Pastor James Preus
August 20, 2023
“For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” This oft-repeated proverb of Jesus summarizes how one goes to heaven or hell. To exalt oneself means to lift oneself up high. No one is more highly exalted than God, who dwells in the highest heaven. Those who exalt themselves seek to ascend to God. Whoever exalts himself to God will be humbled. To be humbled means to be brought down low. You can’t be humbled lower than hell. So, Jesus says that everyone who exalts himself to God will be cast down to hell. But whoever humbles himself, acknowledging that he deserves hell, God will lift-up to heaven. You cannot exalt yourself to heaven. Only God can exalt you. He exalts the humble.
Jesus teaches us in this parable that those who trust in themselves that they are righteous are those who exalt themselves before God and are therefore cast down to hell. God is righteous. All righteousness comes from God. To be righteous means to be in a right relationship with God, it means to be brought up to God’s presence and to be looked upon favorably by God. The Pharisee was self-righteous. He did not wait on God to exalt him and declare him righteous. Rather, he declared himself righteous, that is, he justified himself. And for this, God condemned him.
The Pharisee in Jesus’ story went to the temple to pray. He stood separate from the people, fitting with his title Pharisee, which means “one who is separated.” He then thanked God in his prayer, but his thanksgiving was only a pretense to boast in himself. He says, “God, I thank you, because I am not like other men.” He is not thanking God for making him different than other men. It could have been a good prayer if the Pharisee had said, “God, I thank you that you have kept me from sin and unbelief, which has captured other men.” But no, the Pharisee only brags about his own actions. “I am not like other men, extortioners, unrighteous, adulterers, even as this tax collector.” Fitting with those who trust in themselves that they are righteous, the Pharisee despises others, even accusing the tax collector of extortion, unrighteousness, and adultery. Think of it, the Pharisee stands in the same building where the sacrifice of atonement for sins is offered, and he points out to God another man’s sin!
Yet, this is the manner of all the self-righteous. Because if you will justify yourself, then you must condemn others! Why? Because no one will be justified by works of the Law (Galatians 2:16). If you ignore the works of everyone but yourself, and only consider your own works according to God’s Law, then you will only see your own sin (Romans 3:20). You will only see how you have failed to love God and your neighbor as you ought. But, if you can drag your neighbor into the mix, then you can convince yourself that you are more righteous than your neighbor. And so, slandering one’s neighbor in his heart has been the mode of justifying oneself since the fall into sin!
Check if you have done this? When is the last time you justified your own actions by comparing them to another? “Oh, I may have looked at women with lust, but I’ve never cheated on my wife like others I know.” “Sure, I’ve lost my temper at my wife and children, but I’ve never stuck them, like the sleaze with his mugshot in the paper.” “I may be cheap at times, but I’ve never stolen like others.” “I’ve hated my neighbor in my heart, but I’m not a murderer.” And so, the self-righteous justify themselves in their own hearts, seeking to lift themselves up to God by stepping on the necks of their neighbors. If you look at the Pharisee closely, you might find yourself looking back from the mirror.
Then the Pharisee tries to inflate his righteousness by bragging about his works. “I fast twice a week.” That’s good, but what good is fasting if not to learn that man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God? And God’s Word says that no one living is righteous (Psalm 143:2; Ecc 7:20). “I tithe all that I get,” he brags. Very good. You gave back a tenth of all that God has given you. But have you observed the weightier matters of the law: justice, mercy, and faithfulness? (Matthew 23:23) The Pharisee’s boasts may be able to fool those around him and even his own conscience, but they cannot fool God, who looks on the secret heart.
The tax collector demonstrates to us how one is exalted to heaven by being humble. He, like the Pharisee, stands by himself, but for a different reason. The tax collector feels unworthy to stand in the congregation of the righteous. He cannot even lift his eyes up to heaven, because he is ashamed. He beats his breast, showing that he recognizes that the source of his sin and shame comes out of his own heart, a point the Pharisee completely misses. By striking his breast, he behaves like the crowd leaving the scene of Jesus’ crucifixion, lamenting the great injustice that has been done, for which they only can blame themselves (Luke 23:48). It is as if the tax collector is saying, “On me, me only is the guilt. It is all my fault.” And that is what he says, “Have mercy on me, the sinner.” Our English translation has him say, “a sinner,” but it is better translated as the sinner. He does not do as the Pharisee and we so often do, and point out the sins of others. He doesn’t say, “Yes, I’m a sinner, but everyone’s a sinner, so it’s not that bad.” No, he doesn’t bring up anyone else’s sin but his own, and confesses himself to be the guilty sinner. He doesn’t try to distance himself from his actions, but acknowledges that they came from his own heart. No, the tax collector does not exalt himself to heaven declaring himself righteous before God. Far from it. Rather, he drops himself into the depths of woe. To the world this seems counterproductive. Yet, we must remember what Scripture says, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” (1 Timothy 1:15)
Yet, it is not his acknowledgment of his own sin that ultimately lifts the tax collector out of the pit of hell into the heavenly places. The word the tax collector uses for mercy reveals his steadfast faith in Christ his Savior, which justifies him. The word the tax collector used for mercy is perhaps best understood as “make atonement for me.” It can also be translated as “be propitiated to me” or “be expiated toward me,” but few people understand what those words mean. I think you are all familiar with the word atone. Atone means to cover a sin or wash it away. It means to make amends. The Pharisee and the tax collector are standing in the temple, where each morning and evening a lamb is sacrificed to make atonement for the sins of the people. The Pharisee points out the sins of others for which God makes atonement, to boost himself. The tax collector points to the sacrifice of atonement and prays to God, “Let that atonement be for me, yes, even for me!”
