Eleventh Sunday after Trinity
August 19, 2012
Emmanuel Lutheran Church—Dwight, IL
Revised and updated August 31, 2014
Trinity Lutheran Church—New Haven, MO
In the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
In the medieval Church, there arose a belief that the Holy Communion was a sacrifice offered by the priest to atone for the sins of the people. The priest, who received a special character at his ordination was said to offer an “unbloody sacrifice” to God by effecting the change of bread into Christ’s body and wine into His blood. This is why the priests would elevate the host and the chalice toward God as a symbol of this sacrifice. To benefit from the priest’s actions, you didn’t even really need to partake of the bread and wine—just be present when the sacrifice was made.
The distinction that this parable teaches is a distinction with respect to sacrifice. Our Lutheran Confessions lay it out very nicely in the Apology (or Defense) of the Augsburg Confession. First of all, we define a sacrifice as “a ceremony or work that we give to God in order to provide Him honor” (Ap. XXIV.18). Both of these men, the Pharisee and the tax collector, went up to the temple to give to God the ceremony and work of prayer and worship.
But there is a distinction in sacrifice. “Furthermore, there are two kinds of sacrifice and no more. One is the atoning sacrifice, that is, a work that makes satisfaction for guilt and punishment. It reconciles God, or reconciles His wrath and merits the forgiveness of sins for others. The other kind is the eucharistic sacrifice, which does not merit the forgiveness of sins or reconciliation. It is practiced by those who have been reconciled, so that we may give thanks or return gratitude for the forgiveness of sins that has been received, or for other benefits received” (Ap. XXIV.19).
Let’s first consider the eucharistic sacrifice. A eucharistic sacrifice is a sacrifice of thanksgiving, which is why it’s called eucharistic (from the Greek word eucharisto, I give thanks). In fact, this is the very word that the Pharisee uses to begin his prayer. The Pharisee, who was standing to himself, prayed this: God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of men—swindlers, unrighteous, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week, I tithe all that I own. (vv 11-12).
Prayer is certainly a eucharistic sacrifice, but there are others also. Eucharistic sacrifices include “the preaching of the Gospel, faith, prayer, thanksgiving, confession, the troubles of saints, yes, all good works of saints” (Ap. XXIV.26). The good works that God commands and which are necessary to the Christian life can all be considered sacrifices of thanksgiving and offerings that give Him honor. So when you worship and pray, when you invite someone to church, when you suffer for the sake of the Gospel, when you confess your sins, these are all your offerings of thanksgiving.
The issue is when these eucharistic sacrifices are confused with atoning sacrifices, or propitiatory sacrifices. To propitiate means to reconcile, to make right with, to gain favor with God. To propitiate is to do something that changes the way God sees you. The Pharisee considered his sacrifices to be the means of gaining God’s favor. You can hear it in the way he prays. I thank you that I am not like other men. I fast. I pray. I give my tithe.
We look at this Pharisee, and it’s easy to nod our heads at his smug attitude, but are we really so far from him? Not really. Every person gathered today in this house of God has fallen into the Pharisee’s confusion of sacrifice, because it is man’s nature and deepest desire to prove his righteousness.
That’s how it works in the world, right? At a job interview, no one goes in and tells the boss that he’s completely unqualified for the job, but he lists all the important things about him that proves his worthiness. The unworthy, the world tosses to the gutters and sweeps under overpasses and hustles into shelters. God, I thank you that I’m not like those people.
Jesus directed this parable to some who had convinced themselves that they were righteous and were despising the rest. (v 9). That’s what happens when you confuse the two kinds of sacrifice. You persuade yourself that you are righteous because of your good works, that you’re righteous because of your pious worship, that you’re righteous because you have faith. But none of these sacrifices—not even your faith—has the power to reconcile you to God, to be your propitiation.
The tax collector, on the other hand, displays a different attitude. But the tax collector, who had been standing far off, did not wish even to lift his eyes to heaven, but beat his chest, saying, “God, be propitiated to me, a sinner” (v 13). His prayer, though brief, is packed full of significance.
First he confesses that he is a sinner. He doesn’t say that he sins, but that he is a sinner. He recognizes that the problem is more than his external works—it’s a corruption of his entire being. And his belief is played out in his actions—standing far off, beating his breast, casting down his eyes. He has nothing to lift up before God, no sacrifice that could prove innocence, not this tax collector. He knows what everyone else knows. He cannot reconcile himself to God.
His prayer is that God would be merciful to him. Actually, it may be better to say he prays for God to be propitiated to him. He asks for another sacrifice—an atoning sacrifice—to come between him and God. None of his will do.
What’s most interesting is that this word is a passive verb. A passive verb is whenever some action happens to someone or something. Usually in Scripture when you see a passive verb, God is the one who’s doing the action, like from today’s Epistle: For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith, and this is not out of you; it is God’s gift (Eph 2:8). But here the man prays to the Father, be propitiated to me. He prays for another to do some work of reconciliation between him and God.
The Lutheran Confessions say of a propitiatory sacrifice: “In fact there has been only one atoning sacrifice in the world, namely, Christ’s death” (Ap. XXIV.22). This is the tax collector’s prayer, that Christ’s death would reconcile him to God.
There has been only one sacrifice ever given that has the power to reconcile God to man. The Son of God became also the Son of Man in order to do what man cannot. His death was not for Himself, but for the whole world.
What’s more, this reconciliation is delivered to you personally through the ministry of the Gospel. “All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation” (2 Cor 2:18-19).
The service of reconciliation is God’s service, or, the Divine Service. In the Service of the Word, the message of reconciliation proclaims that you are reconciled to God on account of Christ. In the Service of the Sacrament, that propitiatory, atoning sacrifice is given to you to eat and drink, for the Sacrament is the body and the blood that was offered up for you.
If your prayer is also the tax collector’s prayer—God, be reconciled to me, a sinner—the answer is in the Word of forgiveness, it’s in the Sacrament.
Jesus says that the tax collector went back down justified, not the other. The tax collector’s righteousness is Christ, just as your righteousness is Christ. Both offered sacrifices of works, but only the tax collector’s confession was truly a eucharistic sacrifice, because it proceeded from a person who was justified before God.
It is important to distinguish between the two kinds of sacrifice. Sacrifices of works are by themselves empty, hollow sacrifices that have no power to reconcile you to God;
The Sacrifice that Justifies Is Christ’s Atoning Sacrifice, Which Raises the Sinner to Righteousness
And it is the righteous one—the one who goes from here justified through Christ’s body and blood for the forgiveness of sins—who offers true sacrifices of thanksgiving.
In + Jesus’ name. Amen.
Rev. Jacob Ehrhard