September 1, 2019
Jesus directs this parable at those who trusted in themselves that they were righteous. He tells of two men, who go to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. Now, we generally think of Pharisees as bad, because they frequently clash with Jesus. But we have to remember, at this place and time in history, Pharisees were good. They were devoted to God’s word and worship. They followed the rules. They were the prime example of good Jewish citizens. You wanted your son to be a Pharisee. That would make a mother proud.
Tax collectors on the other hand were hated by everyone. And not for no reason. Not only did they collect taxes for the much-hated Roman government, but they frequently stole, collecting more than was required, making themselves rich by burdening their countrymen. Yet, to the certain surprise of those listening to this parable when Jesus first told it, Jesus declares that the tax collector went down to his house justified and the Pharisee didn’t!
To be justified means to be declared righteous by God. The Pharisee trusted that God would find him righteous because of all his good works. He thought his works were good enough to earn the approval of God. The Pharisee was works-righteous.
Now, that’s not to say that these aren’t good works to do. He says that he is not an extortioner, a liar, or an adulterer. He makes a point that he is nothing like that low-life tax collector. He fasted twice a week, showing that he was not a greedy glutton or drunkard, but disciplined his body for the sake of his religion. He tithed, meaning, he gave ten percent of all of his income to God. If you were to place him into today’s society, he would be the most loved citizen and member of the church. It would be great if we all did these things listed by the Pharisee.
Yet, Jesus tells us that all these good works were no good and failed to please God. Why is that? Because these were only outside works, while the Pharisee’s heart was far from God. Jesus teaches us that these two commandments: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind; and love your neighbor as yourself; sum up all Scripture. Yet, the Pharisee showed that he loved neither the Lord God nor his neighbor.
He showed that he hated his neighbor. He despised the tax collector. He didn’t pray for him. He didn’t show pity to him. He didn’t consider that he was as miserable a sinner as he was. No, he hated the tax collector and all sinners who failed to set up the righteous veneer that he did.
Of course, Scripture teaches us that you cannot love God and hate your brother, because whoever loves God must also love his brother. And the Pharisee shows that he does not love God, because he does not give God the glory. Yes, he “thanks” God that he is not like other men, but this is more of a pretense than an actual prayer of thanksgiving. He then continues to say, “I, I, I.” He doesn’t actually confess that it is God who leads us out of temptation and delivers us from shameful living. He performed a bunch of outward works, but he didn’t actually love God and his neighbor.
If the Pharisee were truly righteous, he would have prayed for the soul of the tax collector, spoken with him and restored him to God in a spirit of gentleness, as St. Paul writes, “Bear one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ.” But the Pharisee did his works without love, so God was not pleased with his works.
Scripture also says, “For the commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,’ and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” (Romans 13:9) So, if you do all that the Pharisee did and more, and live the perfect outward life, yet you do not love, then your works are worthless. Your motivation for all good works must be love.
Those who trust in themselves to be righteous treat others with contempt, because they are insecure. The Pharisee needed to live up to a certain standard to prove that he was righteous. Well, he obviously could not live up to God’s standard. God’s standard is that you be perfect, even as he is perfect. So, instead, the Pharisee compared himself to others. That’s easy. Just find others, who mess up more than you do and judge yourself compared to them. Yet, this is not how God will judge you. And, this leads only to hating those, whom you are commanded to love.
We love, because God first loved us. You cannot love, unless you are confident in God’s love. But you are not confident in God’s love, if you trust in yourself to be righteous. Rather, you must always find excuses for why God should love you.
Works-righteousness not only produces the opposite effect of God’s desired righteousness, which is love, but it is foolish. Scripture tells us that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23) and that there is not a righteous man on earth who does good and never sins (Ecclesiastes 7:20). No one is righteous, no not one. All fail to keep the commandments perfectly. God makes no distinction between Pharisee and tax collector. They both fall short of God’s glory.
And this is why the tax collector behaves much wiser than the Pharisee and goes home justified by God. The tax collector does not try to justify himself. He does not bring God a list of his accomplishments or good works. Rather, he acknowledges that he is a sinner. In fact, while the Pharisee pointed out the sins of others, the tax collector calls himself the sinner. He does not point to the faults of anyone else. He doesn’t compare himself with others or blame others. He takes ownership of his own sin, he strikes his breast in shame, and he begs God for mercy.
