August 12, 2018
Trinity Lutheran Church—New Haven, MO
Jesus told this parable to some who were sure they were righteous and so looked down on everyone else:
“Two men went up to the temple to pray. One was a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed by himself: ‘God, I thank You I’m not like the other people: robbers, wrongdoers, adulterers, or even like that tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all my income.’
“But the tax collector, standing a distance away, wouldn’t even look up to heaven but was beating his chest and saying, ‘God, forgive me, a sinner!’
“I tell you, this man, and not the other, went home justified. Everyone who honors himself will be humbled; but if you humble yourself, you will be honored.”
In the name of + Jesus.
Two men. Two prayers. Two very different outcomes. It’s one of those ironic moments in Scripture, when the one who should be commended is condemned and the condemned is commended. What separates the two is not the outward act, but the content of the prayer. What separates the two are the words,
God, Forgive Me, A Sinner
This parable is for an audience of “some who were sure they were righteous and so looked down on everyone else.” This is a human problem, whenever humans start to get religious. After learning a few technical terms or reading a couple of books, they begin to feel as though they are masters of religion, and that everyone else is somewhere beneath them. But what they fail to realize is that in the upside-down that is the kingdom of God, when you raise yourself up, you raise yourself up to the bottom. Here the greatest is a child, the first is last, and the Master puts a robe around His waist and washed His disciples’ feet. This parable is put our relationship to God in its proper perspective within the framework of the kingdom of God.
“Everyone who honors himself will be humbled,” says Jesus. This is the Pharisee. He goes to the temple to pray, stands apart from the riff raff, and extols all of his virtues. He avoids all of the Big Sins—robbing, wrongdoing, adultery, tax collecting. (Tax collecting, by the way, was not just collected taxes, which is irritating enough. But tax collectors were known to be overall scoundrels, who were experts in bending the law to their own benefits.) In addition to avoiding the Big Sins, he is also a practitioner of some religious virtues—fasting, tithing. Do any of you commit yourself to regular, ritual fasting? Do you tithe?
But where is the problem? It’s not that he avoids adultery. It’s also not that he fasts or tithes—Jesus speaks elsewhere of fasting and tithing as if they are actually expected! The problem is the attitude with which the Pharisee addresses God. The Pharisee stood and prayed by himself. Actually, if you’d take peak behind the English, you’d find that Jesus says something more like, “The Pharisee stood and prayed to himself.” In the Pharisee’s prayer, God is the recipient of all of the Pharisee’s good. But, as St. Paul writes, “Who has found out how the Lord thinks? Or who has become His adviser?” Or who has first given Him something for which he must be paid back? (Rom 11:34-35). It’s not God who is the subject of the man’s prayer, but himself. Thus, the prayer is really to himself. ‘God, I thank You I’m not like the other people: robbers, wrongdoers, adulterers, or even like that tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all my income.’
This man does not go home justified. He stands condemned, even though he commends himself. This parable stands as a warning for every Christian. If you ever find that there are people who seem to be below you, there’s probably a bit of this Pharisee’s blood flowing through your veins. And chances are pretty good—100%, in fact—that you’ve felt this way about someone else. “God, I thank you that I’m not like that guy, at least.” As I said, this is a human problem.
Sin doesn’t just cause us to do wicked things, but it’s a complete corruption of our nature. Sin also pushes us to justify ourselves before God. We whitewash our works, and offer them to God with the hope that He would reciprocate with some praise for us. But when we expect to be the subject of our own prayers, and the object of God’s praise, we have turned ourselves into gods. You will be like gods, the devil told Adam and Eve. And that empty promise has echoed down through every generation since.
This is a human problem, but it does not have a human solution. Everything in the world works like the Pharisee’s prayer. You want to get paid more? Do a better job. You want people to like you? Don’t treat them wrong. You want to have a happy marriage? Don’t commit adultery. But in God’s kingdom, things get turned upside down. And when you honor yourself, you get humbled.
So what is the divine solution to the human problem? At first blush, it also looks like a human solution. Jesus concludes the application of the parable with the words, “but if you humble yourself, you will be honored.” Is this one activity that gets God’s approval? Is this one work among all the others that succeeds in securing God’s favor? By no means! The activity of consequence is not the person humbling himself, but the act of lifting him back up again. He will be honored. That’s what we call a divine passive. The action is God’s; He does the honoring. The one who humbles himself will be honored.
Still, it could be construed that humbling yourself is the trigger that brings on God’s favor. But the parable shows us what it means to humble yourself. “But the tax collector, standing a distance away, wouldn’t even look up to heaven but was beating his chest and saying, ‘God, forgive me, a sinner!’” There is nothing the tax collect has to offer to God, and what he does have, he knows is unacceptable to God. He stands apart, beats his chest, and lowers his eyes.
The posture of the tax collector is a picture of his attitude. His offering to God is void. It’s nothing. It’s empty. He is a vessel needing to be filled. This is humility. Truly, you can’t humble yourself. At least, not by doing something. Because as soon as you do something, you have something to boast about. The Pharisee had a lot to offer, but he too could have taken the stand of the tax collector. Like Solomon of old, he could have called all of his works, all of his accomplishments, vanity.
This is the tax collector. Everything is vanity, he says in effect. The only thing that matters is the work of God. God, forgive me, a sinner. And it is precisely the mercy of God by the forgiveness of sins that raises the tax collector out of his humility. “This man,” says Jesus, “went home justified.”
Justified literally means, “made right with.” Like when you click right-justify on your word processor and everything lines up on the right side of the page. To be justified is to be made right with God. This is not something that we can do. If we are honest with ourselves, we should always be hunched over, staring at the ground, not willing to lift our eyes. But God justifies the humble. He makes you right. And He does so by the right angle created by two beams of wood, on which hung the Son of God.
The prayer, “God, forgive me, a sinner,” was answered by Jesus’ suffering and death on the cross. There forgiveness was earned. But it wasn’t distributed there. For the distribution of the forgiveness of sins, you go to the Sacrament. Dr. Luther wrote, “We treat of the forgiveness of sins in two ways. First, how it is achieved and won. Second, how it is distributed and given to us. Christ has achieved it on the cross, it is true. But he has not distributed or given it on the cross. He has not won it in the supper or sacrament. There he has distributed and given it through the Word, as also in the gospel, where it is preached. He has won it once for all on the cross. But the distribution takes place continuously, before and after, from the beginning to the end of the world.”
So, pray with the tax collector, “God, forgive me, a sinner.” And trust the word of forgiveness proclaimed to you. And go to the Supper to receive the forgiveness won for you on the cross.
In the name of + Jesus.
Jacob W Ehrhard