“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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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.