So how is life in the fly over states? The term “fly over states,” of course, describes everything between the east and west coasts of the United States. It emphasizes the difference between the coasts and the center of the country.
Apparently the term first appeared around 1980, and there is some debate about whether it should be regarded as a put down used by people on the coasts, or a defensive phrase placed in their mouth by those who don’t live there. Either way, it does capture a real difference that exists between the culture of the coasts and that of where we live.
Generally speaking, the coasts are more liberal than the center. They are more urban. Many of the universities considered to be elite are on the coasts. The coasts are more wealthy. In what you listen to and read, it’s not hard to find a condescending elitism directed from the coasts towards the center. You even run into it in the Lutheran church. On more than a few occasions I have heard the opinion that: “You Midwestern Lutherans just really can understand the complexity of the issue.”
Elitist condescension is on full display in our Gospel lesson this morning. Jesus tells a parable and we learn that he “told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt.” Now you don’t need a degree in biblical interpretation to figure out that Luke is talking about the Pharisees. And sure enough we immediately hear: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.” In the Pharisees we meet the self-proclaimed paragons of Jewish piety. They were, for the most part a lay group, though there were also trained scribes.
The Pharisees had developed an elaborate system of oral law that directed how one was to keep the Torah – the law that God had given to Israel through Moses. The Torah provided direction for many areas of life. But even so, there were far more situations that required an interpretation about how to apply the Torah to everyday life. The Pharisees’ oral law was there to tell you how this was done.
And then, the Pharisees had also added their own rules and laws on top of the Torah. For example, they took the requirements that the Torah only applied to priests who served in the temple and instead said that they were something all pious Jews must do. We usually think about the Pharisees as being very strict about keeping the law. And this is true, but not quite in the way you may think. The Pharisees were very strict in keeping their interpretation of the Torah. But in many cases these were rather liberal interpretations that actually made it easier to “keep” the law.
On the other hand, we have a tax collector. Now tax collectors have never been popular. The letters “IRS” probably don’t bring a smile to your face. The Romans had a comprehensive tax system. When they took a census, it was for the purpose of updating taxation requirements, not in order to find out how many people there were. Taxation was the most direct way that people experienced Roman rule. It was a reminder that they were a subject people. Even in a land like Galilee where King Herod Antipas was the petty king, taxes still flowed up to the Romans.
Tax collectors were despised because they were agents of these pagan occupiers. And then tax collectors were also thought of as being crooks – because many of them were. The tax collector assessed the value, which determined how much tax was collected and how big their percentage was. Bump up the value, and you bump up your profit.
We learn that the Pharisee entered the temple and in a prayer that was most likely spoken out loud so that others could hear it he said: “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.” The Pharisee thanked God for how great the Pharisee was! In particular he referenced his superiority to the tax collector who was also present for prayer.
The tax collector was the complete opposite. He stood off at a distance. He didn’t even look up. He was beating his breast as a sign of repentance and sorrow. And his prayer was one brief sentence: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” Then Jesus said, “I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”
In the verse just before our text, Jesus had said: “Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” In this parable, he is describing for us what faith looks like. And to be honest, it’s not very impressive. It’s not about boldly declaring what you have done. It’s not about holding yourself up as an example. It’s not about having confidence in what you have done.
Instead, it looks rather weak. It looks rather helpless. After all, it says that it has nothing – nothing that is, except failures. That’s not really where we want to be. It seems better to forget about the way I was short tempered with my spouse or children. It seems better to ignore the way I failed to trust God when things in my life didn’t go the way I had planned. It seems better to forget about the way I enjoyed hearing and sharing that gossip at the expense of someone else’s reputation.
But Jesus tells us this morning that it’s not better to do this. The tax collector comes before God as a repentant sinner. He comes with nothing but his sins that he confesses as he says, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” And speaking those words in faith he leaves completely changed. He leaves justified. He leaves righteous in God’s eyes – and things are the way God says they are.
By bringing nothing before God except the sins we confess, we leave justified and righteous in his sight. We do so because of God’s grace. It is God’s unmerited love and favor that prompted him to send his Son into the world as he was incarnate by the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary. It was God’s grace that sent Jesus Christ to the cross as the sacrifice for our sin. It was God’s grace that defeated death as he raised Jesus up on the third day.
When we bring nothing before God except the sin we confess, he sends us away forgiven. He sends us away as a saint – someone who is holy in his eyes because of Christ. He sends us away as someone who has already heard the verdict of the Last Day.
In the parable, the tax collector went up to the temple to pray and confess his sin. Yet Jesus, the one telling the parable is the fulfillment of what the temple meant for God’s people. And now we don’t go to a building in Jerusalem. Instead we go to the Means of Grace that the risen Lord has instituted. We return in faith to the promise God has attached to our baptism. We return to confession and absolution. We return to the Sacrament of the Altar. We return to the preached word. Like the tax collector, we come with nothing except the sin we confess. And Christ sends us home justified – righteous and forgiven in God’s eyes.
We come to God and confess our sin. We say, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” And he sends us home justified – forgiven. We praise and thank God for this. But that’s also not the end of the story. St. Paul told the Ephesians, “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another as God in Christ forgave you.” God’s forgiveness of us is the forgiveness that we now pass on to others. When they approach and ask us to forgive them this is something that we now do because of what God had done for us in Jesus Christ.
This is not something that is optional. It is our Lord Jesus who taught us to pray in the Fifth Petition of the Lord’s Prayer, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Forgiveness means that we don’t continue to hold it against them. Forgiveness means that we don’t continue to bring it up. Instead we send them away, the same way that God sent us away – forgiven.
If you say that this is not humanly possible, I can only say that I absolutely agree. It’s not. It is only the Spirit of Jesus who can enable us to forgive a wrong that has hurt us deeply. It is only the Holy Spirit who can strengthen the new man in us to speak Christ’s word of forgiveness to them that he has spoken to us.
You can receive this strength in only one way. And the good news is that it is a “two for one” deal. The Means of Grace to which you come to receive forgiveness is also the way by which the Spirit strengthens and builds up the new man – the Christian living in Christ – who is able to speak three of the most powerful words the world has ever heard: “I forgive you.”
Because we are sinners we come before God in humility with nothing except the sins we confess. There is nothing we can say except, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” Because of God’s gracious saving action in Jesus Christ he raises us up and sends us home justified; forgiven; a saint in his eyes. As Jesus says in our text today: “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”