Sermon for Ash Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2016

Luke 18:9-14 (Ash Wednesday—Ironies of the Passion)

“This Man Went Home Justified”

Lutheran Church of Our Redeemer, Enfield CT

February 10, 2016

 In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

          “It’s not my fault!”  Does that sound familiar?  If you’re a parent, you’ve probably heard it from you children.  If you’re a supervisor, you’ve likely heard it from an employee.  And what always follows that statement?  An attempt to justify themselves.  And what does that mean?  They make an excuse for what they did.  They try to shift the blame and get out of whatever consequences might be coming.  It’s kind of ironic that we use the word “justify” for that, because “justify” is one of the most important words in the Bible.  It means that God declares us not guilty of sin.  But when we use the word in everyday speech, it almost always means that we make an excuse.  That subtle difference illustrates the theme of our Lenten services.  This year, we’re going to hear about irony.  Irony is getting the opposite of what you might expect.  Jesus’ passion is filled with irony. 

          Let’s consider Jesus’ parable in our Gospel lesson.  What is the irony, the unexpected result?  This man went home justified!

          Maybe the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector doesn’t seem all that ironic to us.  But the text has a result that is the opposite of what anyone would have the right to expect.  Jesus wanted his hearers to be surprised when he told them that this man went home justified, instead of the man who tried to follow God’s laws.

          Jesus told this parable “to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: ‘Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.  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.  I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’” (Lk. 18:9-12 ESV)  We cringe at that prayer, don’t we?  But how did Jesus’ audience react?  They thought they were righteous, so Jesus didn’t tell a story that would sound ridiculous to them.  He didn’t want them simply to dismiss his comments as a caricature of the people he was talking to.  So how did the Pharisee sound to them? 

          One of the ironies of this parable is how we react to the word Pharisee.  To us, that word means proud and self-righteous.  We can’t imagine a Pharisee as anything other than a hypocrite.  The gospels back up that assessment.  But to the first-century Jew, Pharisee meant something else.  St. Paul was raised a Pharisee, and he was proud of that label before he came to faith.  The Pharisees were the people who defended a strict interpretation of the Old Testament law.  They held that it really was the Word of God and that it really was true, unlike the Sadducees who were more like the theological liberals of many churches today.

          So when this man said that he was not a robber or an evildoer or an adulterer—that was true.  He didn’t break into people’s houses or shoplift.  He had never committed any crime that could get him thrown into jail.  He didn’t sleep around.  He didn’t even have a traffic ticket!  And to any first-century Jewish observer, there was a clear difference between him and the tax collector.  Tax collectors were collaborators.  They worked for the Romans, who had conquered the Jewish nation, and they collected taxes from their own people.  The Romans let the tax collectors collect far more than the government required and then keep the difference.  Again and again in the gospels, we also see them in the company of prostitutes and sinners.  You’re known by the company you keep.  Even more so, you’re influenced by the company you keep.  Many tax collectors did plunge into all kinds of sin.  Not only did this Pharisee avoid all that, but he gave 10% of his income to the Lord, just like the Old Testament laws commanded.  He fasted twice a week, and God only commanded in the Law of Moses one fast per year!  It’s pretty easy to see why this man would be pleased with the kind of man he was.  Jesus’ listeners would identify with him. 

          So what’s the problem?  It was the pride of his heart.  One of the great ironies we learn from the Bible is that even though we might be doing the right thing, if it’s for the wrong reason, we’re still guilty of sin.  This man was confident of his own righteousness.  He thought he was earning points with God by what he was doing.  He thought that he was coming out ahead in God’s record book.  Wasn’t he?  No.  Because he ignored everything God said about needing a new heart, about approaching God with humility, and about being a sinner who is saved by God’s mercy. 

          It’s a great irony when people think they can keep God’s law but always seem to have to rewrite those laws.  They cut out the parts they can’t keep—like having a pure heart and a humble spirit or avoiding lust and greed and coveting.  Then they add things they can do—like fasting twice a week or giving a tenth of their income to church.  Then they tell themselves that they are doing God’s will.  That simply isn’t true.  This Pharisee was not justified.  In God’s court, he was still guilty!

          Can you and I ever be confident in our own righteousness?  Could we ever echo this man’s prayer?  “I thank you, Lord, that I am not like other people in our pornographic, materialistic society.  I avoid Internet sites that no one should look at.  I don’t beat my wife or children.  I don’t use drugs.  I stay out of trouble.  And look at all I do for my congregation.  I never miss a Lenten service!” 

          Could we offer that prayer?  If we did, what would be wrong with it?  Doesn’t God want us to avoid Internet sites that lead us to lust?  Of course.  He also expects us to love our spouses and children.  He calls us to support the work of HIS church with our offerings, our time, and our talents. 

          So what is the problem?  The same problem the Pharisee had—pride.  If we’re doing all that because we think we’re righteous before God, if we break our arms patting ourselves on the back for all we do, if we ignore the areas of our hearts and lives where we sin and tell ourselves that we’re better Christians than all those others, then we have done nothing that God considers righteous.  We are sinners, born and bred.  Sin corrupts even our best efforts and makes them as filthy rags in God’s sight. 

          Jesus is the only reason God accepts our efforts.  He died and paid for the sin in our hearts that contaminates every effort we ever make to serve God.  He died and paid for the pride and sin that cuts off those parts of God’s law we cannot do and that adds things God never commanded.  Jesus suffering and death erased all of God’s record of our sin.  His shed blood makes us perfect in God’s sight.  The Father sees Jesus when He looks at us so that what we do by grace through faith in Jesus pleases Him.  Because we have been declared righteous because of what Jesus did for us in His death on the cross—justified, to use the biblical term—we are empowered by the Holy Spirit to want to serve the Lord with our offerings, our time, and our effort.  We want to avoid temptation, and to live for God in Christ. 

          The irony of the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector is that the man who thought of himself as a committed, churchgoing follower of God failed to grasp the meaning of repentance for a new life.  But the man who lived a sinful life understood what it meant to repent, and he threw himself on God’s undeserved mercy.  This man, who humbled himself before God, went home justified. 

          “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!’”  He understood that he could make no defense in God’s courtroom.  He didn’t lie to himself about his righteousness.  He understood the only verdict God could possibly render was guilty.  So he threw himself on God’s mercy.  God knows that we deserve to die and go to hell, but He loves us and sent His Son Jesus to save us from sin, death and hell.  Jesus shed His blood on the tree of the cross so that our record of sin might be wiped clean. 

          In His mercy, the Lord comes to us today in His Word and tells us this good news.  In His Word and Sacrament, Christ touches our broken hearts and gives us faith and hope to stand before Him and confess our sin and plead for forgiveness, knowing and trusting in His mercy.  Because Jesus Christ was given to die in our place, because He shed His blood to purchase the forgiveness of sins, God declares us not guilty.  Our sins have been washed away; they are no longer counted against us.  You are forgiven; you are free.  Therefore, we are able to pray, “I thank you, God, that you don’t give me what I deserve.  I thank you, God, that you have had mercy on me.  No one knows better than you how guilty I really am.  But you declared me not guilty in Jesus Christ.  You gave me love and forgiveness.” 

          Irony is written all over the gospel.  God cares about your heart.  God cares about your faith.  No matter how sinful you have been, by the mercy of God in Christ, you are declared not guilty of sin.  Go home today justified in Jesus’ name!  Amen. 

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