Our text is today’s Gospel (Luke 18:9–14): 9 [Jesus] also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: 10 “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ 13 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!’ 14 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.” (ESV)
Many Christians misunderstand our Lord’s opposition to the Pharisees. They think that our Lord is judging the Pharisees to be hypocrites who did not practice what they preach. But the Pharisees were not hypocrites in that sense; rather, they really took their spiritual life seriously. They really did practice what they preached. They really did tithe and fast and pray, just as they preached. But their problem was that they were preaching a righteousness that is produced by human effort. And so Jesus tells us today’s Parable to drive home the fact that true righteousness is a pure gift from God flowing from the mercy found only in Christ.
In today’s Parable, we see a fool boasting of his own righteousness and a wise man receiving God’s mercy as a gift. The Pharisee may seem the more spiritual of the two; in fact, the Pharisee is a deeply pious man. He gives to the Lord a tenth of his income and he fasts twice a week. Here is a man who will never publicly sin in such a way as to bring scandal to the church. You can bet this man is in church every week and is an active member. What pastor would not want a whole flock full of such parishioners—a congregation in which every member tithes a portion of his income and has daily devotions, even fasting twice a week; in which every member is in church every week.
We are talking here about piety. The dictionary defines piety as “devotion to religious acts and practices.” Piety is how one expresses one’s faith. In the catechism, Martin Luther encourages Christians to begin and end each day by making the sign of the cross and praying the Invocation in remembrance of one’s baptism. That is piety—an expression of one’s faith in the Holy Triune God. And that is a good thing. And of course, it is a good thing to give a portion of one’s income to the Lord’s work and to attend church faithfully and to have daily devotions. And though perhaps not many of us do it, it is also a good thing to fast. After all, our Lord did not say “If you fast” but when you fast (Matthew 6:16). Jesus expects His Church to fast as she awaits for His return.
Piety—when it is rooted in faith in Christ—is indeed a good thing. Filled with the Holy Spirit, a Christian cannot help but express his faith through acts of devotion and service. Thus, in Christ, our public worship, our private prayers, our giving, and our serving are all good things. These are expressions of a deep and abiding faith given us by God. But we must never trust in or boast about our piety, our pious expressions of faith, as if through them we were able to produce even an ounce of righteousness.
Piety can be either good or bad. Think of it like this: your piety—all your expressions of faith: your churchgoing, your praying, your giving, your serving—your piety is a gift given you by God. You hold this gift in your hands but this gift comes from outside of you. As long as you confess that your worship and prayers, your giving and serving are all gifts from outside of you—gifts from God through faith in Christ alone—then your expressions of faith, though they are tainted with sin, are pure in the eyes of God. But the moment you consider your pious acts as something generated from within—as something you do to produce righteousness in God’s sight—then the piety you hold in your hands turns into a pile of manure and, worse yet, condemns you to hell.
A true piety confesses that we are and always will be beggars who receive everything as a gift from God flowing from the grace and mercy found only in Christ Jesus; a false piety boasts of human works and achievements and thinks that through such works righteousness can be produced. Now, to enter heaven, one must be righteous. The question is whether righteousness is a gift you receive from God or something you produce through your own efforts? Righteousness as a product of human effort and righteousness as a pure gift from God—that is what is being depicted in today’s Gospel.
First, let’s look at the Pharisee. In a sense, his problem is that he was right. He was RIGHT to pray—Jesus had just told a parable to encourage us ALWAYS to pray and NEVER to give up. The Pharisee was right not to want to be a sinner—notorious or otherwise. He was right to fast and go without food. He was right to give his tithe, his tenth, and not to hold back from the Lord that which is His due. In doing all those things the Pharisee was not in the wrong; they were all good things to do and to strive for.
But then the Pharisee became a fool. Listen again to how St. Luke introduces this parable in his Gospel: [Jesus] told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt. Do you see how the Pharisee became foolish? He trusted in himself, that he could produce a righteousness apart from God’s grace and mercy. And then, he despised his neighbour, openly and in public. The Jews did not pray silently; they spoke their prayers aloud. And so here is a man who goes to the temple either at the time of the morning or evening sacrifice. He prays in earshot of other worshippers so that they know what a deeply pious person he is! And then he looks around and sees the tax collector at the back beating his chest and he mutters “God, I thank you that I am not like that scum!” And in praying such a prayer, the Pharisee treats his neighbour with contempt.
And then, there is the tax collector. The Jewish custom was to pray with your hands outstretched and with your eyes lifted up to heaven. But this man—this sinner—is too ashamed of his sins. In shame, he looks down. And then there is the beating of the chest. In the Greek, it is clear that the tax collector did not just beat his chest once and was done with it. No, the tense used here signifies a continual beating—the man is beating and beating his chest as a sign of his own unworthiness.
