Luke 18:9-14 (Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost/Proper 25—Series C)
“God, Be Merciful to Elders”
Lutheran Church of Our Redeemer, Enfield, CT
October 23, 2016
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Our text is from the Gospel reading recorded in Luke 18:
9And [Jesus] spoke this parable also to some who were convinced in themselves that they were righteous and who despised the rest: 10Two men went up into the temple to pray. One was a Pharisee and the other was a tax collector. 11The Pharisee had stood and began to pray this to himself, “O God, I give thanks to you that I am not like the rest of the people—swindlers, unrighteous, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12I fast twice a week. I tithe whatever I acquire.” 13But the tax collector had stood far off and was not willing to lift up his eyes to heaven, but began to beat his chest saying, “O God, grant atonement to me, the sinner that I am.” 14I say to you, this one went down to his house having been declared righteous rather than that one. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.
What did the tax collector in Jesus’ parable know that the Pharisee didn’t? It is the answer to this question that gives us the remarkable outcome of the events in the parable. By all accounts, shouldn’t it be the one most knowledgeable of God’s Word and who more closely follows God’s Law that should go home declared righteous? Certainly, that’s what the people listening to Jesus’ parable would have assumed.
People, by nature, believe that it is their responsibility to make God happy. Throughout history, people have sought to make their particular deities happy through offerings of various kinds. If the people believed that their god was angry with them, because it hadn’t rained in a while, they would try to placate him with their actions or offerings of grain or food or even human sacrifice. There is a general consensus that a person should do something that will influence the god to change his mind or to perform a certain action that will merit the special favor of the deity. Simply put, people bribe their god to be good to them.
With this in mind, shouldn’t it be the Pharisee who leaves the temple and returns to his home declared righteous before God? After all, he isn’t like the rest of people who are swindlers, unrighteous, adulterers, and thieves and cheats like the tax collector. Look at what he does to make God happy. He fasts twice a week and he gives God 10% of whatever he acquires. He seems to know God’s Word; he indicates keeps God’s Law. God must really be happy with this Pharisee and people like him. Just look at the confidence he radiates as he approaches God in prayer!
But he’s not the guy that goes home on God’s good side. He’s not the guy that leaves the temple with God’s favor. You can almost hear the crowd gasp as Jesus makes the reveal. This guy, this tax collector, is the one whom God declares righteous and enjoys His divine favor. How is this even possible? Did you notice what he offered to God? Nothing! He presents nothing of his behavior as pleasing to God. He says nothing about what makes him stand out over against other people. This tax collector won’t even look up toward heaven but instead beats upon his chest in what appears to be deep grief and sorrow. The only thing Jesus’ parable shows us about this tax collector is that, by the man’s own admission, he’s a sinner. In fact, he’s the sinner—not just a sinner among many, but the guilty one himself, much in the same way Paul identifies himself in 1 Timothy 1 as “chief of sinners.”
By all accounts, this guy shouldn’t go home declared righteous. What has he done to please God? What has he done to earn God’s favor? Not a single thing. And ironically, neither had the Pharisee. The one, true God cannot be bribed by His fallen creation. The only thing that makes God truly happy in terms of obedience to His Word is absolute perfection. If you do not wish God to be angry with you, do not sin. “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5:48). But what about the fasting and the tithing and the good behavior? God Himself says about people and our behavior that “we are all like one who is unclean, all our so-called righteous acts are like a filthy rag in [His] sight” (Isa. 64:6).
What did the tax collector in Jesus’ parable know that the Pharisee didn’t? The gravity of his own sin and God’s wrath against sin and sinner. The Pharisee approached God full of himself, bringing his so-called righteous acts before God as proof of his goodness, believing that the things he had done would please God and cancel out any wrongs that he may have done. But the Pharisee’s perceived self-righteousness and lack of love toward others proved otherwise. He was, by nature, sinful and unclean too. He was under the wrath and anger and condemnation of God who was not placated by the Pharisee’s so-called good works. The Pharisee doesn’t recognize his sins. He is blind to God’s wrath and judgment against those sins, assuming he is just fine because He has done some “good” things.