Of course, it isn’t the lamb sacrificed in the temple which makes atonement for any sins, but the Lamb of God to whom these lambs point, who makes atonement for the sins of the whole world. The Apostle writes of Christ in Hebrews chapter 2, “Therefore He had to be made like His brothers in every respect, so that He might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make atonement (or propitiation) for the sins of the people.” (vs. 17) And St. John writes in his first epistle, chapter 2, “He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.” And by propitiation, what he means is atonement. Christ Jesus, the Lamb of God, has made atonement for the sins of the whole world. He has paid for them with His blood. He has washed them away, covered them, made amends for them, however else you want to explain atonement, they are gone! And this tax collector in fervent faith prays that that payment for sins would be applied to him personally. And by the fact that Jesus says that he rather than the Pharisee went down to his house justified proves that God answered his prayer.
And here we must make a clarification about humility and pride. The world turns Jesus’ words on their head and claims that if you say that Jesus is the only way to salvation, then you are prideful. The world says that it is arrogant to say that you know the way to heaven and that there is no other way. But it is not arrogant to say that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life, and that no one comes to the Father except through Him (John 14:6). It is not prideful to say that you are certain that you stand righteous before God for the sake of Jesus’ innocent shed blood, suffering, and death. You are not boasting in yourself when you confess that you know you will go to heaven when you die, because Christ has prepared a place for you. Rather, Scripture exhorts us, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.” (Jeremiah 9:24; 1 Cor. 1:31; 2 Cor. 10:17; Gal. 6:14) And we should never stop boasting in the cross of Jesus Christ, which alone grants full forgiveness of sins and makes us righteous before our God. We do not exalt ourselves by standing on God’s Word, rather those who claim that we cannot know are the ones who exalt themselves above God’s Word.
Don’t let anyone tell you that you’re arrogant or prideful for standing on the promises God makes to you in Holy Scripture, when He says that Jesus has washed away all your sins, when He says that your Baptism has clothed you in Christ and has indeed saved you (Gal. 3:26; 1 Peter 3:21), when you confess that Christ indeed feeds you His body and blood in His Sacrament for the forgiveness of your sins. This is not arrogance or pride, but humbly receiving from your gracious Father’s hand in heaven.
Jesus says that the tax collector went down to his house justified. Do you think he felt righteous? He didn’t look righteous. Jesus doesn’t tell us about any good works he did? Presumably, he bore fruits of repentance as Zacchaeus did, who gave four-times more to anyone he defrauded and shared his wealth with the poor (Luke 19). And we’ve heard that St. Paul worked harder than any other apostle after being saved by grace (1 Cor. 15). But we’ve heard of no good works from this tax collector, just that he went down to his house justified. Although good works indeed follow saving faith, no works done by this tax collector contributed to his justification before God. So, I ask you. Did this tax collector feel righteous?
It doesn’t matter. Probably not. That’s not the point. The Pharisee sure felt righteous, but that didn’t do him any good. He looked righteous too, but that did nothing for him before God’s throne. It is not how you look or feel that determines whether you are righteous before God. It depends entirely on your faith in Jesus Christ, who made atonement for your sins. You may be the worst sinner in this congregation. You may feel like the worst sinner here. Your shame may be welling up in your heart, so that you feel the compulsion to beat your chest until it’s numb. But you should believe for Christ’s sake that your sins are covered. You should believe that God has clothed you with a garment of salvation and a robe of righteousness (Isaiah 61:10). You should believe that though your sins are like scarlet, Christ has washed them clean in His own blood (Isaiah 1:18). You should believe that God has made atonement for you through the death of Christ Jesus your Savior. And you should humbly receive this promise, because God has promised it to you. Amen.