The tax collector’s conscience allows him to do only one thing, and that is to pray a prayer of contrition: God, be merciful to me, a sinner! The word he uses for mercy is not our usual word. It is not what we sing when we pray the Kyrie Eleison—Lord, have mercy!—where we pray for God’s all-encompassing mercy on all aspects of our lives in this fallen world. Rather, the tax collector’s cry for mercy is more along these lines: “O God, provide atonement for me; O God, provide a sacrifice to blot out my sins; O God, let the blood of Your sacrifice cover over my guilt and make me pure before You.”
The tax collector comes to the temple, at the time of either the morning or the evening sacrifice. It is the sacrifice of atonement—the sacrifice of a lamb that covers the sins of the people. We are at the point in the service where the lamb has just been sacrificed. And now with a broken and contrite heart—which God does not despise—the tax collector prays to be covered by the blood of the slain lamb. His prayer is a prayer for bloody mercy. For you see, the sacrifice of the lamb substitutes for the death of the sinner. And even as the tax collector asks for such an audacious thing, God in astonishing grace grants him his request. The blood of the lamb covers all his guilt and makes him pure before God.
Abel’s blood may have cried for vengeance to the skies. But there is another blood shed that cries for something entirely different; not for judgment, but pardon; not for vindication, but mercy. There is blood that speaks louder and more clearly than Abel’s blood ever could. There is the blood of Jesus, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.
The lamb sacrificed that day in the temple—that lamb was but a foreshadowing of the true Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world. To be covered in the blood of the Lamb so that he might be made pure before God—that is what the tax collector was praying for. And that is why Jesus said that this man went home justified, rather than the man who did not think he needed all that blood.
The Pharisee became a fool by thinking that he could produce a righteousness that could stand before God. And all his boasting led him to treat others with contempt. The Pharisee exalted himself, and so God humbled him. In the words of Mary’s Magnificat, the Lord has cast down the mighty from their thrones…and the rich he has sent away empty. The tax collector, who humbled himself to plead for divine mercy in the blood of the Lamb slain for him—he in the end was exalted. And not he alone, but also you and me and all who stand with him, pleading before God for the mercy that they know they have not deserved, mercy written in the blood of the Lamb, in His blood which was spilled on the cross in order to give us life. Again, in the words of Mary’s Magnificat, the Lord has lifted up the lowly…and has filled the hungry with good things.
On the cross, our Lord’s body and blood pleaded for forgiveness for your every sin. And now, through His Holy Word and Supper, He touches you today with His mercy. He pours down upon [you] the abundance of His mercy, forgiving those things of which [your] conscience is afraid and giving [you] those good things that [you] are not worthy to ask (Collect). He says to you: “Mercy is My gift to you, atoning mercy, bloody mercy, My life poured out for you. Receive My mercy and go to your homes justified, declared righteous in the sight of God. And so you will live with Me forever. Forgiven.”
Do you see? It is all about receiving. Forget about what you think you have produced for the Lord in the way of good works. Rather, every day of your life, be a beggar who gladly receives from God grace and mercy and forgiveness, even the righteousness of Christ by which you can stand pure and holy in God’s sight. As Martin Luther confessed on his death day, “We are beggars; this is true”, so you confess yourself to be a beggar who receives everything as a gift from God.
At the start of the Divine Service, we always join the tax collector and Luther and the whole communion of saints in confessing that we are beggars. And that is a good thing. For in confessing that you are a beggar who cannot produce anything good but who must receive all good from God, you are also confessing Christ, your Saviour, who died for you and who covers your sins in His blood.
And having covered all your sins in His blood, Jesus the Lamb of God—the Lamb who was slain—Jesus now gives you the grace to express your faith in a deep piety. He transforms you into a deeply pious child of God whose faith, as Luther says, is a living, busy, active, mighty thing, this faith; and so it is impossible for it not to do good works incessantly (Luther’s preface to Romans). No wonder, then, that your life is full of a good piety that looks to Jesus alone.
And so, by God’s grace, make every effort to work hard for the kingdom of God, knowing that it is not you but the grace of God working in you. Be faithful in your worship and prayers; be generous in your giving and serving. But by God’s grace, do not abuse your piety to try to produce your own righteousness. Do no be a fool trusting in your own righteousness. Rather, join the tax collector in confessing your unworthiness and in trusting in the blood of the Lamb, that you may receive Jesus’ righteousness as a pure gift from God. And in a few moments, go to your homes justified, declared righteous and pure in the sight of God. Forgiven, righteous, pure—in Jesus, that is what you are! Praise be to God! Amen.