The tax collector was altogether different. He comes before the holy God of heaven and earth with only his sin and guilt before his eyes. He comes with the load of his own guilt and the condemnation that because of his sins God is angry with him. He acknowledges that God is the holy God who is also just, who must punish sin and sinner. The tax collector knows that God cannot be duped; God cannot be bribed. Sinners must be punished for their failure to fear, love, and trust in God above all things, for their inability to love their neighbors as themselves.
Are you and I like the Pharisee and believe ourselves to be righteous because we go to church or because we give an offering? How so very foolish! Do we believe ourselves to be better in God’s sight than other people because they are clearly worse sinners than we are? How so very foolish! In truth, we are the sinners at whom God’s wrath and anger against our sins must be directed. People do not like to hear about God’s wrath. They only want the God of love. But there is no way God can tolerate sin and sinner in His presence. His holiness doesn’t allow it; it cannot happen. Separation from God forever is what has to take place, and that means we should suffer the condemnation for all our sins in hell, the place where God is not.
But the holiness and justice of God do not cancel out the love of God for sinners. If the sinner like you and me is ever to be accepted before God, something has to be done about God’s wrath and displeasure. Something has to take God’s wrath away from us and the only way that can happen is if the sin and the sinner are punished.
In Martin Luther’s “Christian Questions with Their Answers” found in the Small Catechism the Reformer begins by asking, “Do you believe that you are a sinner? Yes, I believe it. I am a sinner. How do you know this? From the Ten Commandments, which I have not kept.” He continues, “What have you deserved from God because of your sins? His wrath and displeasure, temporal death, and eternal damnation.” We are then brought to the point at which we find ourselves standing with the tax collector. We know that we are sinners who have failed to keep the Ten Commandments in thought, desire, word, and deed. We know that, as sinners, we can offer nothing to God to make things right. We can only pray that God would do something to change our situation. “O God, grant atonement to me, the sinner that I am.”
That is a prayer of faith and trust in God who is just and holy but who is also gracious and merciful. The sinner leaves it to the will of God to do what is right. The punishment of death and hell is what is deserved. That must be absolutely clear. But God, by an act of His grace alone, chose to punish sin and sinner through a perfect substitute, God Himself in the person of the only Son of God. As one theologian put it, “Either we die or He dies.” Out of His grace, God chose to die for the sins of His people. “Sin has betrayed us into a situation where we deserve to have God inflict upon us the most serious consequences.” Instead, it was Jesus Christ, true God and true Man, upon whom all our sins were placed. He alone suffered the punishment of death and hell on the cross for the sins of the whole world, for our self-righteousness, for our failures to love God and our neighbor. Jesus was punished in our place for all our sins against every Commandment of God. God’s wrath was visited upon Jesus so that we would not face it.
The result of Jesus’ sacrificial death on the cross is the complete forgiveness of all our sins. Our prayer, just like the tax collector’s, has been granted. The relationship between us and God which was broken by our sin has been fully and completely restored by the death of Jesus and certified by the resurrection of Jesus. God Himself, with the gift of His Son who was into death for us on the cross, made that restoration happen.
Christ’s death and resurrection has taken away the offense of our sins before God. The crimes have been removed. We are reconciled to God—He is no longer angry with us because, in Christ, we are forgiven. Our sins are no longer charged to our accounts. They were charged to Jesus and so His sacrifice has made atonement for us. You and I are pardoned. As Paul writes in Romans 5, “Therefore, since we have been declared righteous by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom. 5:1 NET).
God’s wrath against the sins of the whole world has been turned away because of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. God now favors us with His love and forgiveness. And this has nothing to do with our behavior. “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8 ESV). God is fully satisfied with the blood Christ shed for us and for our salvation. God has granted us atonement, the sinners that you and I are! This is all totally by God’s grace without any merit or worthiness in us. It’s all gift. Perhaps the hymn says best what the tax collector in Jesus’ parable knew and what you and I believe and confess from God’s Word:
Not the labors of my hands
Can fulfill Thy Law’s demands;
Could my zeal no respite know,
Could my tears forever flow,
All for sin could not atone;
Thou must save and Thou alone. (“Rock of Ages,” LSB 761:2)
Jesus has saved you from sin, death, and hell. God’s wrath is not against you. Your sin is forgiven. Go to your house in peace. God has declared you righteous through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.
 Leon Morris, Apostolic Preaching of the Cross (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000), 213.