And this is not just a desperate appeal by a man, who has nothing else to lose. The tax collector prays to God in faith. The word he uses for mercy here actually means, “be propitiated to me” or “make atonement for me.” It is the same word used for the Mercy Seat, which is in the Holy of Holies in the Temple, where God himself sits. From the Mercy Seat God accepts the sacrifices of Israel and makes atonement for their sins. And every sacrifice points to Christ. St. Paul writes in Romans chapter 3 that God put forward Jesus Christ as a propitiation, that is, a sacrifice of atonement by his blood. When the tax collector said, “God, be propitiated to me the sinner” he was pleading to God for mercy for the sake of Christ’s atoning sacrifice, to which every sacrifice in the temple points.
“God, be merciful to me a sinner.” are words of faith. The tax collector believes God’s promise that he will make atonement for the sins of his people. Every sacrifice made in the temple is a sermon that preaches that Christ will make atonement for sins. With these words the tax collector confesses his faith in Christ. He uses almost the exact words as Psalm 79, which state, “Atone for our sins for your name’s sake.” The tax collector holds God to his promise. God cannot deny him atonement of sins any more than he can deny his own name. God must keep his word.
And God has kept his word. He sent his Son, Jesus Christ to make atonement for our sins. Jesus is the only human being, who truly is righteous of himself. He loved God perfectly with all his heart, soul, and mind. He loved his neighbors to the very end, as he died for their trespasses. Jesus paid the price that the blood of countless beasts sacrificed in the temple could never pay. Jesus paid for our sins with his own precious blood. That is what it means to make atonement. That is what it means for God to be propitiated. God is no longer angry with sinners, but pleased with them for the sake of Jesus’ suffering and death.
When the tax collector prayed to God to be merciful to him, he prayed that God would credit this sacrifice of atonement to him too. He showed that he trusted not in his own works, but only in the merits of Christ. And it is only the merits of Christ that can justify a sinner. This is why Scripture says, “Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness, just as David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works: blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin.” (Romans 4:4-8)
None of us can stand before God by our own works. In Psalm 130 we hear, “If you, O LORD, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand? But with you there is forgiveness, that you may be feared.” God knows all your sins. Standing before God isn’t like going to a job interview where you present a resume filled with all your best achievements and hope that the boss doesn’t find out about anything embarrassing in your past. No. God already knows everything about you. You can’t hide from him. The Pharisee couldn’t. And the tax collector knew he couldn’t. Yet, God is merciful. He sent his Son to make atonement for your sins, to forgive you, to give you a righteousness that is not your own, but is a gift from Christ to you.
The tax collector is a good example to us of humility. Jesus says that the humble will be exalted. Humility and faith go together. Through faith, you receive a gift. You don’t work for it. You believe it and you receive it. For this you must be humble. You don’t try to earn it, like the Pharisee did. You don’t claim that you deserve it. Rather, you let God exalt you according to his promise and mercy in Jesus Christ. This is why repentance and faith go together. It is impossible to have saving faith in Christ while not having sorrow over your own sin. We have faith is Christ, because we know what our sins have earned us. And we desire to receive from Christ what can only be received by grace.
This lesson is a severe warning to those, who think that they do not need God’s forgiveness and that they are righteous by their own works. No one is righteous of himself, except Jesus Christ alone. Yet, this lesson is a great comfort to those who know their own sin and unworthiness. There is no sin for which Christ has not atoned. There is no sinner so terrible that God cannot forgive. We poor sinners have a gracious God, who is merciful to us for the sake of Jesus Christ. Each of us can go home justified by God today, not because any of us is better than anyone else, but because we have received Christ’s righteousness as a gift through faith. We come to God empty, and we go home full.
This righteousness that we receive through faith will also bear fruit. Not rotten hypocritical fruit, like the loveless works for the Pharisee. But true fruits of love, which come only from a heart made clean by the blood of Christ. Yet our confidence remains always in Christ’s righteousness, even as St. Paul confessed that he would be found by God not with a righteousness of his own, but one that comes through faith in Christ. That is our righteousness too. Let us pray.
I have naught, My God, to offer,
Save the blood of Thy dear Son;
Graciously accept the proffer:
Make His righteousness mine own.
His holy life gave He, was crucified for me;
His righteousness perfect He now pleads before Thee;
His own robe of righteousness, my highest good,
Shall clothe me in glory, through faith in his blood. Amen. (One Thing Needful, J. H. Schroeder, ELH 182:6).