The “greatest” is an adjective that gets thrown around in sports quite a bit these days. It is so easily applied to current players and teams by commentators and writers that one can only conclude that our society has a collective amnesia when it comes to sports. It is as if nobody had existed prior to ten years ago.
On the one hand our culture probably does have less of sense of history. When you live life through the phone in your hand, everything is instantaneous and now. What happened a month ago is forgotten – much less what happened twenty years ago.
At the same time, much of this is driven by our setting with sports talk shows and social media. They feed off each other and generate a constant banter about sports. This leads to discussions about who is the greatest.
This environment certainly encourages current players to start comparing themselves and their teams to past greats. Draymond Green and the Golden State Warriors have won four of the last eight NBA championships. Green made news recently when he stated on Twitter that his team would have easily beaten Michael Jordan and his 1998 Chicago Bulls. Now Green did acknowledge the difference in eras, but claiming that you could easily beat a Michael Jordan championship team seems rather arrogant.
In our Gospel lesson this morning we hear a Pharisee brag about how great he is. In fact, it sounds like he is saying that he is the greatest. And he certainly engages in the act of comparing himself to another individual – a tax collector – as he states how much better he is. The Pharisee sounds like the way the world does things. Yet our Lord teaches us that in the kingdom of God, it is the tax collector whose humble repentance is pleasing to God and receives forgiveness.
Our text begins by saying, “He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt.” The topic is certainly related to what we talked about in last Sunday’s sermon – about how Jews of the first century had a positive view about their spiritual abilities and had confidence in doing of the law as a means to be righteous before God.
Our Lord starts the parable by introducing two character as he says: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.” Now as readers of the Gospel of Luke we know exactly whom Jesus is addressing in this parable. He is speaking to the Pharisees. Jesus has been engaging in regular conflict with the Pharisees. Two chapters earlier he said of them, “You are those who justify yourselves before men, but God knows your hearts. For what is exalted among men is an abomination in the sight of God.”
The Pharisees did trust in their own ability to live according to God’s law and to be righteous. The apostle Paul had been a Pharisee before his conversion and when he described his past – how he viewed himself – he told the Philippians: “as to righteousness under the law, blameless.”
Yet the Pharisees weren’t just focused on doing the law. They had their own interpretation of the law, and they considered this to be the only real way to keep the law. They had taken parts of the Old Testament law – the Torah – that were meant only for priests, and applied them to everyone. This was the way to be righteous before God. The Pharisees had set themselves apart by doing so, and as you would expect, they looked down on those who didn’t. If that was the way they felt about normal Jews, you can imagine how they viewed those who were involved in activities that were wrong and sinful.
Now to outsiders, the Pharisees would have appeared to be very pious. They were people who were clearly serious about doing God’s law. On the other hand, a tax collector was the exact opposite. They had the reputation for being dishonest – for using their position to take more than was owed. Jesus’ first century hearers would have expected the Pharisee to be the hero in this parable, and the tax collector to be the villain.
We learn that both men went up into the temple to pray. Prayer at the temple took place in the morning and the evening when a burnt offering was offered, as well as incense. It was a public affair, and as we listen to the parable we need to recognize that this prayer was spoken out loud.
Jesus says that the Pharisee stood by himself and 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 put himself on display and thanked God that he was so good. In particular, he compared himself to the tax collector who was present. His references to fasting and tithing indicated that he went over and above what was normally expected. This was certainly someone who trusted in himself that he was righteous and treated others with contempt.
On the other hand, the tax collector’s behavior was very different. Our Lord says, “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!’” Instead of calling attention to himself, the tax collector stood off at a distance. He sought anonymity – as if he was trying to disappear. Though engaged in prayer to God, he would not even lift up his eyes.
The tax collector was beating his breast, which was a sign of repentance and humility. And in contrast to the long winded prayer of the Pharisee he said one simple phrase: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” In deed and in word he confessed his sin, and asked God to be merciful to him – to forgive him.
Then Jesus 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.” The supposedly pious Pharisee didn’t go home justified – declared righteous and forgiven by God. Instead, the repentant tax collector did.
Our text this morning teaches us about how we are to approach God. You just confessed at the beginning of the service that you are “poor, miserable sinner.” You are exactly right. You confessed that you justly deserve God’s temporal and eternal punishment. You are exactly right.
