The 11th Sunday after Trinity—23 August 2020
Grace, mercy, and peace be to you from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord.
The Reading from Holy Scripture: Luke 18:9–14 (ESV)
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.”
A popular play from over 500 years ago tells the story of Everyman. The play, entitled “The Summoning of Everyman”, begins with this introductory sentence: “Here begins a treatise how the high Father of Heaven sends Death to summon every creature to come and give account of their lives in this world.” In the play, when the main character “Everyman” first receives the death summons, he begs his family and friends to accompany him, but they all refuse, leaving him to face alone both death and the final accounting of his life before God. This truly is the story of every person. We each die alone, and alone we are summoned before God. Sadly, many live as though this summoning will never happen and as if they will never have to give account for the way they have lived.
But you and I know better. We confess the truth proclaimed in the Book of Hebrews, that no creature is hidden from [God’s] sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of Him to whom we must give account (Hebrews 4:13). St. Paul, too, gives his apostolic witness, that we must each give an account of ourselves to God, that we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ (Romans 14:5; 2 Corinthians 5:10). St. Peter adds his testimony that [Jesus] is the One appointed by God to be judge of the living and the dead (Acts 10:42).
The Day is coming when you must give an account of yourself to God. In preparation for that day, you must ask yourself two questions. First, are you convinced that you will receive God’s commendation rather than His condemnation? And second, is your conviction based on what God has actually promised? The bottom line is that you had better be absolutely certain that your confidence in being commended by God on the Last Day is grounded 100 percent on God’s promise.
In today’s text, the Pharisee is convinced that he is in high favour with God. So convinced is he that in his prayer he asks God for nothing. Thus, his prayer is really a misuse of God’s holy Name and a mockery of God’s majesty. True prayer compels a sinner to confess his or her need to a gracious God. But the Pharisee flips the tables, as his prayer implies that God owes him. Luther says it is as if the Pharisee were praying: I thank You, God, that I am so holy and righteous, that I do not at all need Your grace, but I find that I myself have kept the Law. You can find fault with nothing in me, but I have deserved so much that You must repay and reward me again for it temporally and eternally—provided that You want to retain the honour of being a real, true God1.
Now, [Jesus] … told [today’s] parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt. These people trust—they are convinced—that they do not need God’s grace, that God can find no fault with them, and that their lives are so flawless that God owes them BIG! And here we see a sad pattern. Those who trust in and are convinced of their own right standing before God through their works end up despising their fellow sinners. The Pharisee sees the tax collector standing far off in the corner beating his chest in shame over his many sins. But rather than praying for his neighbour’s salvation, the Pharisee thanks God that he is not like this tax collector, thus despising the tax collector and considering himself as worthy of heaven and the tax collector as deserving of hell. There is more. In trusting in his own righteousness, the Pharisee also treats God with contempt, for he thinks that God, if He be real and true, must reward the Pharisee for his pious acts of fasting and giving tithes and for his avoiding of open sin!
If you trust and are convinced that God owes you BIG for all the good you have done, you will certainly look down on everyone else for not being as deserving as you are of God’s favour. And if you think that God must be impressed by your devotion and piety, you will despise God Himself, for you will treat with contempt God’s promise that His righteousness comes through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction [between the Pharisee and the tax collector, between you and a convicted murderer]: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by His grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith (Romans 3:21).
The Pharisee is absolutely convinced that because of his works he stands in high favour with God. But is his conviction grounded in God’s Word, God’s promise? Not at all! And the Pharisee should have known not to have trusted in his own righteousness, for he had the testimony of Psalm 143: O LORD[,]… no one living is righteous before You (vv. 1 and 2). You and I have the fuller testimony of the New Testament. For example, in Romans, St. Paul writes of the whole world [being] held accountable to God and that by works of the law no human being will be justified in [God’s] sight (3:19-20). Woe to those sinners who trust in their works to earn God’s favour. For such sinners despise both their neighbour and God Himself, and in the end they cut themselves off from the favour of God which they thought they had secured.
As a pastor, I shake my head over the fact that today, many funerals are no longer an affirmation of God’s promise of the resurrection but merely a celebration of the deceased person’s life. And often, the many eulogies make it clear that people still are thinking like the Pharisee. “So and so led a good life and was such a nice person and we all know where he or she is now.” It is as if God had no choice but to repay and reward the person for not needing God’s grace in Christ Jesus!
