Eleventh Sunday after Trinity
Justification, Luke 18:9-17
Do you know that many people call themselves Christians, saying they believe in and follow Jesus, but they don’t follow the Bible? Often they say that the Bible is not totally reliable, that parts of it, at least, are man’s word, not God’s. But Jesus, well, they say, He’s different. I can follow Jesus because He cares for people and teaches me how to be a good person, He’s so loving. Jesus isn’t like, say, Paul, cranky old St. Paul, always teaching doctrine and talking theology. All that stuff is for the birds; Paul’s doctrine divides. Just give me Jesus, they say, straight and simple, none of that doctrine stuff.
It’s true, many people think this way. I’m sure no one here today ever has, but for anyone who does think this way, today’s Gospel is a real problem, for in it, Jesus teaches doctrine. Jesus and Paul are on the same page, our parable today shows this to be true. Jesus today teaches the main doctrine of the Bible, the one Paul talks about over and over again. It is called “justification by grace through faith.” And it’s no theological abstraction, no ivory tower theory. Jesus shows that justification is a word that every Christian needs to wrestle with, because it goes right to the heart of how you and I live our daily lives, not to mention our eternity.
So let’s take a look at this parable. Two men go the temple to pray. That is to say, they are both religious men, religious Jews to be exact, smart enough to know where they have access to God, at the Temple, where God promised to dwell with His people Israel. Of course, God is everywhere, but He does not promise to be available everywhere, nor does He promise to be present for our good just anywhere. God was present for the Old Testament Jews at the Temple. And you didn’t just walk into the Jerusalem Temple any old time and pray, either. First sacrifices were offered on your behalf. Under the Old Covenant, to go into the temple to pray, sacrifices needed to be made to sanctify you and make you clean, then you could bring your prayers to God. So outwardly, at least, both of these two men have been cleansed, and they are seeking God, they seem to be holy. Yet, Jesus says, only one of the men left justified, that is, with his sins forgiven, and with a right standing before God. We need to find out why.
One of the men, the Pharisee, paraded his virtue before God: “Look at me. I don’t act like others; I’m better than that. I am not a crook. I observe the religious requirements: fasting, tithing. I’m on the right track.” Our Pharisee is even willing to get personal, pointing out the tax collector, accusing him before God as part of his effort to build himself up, like Cain, unconcerned with the welfare of his brother, willing to see him destroyed because he thinks by the murder of his brother he can gain something for himself.
The other man, the tax collector, even though he had gone through the same sacrifices, never the less lowered his eyes and beat his chest and cried out, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” And this one, the tax collector, not the Pharisee, this one went home justified.
That’s the parable; what are the take-home points for us? First, beware of a mistake we can all easily make, forgetting where all this takes place. Justification doesn’t happen at a home, or in the marketplace, or on a mountain top. It happens in the temple. The first point is knowing where God is present to save, and the Lord has always been locational: a tree in a garden, a burning bush, a tabernacle in the desert, a temple in Jerusalem.
The obvious point of the parable is the matter of one guy being prideful, and the other guy being humble, but it’s not just “you’re bad if you boast, and you’re good if you don’t, ” or then this parable would be nothing more than moralism. In fact, we could all compare ourselves to see if we were as humble as the tax collector. In which case, we’d all be as guilty as the Pharisee.
Before we consider ourselves, however, first we need to understand how and where we can stand in God’s presence. In the Old Testament, that place was normally the Temple, in the New Testament, that place is Jesus, the new dwelling place of God with men, Jesus who promises to be with His people wherever they gather in His Name. This can happen in any physical location, but practically speaking, for you this means most especially when we gather together to meet Him in this house of God, this building, where we meet Him coming to us in His Word and in the Sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion, the New Covenant places where God promises to be present to save. I am at the point that the next time someone, member or non-member, tells me that they can worship God perfectly well out in the woods or in their homes by themselves, I may scream. It is a good and holy thing when the people of God take up the Word of God, in any place, by themselves or with others. But this good thing flows from the work God does when we gather in congregations. We cannot escape the fact that God calls His people to gather, that’s what the word Church means, the assembly or the congregation. God may by His grace and through His Word save someone who can’t get to church, but the Word of God tells believers to gather, in order to receive the gifts. Free-lance, do it yourself religion is not Christian religion.
