Sunday, August 23, 2020

Sermon for the Eleventh Sunday after Trinity - Lk 18:9-14


         Trinity  11                                        Lk 18:9-14




            There is a lot of righteous anger out on the street in our nations these days.  It’s all over social media as well. People are speaking out about injustices that they perceive in our country.

            But “righteous anger” is a very seductive activity.  In general, when anger is part of the mix, it is a good bet that sin is happening too.  James wrote, “Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God.”

            Righteous anger as we see it playing out in our culture today means first, that you get to choose someone to vilify.  “They” are horrible. “They” should be ashamed.  “They” must change or be done away with altogether. The old Adam finds it deeply satisfying to attack someone or something else in this way.

            But the really insidious part of righteous anger is the flipside.  If you recognize the terrible fault of the other when they don’t, it demonstrates how much more perceptive you are.  It shows how much more aware you are.  It proves how much more righteous you are.  And that is truly delicious. The old Adam just eats that stuff up. Your righteous anger shows how much better you are.

            The same dynamic is present in our Gospel lesson this morning – the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector.  Luke introduces the parable by telling us: “He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt.”  Now it’s not hard to figure out who the “some” are.  It’s the Pharisees with whom Jesus has been sparring again and again. And sure enough, one of the two characters in the parable is a Pharisee.

            We learn two things about the Pharisees.  First, they trusted in themselves that they were righteous. And second, they treated others with contempt.  The Pharisees were largely a lay movement in Judaism who had chosen to take on what they considered to be a more holy way of life.  They took aspects of the Torah – the Old Testament law – that were directed only toward priests, and applied them to their daily lives.  They had created a whole body of oral law – the “tradition of the elders” – that described how one was to keep the Law of Moses.

            Now almost nobody in first century Judaism forgot that God’s grace was the starting point.  But what they did do was to take credit for how they were able to live righteously in keeping the law.  St. Paul could say of his attitude while a Pharisee: “as to righteousness under the law, blameless.”

            And of course if you have chosen to be part of a group that is going over and beyond what others are doing; if you have defined your identity by the “tradition of the elders” that you do and others don’t … well, then no one else measures up.  They become people you treat with contempt.

            We see this at work in the parable that Jesus tells.  He said, "Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.”  Jesus paired two people who were complete opposites.  If the Pharisee had the public reputation of godliness and righteousness, the tax collector was despised and looked down upon.  It was assumed that the tax collector was a crook, since there were many ways he could use his position to charge extra and make money for himself.  Just as the letters “IRS” probably don’t give you a warm, fuzzy feeling inside, in the same way people didn’t like tax collectors in Jesus’ day. And on top of this, in various ways depending on your location, the tax collector was ultimately a reminder of Roman rule.

            We learn that the Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed in this way: “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.” Prayer in the temple was said out loud. The Pharisee stood out by himself in order to call attention to himself.  He thanked God that he wasn’t like all those other sinners … including the tax collector.  He proclaimed how he lived a pious life that went over and beyond what others did.

            Now let’s be very clear: It is good and right to be able to identify behaviors that are sinful and wrong. Doing so is not “judgmental” – it is simply applying the Word of God in evaluating life. And likewise, it is good to seek to live in pious ways.  The problem – the sin – is when this slips into spiritual pride that puts others down. As he put himself on display in the temple, the Pharisee wasn’t thanking God.  He was boasting before others.

            We need to be able to identify those things in our world that are sinful. We need to call it what it is when people are living together outside of marriage, or practicing homosexuality, or when they have no place for Christ and the Church in their lives.

            But what we can’t do is to feel superior and look down on these people.  What we can’t do is focus on their obvious sins, and choose to ignore our own.  We can’t ignore the lust in our heart and the way we feed it by looking at pornography. We can’t ignore the ways we put other things before God’s Means of Grace – the ways we never think about our baptism, or never “have time” to read God’s Word. We can’t ignore the way we speak angry and hurtful words to our spouse or family members.

            Then Jesus said: “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!’”  Now the first thing to note is that the tax collector did go to the temple to pray.  He could have stayed away. But instead, he went to the place where God had promised that he was present for his people.  He went to the place where sacrifices were offered for sin.

            Unlike the Pharisee, he stood far off.  He did all he could not to call attention to himself.  As he prayed, he didn’t even lift his eyes to heaven.  And in a gesture that indicated deep sorrow and repentance he beat his breast as he said one simple and brief statement: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”

            The tax collector said one thing about himself: he was a sinner. He confessed before God.  And his plea was based on one thing: God’s mercy.  He made no claims about himself like the Pharisee.  Instead, he relied on what God had revealed about himself in his word. As the psalmist wrote: “The LORD is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.”

            Our Lord concluded the parable by saying, “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.”  It was the tax collector who went home forgiven and just in God’s eyes. He had repented and asked God to forgive him purely on the basis of God’s own mercy.  He had humbled himself, and so God sent him home exalted – forgiven.  On the other hand the Pharisee had boasted and exalted himself.  And he had gone home humbled – unforgiven.

            Jesus spoke these words about two men who were in the temple – they were at the place where the sacrifices described in the Law of Moses were offered. And the tax collector’s plea, “be merciful” is a Greek verb that Luke only uses here. It is a word that is regularly used to express the ideas involved in the atonement God provides for sin.

            Our sin is the barrier that separates us from God. God is holy, and sinners who sin cannot exist in his presence. There is the need to expiate the sin – to remove it.  God has done this through the death of Jesus Christ.  Sin requires God’s judgment.  God sent his Son into the world in the incarnation in order to bear your sin on the cross and receive his judgment.  Jesus humbled himself to the point of death – even death on a cross. This was the sacrifice to which the Old Testament sacrifices pointed forward. God did this because he is merciful and gracious to us. By the death of Jesus on the cross for your sins, our Lord has made atonement.  He has won forgiveness and removed the sin that separated you from God.

            Sacrifices die. But Jesus Christ was not just any sacrifice.  Instead, on the third day God raised Jesus from the dead. Having made atonement for your sin, he is also the beginning of the new life – the resurrection life – that will be yours.  The wages of sin is death.  Christ not only gives us forgiveness.  He has defeated death by passing through it himself, and then rising on the third day.

            Now, because of Jesus’ death and resurrection you go home justified.  You know that God’s verdict is “forgiven, innocent, not guilty.”  You heard it at the beginning of the Divine Service as Jesus said in absolution, “I forgive you all your sins.” That is true now. It will be true on the Last Day.

            God sent the tax collector home justified.  God sends you home justified.  But the word of forgiveness received through the work of the Spirit does not leave us unchanged. 

            When Martin Luther preached on this text in 1531 he said at the end of his sermon: “Whoever wants to remain the way he is cannot pray for grace and forgiveness; rather, whoever prays that way wishes and desires to be just and completely freed from sins.  You also must know this so that you do not deceive yourself.  There are many who only see the tax collector receives grace and forgiveness as a sinner but who do not consider that God wants to have them forget sin, and that the grace given must be powerful in them.  They try to misunderstand this, as if God wanted to justify and save sinners so that they could remain in sin and unrighteousness.”

            Like the tax collector we come before God in repentance and humility. We know there is only one thing we can say: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”  But we know that in his mercy God has given his Son into the death of the cross to make atonement for our sin.  He has raised him from the dead to give us eternal life.  He gives us forgiveness, and his Spirit works in us so that we can strive to live as his child.  As Jesus says in our text, “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”










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