But as I point my finger at others, I must point a finger at myself. For I too am tempted to be a Pharisee, and the temptation is oh so subtle. Of course, I confess that I am saved by grace alone through faith in Christ alone. But the Old Adam in me likes to think that I am more deserving of God’s grace than others and that others are more deserving of hell! And I like to compare my sins with those of really “despicable” sinners and then pray “God, I thank you that I am not like those people!”. Now, there are people who are caught in the snare of presumptuous, persistent, and open sins; they are addicted to sinful vices and lifestyles and have no desire to repent. But Luther says we should consider ourselves on as low a level as a prostitute and that if we think we can raise up our head even an inch above hers, then we have committed the greater sin. When we think of ourselves as being more deserving of God’s grace and less deserving of hell than others, then we really are looking down on other sinners, for whom Christ died. And we are treating them with such contempt that we do not even pray for their salvation, as we should. We are also showing that we despise God, for we like to think that we really do not need His grace in Christ Jesus as much as He says we do.
Here, then, is the main point. God indeed is unmerciful and hostile towards those, like the Pharisee, who do not want to be regarded as sinners, or at least as not as bad of sinners as those who commit really “despicable” sins. On the other hand, God truly is merciful and loving to those poor sinners who, like the tax collector, sense their sins and mourn and grieve over their sins and confess that they are condemned before God’s judgment.
Let us then, repent of our Pharisaical ways of thinking we are not in as much need of God’s grace and mercy as other sinners. And let us join the tax collector in asking for God’s mercy. The tax collector acknowledge[s] himself to be a sinner; he is convicted and condemned by his own conscience, so that he can neither boast nor flaunt anything before God or the world, but must be ashamed of himself…[He] can bring before God nothing other than sin and shame. He is so burdened and oppressed with this that he does not dare to lift up his eyes. He understands and feels that he has earned nothing other than hell and eternal death and must condemn himself before God; as a sign and confession of this before God, he beats[s] his breast2. And he cries out: God, be merciful to me, a sinner!. It is evident that the Holy Spirit has touched his heart, for only through the Holy Spirit can this prayer be prayed. The Pharisee’s prayer comes out of the emptiness and poverty of his own heart. But the tax collector’s prayer is the work of the Holy Spirit, who has moved the tax collector to believe that God wants to forgive sins and be merciful to poor sinners, that is, to turn His wrath and eternal death away from them for the sake of the promised Messiah, His Son3.
By God’s grace, we have joined the tax collector in confessing that we are sinners, as fully deserving of hell as any other sinner. And trusting that God wants to forgive our sins for the sake of His Son, Jesus, we have prayed God, be merciful to me, a sinner! This prayer could also be translated from the original text as O God, be propitiated toward me, the sinner. In praying this, it is as if the tax collector saw himself as the sinner, the only sinner, and so he did not fall into the trap of comparing himself to other sinners. And he asks God to be propitiated toward him. A few minutes ago, we came across the word propitiation in the passage I quoted from Romans: all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by His grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith (3:21).
Propitiation means a covering of blood to forgive sins. In the Old Testament, the Ark of the Covenant was covered by the blood sprinkled upon it by the high priest once a year. And it is possible that at the very moment the tax collector prayed this prayer, animals were being slaughtered for sacrifice in the temple. So it is fitting that the tax collector prayed: O God, be propitiated toward me, the sinner. “God, cover me with the blood of the Lamb!”
It is fitting that you and I pray: O God, be propitiated toward me, the sinner. For as God’s Word proclaims: without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins (Hebrews 9:22). Worthy[, then,] is [Jesus,] the Lamb [of God] who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honour and glory and blessing! (Revelation 5:12). Jesus our Saviour loves us and has freed us from our sins by His blood; [yes,] the blood of Jesus [God’s] Son cleanses us from all sin (Revelation 1:5; 1 John 1:7).
No creature is hidden from [God’s] sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of Him to whom we must give account (Hebrews 4:13). But God so loved the world that He gave His Son as the propitiation, the blood covering that clothes naked, exposed sinners in the white robe of His righteousness. Do not, then, trust in your own righteousness, as did the Pharisee. Rather, join the tax collector in pleading for God’s mercy for Christ’s sake. For then, you will face that death summons, whenever it may come, and the accounting of your life before God with the joyful confidence that you are covered with the righteousness of Christ your Saviour, who will thus indeed welcome you home. Amen.
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(Luther’s Works, Vol 79: Church Postils V, 1 Kindle Location 343; 2 Location 401; 3 Location 436