Now that we’ve addressed the where of approaching God, we can address the how, the two ways we can come before God. We can come before God insisting on our own rights, our virtues, our way of doing things. But again, beware, people who come before God with a list of all the good things they have done are in for a let-down, no, a smack-down. Yet we treat God this way all the time. We gather intending to justify ourselves. We say, “Hey, look at me. I’ve given years of service to the church,” or, “No one here knows or appreciates the sacrifices I’ve made for them.” We get on our high horse, acting like martyrs, sniffing in righteous indignation, daring others to catch a whiff of our holiness. We feel underappreciated and sorry for ourselves, and over-stressed and angry with others. Worse, in our secret pride we look down on others, all the while pretending to be pious, humble, and religious, all the while forgetting that we live our lives before the God who accepts us as holy only one way, through the sacrifice of His Son, the One crucified for our sins.
We dare not come pridefully before the Lord, because we have nothing to offer him except our sin; we have no rights or claims on Him at all. The Pharisee in the parable doesn’t get it, and so he goes home, perhaps self-satisfied, but absolutely without forgiveness, stuck in his sin, and so without true life. God had given the Pharisee the gift of coming into His divine presence, but the Pharisee considered that gift as his right, his proper reward for all his good deeds. God’s response to such pride is this cold sentence: depart from me, for I never knew you. Lord have mercy and protect us from such foolish pride.
Lord have mercy and give us humility and wisdom to come before God as the tax collector. He makes no claim on God; he has no anger, no pride, no self-sufficiency. He has looked into the depths of his heart through the lens of God’s law, and sees only dirt and death. And yet, he has heard of the sacrifice made on his behalf. Hoping and wondering if it is really for him, all he can do is cry out: “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner!” Actually, the truer translation is this: “Lord, have mercy on me, the sinner. Yes, I’m the one. No finger pointing at my brother, no blaming the Devil or my parents, it’s me. Against you, Lord, and you only have I sinned and done this evil in your sight.” This man, the sinner, went home justified, forgiven, made whole and alive.
Jesus’ point is that His disciples – you and I - we must be the sinful man. We are not by this given license to sin, for sin is an abomination to God. But we must not come before God without confessing the truth, that we are the sinner. For, as Christians, we must be as Christ Jesus, the most sinful man who ever lived.
What? What, Jesus was sinful? You thought he was the sinless Son of God, the spotless lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world? Well, yes. But the mystery is even greater, for to be the Lamb of sacrifice, Jesus made Himself the sinner.
The mystery starts where our parable starts: the place where God is present for us, and ever since the Son of God was conceived in Mary’s womb, the place where God is present for us is Jesus. He is God in the flesh. He is our temple. And, as every Christian knows, he is also the sacrifice that makes us holy, the Lamb of God who is slaughtered for the sins of the people. This is the miracle of love: On Calvary’s cross, Jesus became the sinner. Listen: “In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself not counting their trespasses against them. . . for our sake He made Him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God.” Do you hear? Jesus became sin, and in Him God destroyed our sin. It is because of that, and only that, that we can come into God’s presence this day or any day, Christ alone is our access to God.
And so God is still present, because Jesus is still the presence of God among us. He is here: in His Word, in the waters of Holy Baptism, in the body and blood of Jesus in Holy Communion. Here we enter into the temple, and our sins are cleansed, washed away. He sanctifies us. He makes us holy, so that we can come to Him and speak to Him. Our Father delights to hear us pray, because in Christ we are pure and holy.
So what shall we say as we gather? Now we have come full circle. Will your words to Him be, “I deserve this. I’ve done that. I’ve the right to this or that.” “I thank God I’m not like so and so”? If so, you have wasted your time in the presence of God. He gave you His gift, and you spit in His face. He says, “Here is my free forgiveness, paid for by the suffering of My Son.” And you say, “I don’t need it. I have my own pride, my own righteousness.” If you refuse to be the sinner, don’t expect forgiveness. Expect only wrath: “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.”
Lord have mercy and save us from ourselves. Good Holy Spirit, put this cry on our lips: Lord, have mercy on me, the sinner.” And you know, He has, for we do that in church, don’t we? We have confession and absolution, which cleanses us from sin, and then right after we sing together: “Lord, have mercy upon us; Christ, have mercy upon us; Lord, have mercy upon us.” We pray as repenting sinners, forgive us our trespasses as we forgive others, and then we come bodily forward to God, bringing our sins, to have them removed by the Body and Blood of Christ, present in the miracle of the Supper. We see who we are, that we deserve nothing but God’s anger. But we hear and believe and confess and eat His Word, so that we are now clean in Christ, we have life with Him, in Him and through Him, Jesus, who is the Resurrection and the Life. We leave justified, at peace with God, or as in Paul’s doctrine, we are justified by grace through faith, apart from works, that no one should boast.
“Lord, let your servants depart in peace according to Your word. For our eyes have seen your salvation,” salvation in Jesus. Amen