You confessed about your sins that you are “heartily sorry for them and sincerely repent of them”? But are you? There is always the danger that we can fall into the trap of just going through the motions. This leads to a question: When was the last time you thought about the Ten Commandments? I know that the parents, youth, and children who attended Learn by Heart on Wednesday can honestly say that they have thought about the Third Commandment. Or of course all of you can say you just thought about the Fourth Commandment as we read it and its explanation before the service.
But apart from that, when was the last time you actually thought about each of the Ten Commandments and examined your life on the basis of them? In the preface to the Large Catechism, Martin Luther wrote, “I must still read and study the catechism daily, and yet I cannot master it as I wish, but must remain a child and pupil of the catechism – and I also do so gladly.” Here “catechism” means the six basic texts of the Christian faith – the first of which is the Ten Commandments.
We need to return to the Ten Commandments – and their explanation in the Small Catechism – and compare our life to them. This the way that we are confronted by God’s law with the sin in our lives. This reveals the actual sins of thought, word, and deed. This takes us beyond the blanket statement “I am a sinner” by which we protect ourselves from being confronted by the ugly ways that sin really is present in our life.
When God’s law reveals this sin – when it confronts us and condemns us as sinners – we have no excuse. Unlike the Pharisee, we know that we have nothing to offer to God. There is nothing we can say except, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” Yet we speak these words knowing that God wants us to come to him in repentance. We speak these words knowing that we turn to the gracious and merciful God who has already acted to forgive us.
The tax collector went up to the temple to pray. He prayed at a time when the sacrifice commanded by God was offered. In humility he said, “God be merciful to me.” What you can’t see in English is that the Greek verb used is the one that more commonly means “to propitiate.” This is language used of the sacrifices in the Old Testament. Now in pagan religions, sacrifices were something that were offered to the gods in order win them over and make favorable toward the individual – to propitiate them. It was a work done to gain favor – and in this it was no different than the way the Pharisee was approaching God.
But the sacrifices that God commanded Israel to offer were different. They were the means by which God atoned for their sin – by which he took away the sin that stood as a barrier to fellowship with God. It was God who did this through the sacrifice, and the result was that God was propitiated – he now viewed the individual in a favorable way because the person was forgiven.
The sacrifices of the Old Testament pointed forward and found their fulfillment in the sacrifice that took place as Jesus Christ died on the cross. Here again it was God who acted to atone for our sin. The Son of God entered into our world as he was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary. True God and true man, he came to bear our sin on the cross. On the night when he was betrayed Jesus said, “For I tell you that this Scripture must be fulfilled in me: ‘And he was numbered with the transgressors.’ For what is written about me has its fulfillment.”
Christ took our every sin upon himself – every way we break the Ten Commandments. He received God’s judgment against our sin as he suffered and died. God was just in punishing sin. But this was God’s work to give us forgiveness and to defeat death. And on the third day, God raised Jesus from the dead. He vindicated Jesus, and in that resurrection began what awaits us.
In the death and resurrection of Jesus God has acted to give us a righteous standing before him as we receive his favor. This has all been God’s doing. God is the One who took away our sin by the sacrifice of Jesus Christ – he atoned for our sin. God is the One who is propitiated by what he has done – he now views the individuals in a favorable way because they were forgiven.
There is nothing that we can do except to confess our sin and believe in Jesus Christ, and what God has done for us through him. We can only say, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” We address this to the God – who wants to be merciful – who has been merciful by giving us forgiveness through the death and resurrection of his Son.
The result of this confession is certain and sure. Jesus says at the end of our text, “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.” We know that we are justified – that we are righteous and innocent before God. This is true right now, and it is the exact same thing that will be true on the Last Day when Jesus Christ returns in glory and we appear before him as he judges. We will be declared righteous and innocent because of his death for our sins.
In the last sentence of our text Jesus says, “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” When we humble ourselves in repentance – when we confess our sin to God – we are exalted. We are exalted as we are the forgiven sons and daughters of God. And we will be exalted because the Lord Jesus who has saved us by his death and resurrection, will raise us from the dead on the Last Day to live forever with him in a life where there will never be sin again.