a good person. That's as stupid as saying, “I stopped eating bacon and now I eat kale – I'll live forever!” It doesn't fix the problem.
There is only One who is righteous, and that is the LORD. There is only One who can justify, who can take things that are out of whack and not righteous and make them righteous and whole and together and at peace – and that is Christ Jesus, God Himself become man to take your sin away from you, killing it and destroying it on the Cross, and rising again and making you to rise, sharing with you all His own righteousness – giving it to you so it is yours both today and forever and ever, even beyond the end of the world. This is what God's mercy is – what it looks like. God acting for your benefit without you doing a single thing to cause or earn it. Because you can't – you are unrighteous and a sinner – you've got nothing to generate righteousness with. But Jesus Christ comes, and He forgives the sinner and justifies him, sends him home forgiven.
This is what Christ Jesus does today in His Church, right here, right now. He forgives you. He gives you His own righteousness – fills you with it. Take and Eat, take and drink. And sure, you'll do plenty of wonderful, capital things this week – of course you will, because even your good works are a gift from God that He gives you to – For we are His workmanship, created IN CHRIST JESUS for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. Don't go thinking that you do things for God – those are gifts that God gave to you. “See how nice and generous I was, God” - “Yeah, I know, that's why I gave that stuff to you and why My Spirit moved you to do that. I had that set up for you even before you were born.” And it's good – because I don't need to be the source of righteousness, I don't need to get myself right with God, or butter Him up, or impress Him. Not my job, not your job. That's Jesus' job. He is the righteous One who by His death and resurrection makes you to be righteous. Jesus is both Just and your Justifier.
You are the sinner, but Jesus is true God and true Man come to redeem and rescue and justify sinners. And the danger is we don't like to simply be sinners – we want to spin the story out so that we are anything but sinners – we're good and the other folks are the bad guys. Or we used to be bad but now we're better. Well, the Son man came to seek and save the lost, and the healthy have no need of a physician – so you can strut in here all proud of your own righteousness and contemptuous of others – but then you don't get get Jesus' righteousness. You'll just not want it, won't think you need it. You'll dare I say it, not get anything out of service. And that's bad. So no, know who you are. You are a sinner – but this is the place where Jesus comes to meet sinners with His Word of forgiveness and life, where He comes to give sinners His own Body and Blood for the forgiveness of their sins. For the forgiveness of your sins, so that you have eternal life in Him. God is merciful to you in Christ Jesus. Amen. In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit +