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Sermon for Trinity 11 (St. Luke 18:9-14)

by Rev. Brian Hamer ~ October 1st, 2009

Sermon on St. Luke 18:9-14

[The Parable of the Pharisee & Tax Collector]

Trinity XI

+ Jesu Juva +

Therefore humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God,

that He may exalt you in due time. – I Pet 5:6

St. Peter’s admonition to “humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God that He may exalt you in due time” is a perfect summary of the theme of the parable of the pharisee and the tax collector. For those who humble themselves by placing themselves underneath the crucified One will be exalted with the forgiveness of sins. But those who refuse to repent will be cast down into hellfire. An important lesson for us on what it means to stand righteous before God.

Jesus said, “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.” The image here is probably the daily prayer services in the Jerusalem temple at 9:00 in the morning and 3:00 in the afternoon. Twice daily bloody sacrifices were offered, incensed was burned, and the priests offered prayers for the people–similar to our Matins and Vespers, the morning and evening prayer services of the church. During these daily sacrifices, the faithful were invited to come and pray in the temple. So the setting here is a public prayer service, but the prayers offered by these two men were obviously private prayers, similar to your praying your own silent prayer before the service. Two men went to the temple to pray, as many pharisees, tax collectors, and others did every day. But how different are these two men before God!

The Pharisee, a prominent class of Jewish religious leaders, was “standing by himself.” The underlying NT phrase can mean “standing by himself” or “praying by himself” or even “praying within himself.” In any event, the image here is one who is entirely turned in on himself. He prays so that the tax collector can hear him, so I would suggest that he is not standing by himself, but really caught up in his own unholy triad: me, myself, and I. His prayer is certainly an exercise is self-congratulations: “I thank you that I am not like other men.” To be sure, it was customary to begin a Jewish prayer with thanksgiving, as Luther does in his morning and evening prayers, “I thank you, my Heavenly Father . . .” But see how his thanksgiving is really about himself, not about God: “I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.” Here the Pharisee has really communicated with himself and with the tax collector, not with God. This is an abuse of prayer, making it more of a phone conversation between men, with no need for God. And it gets worse: “I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.” Indeed, Jews of Jesus’ day did fast twice a week. Tithing, giving 10% of your agricultural products, was also commanded in the OT and indeed it was a good practice. But neither practice was intended for bragging, especially in prayer. “I thank You that I am not like them and that I am like me.” And that’s it! No “in Jesus’ name,” or “amen” at the end. The Pharisee stood by himself, prayed by himself (arguably prayed to himself!) and made sure that the tax collector knew what the Pharisee thought of him.

And what about us? There’s much to be said based on the Pharisee about our prayer life – the setting (where you pray), the ritual (what you do with your body), and the words (how we pray). But prayer is an expression of what we already believe about the forgiveness of sins in Christ, which is why the Lord’s Prayer follows the Creed in the Small Catechism. Faith first, prayer second. So the primary focus in this parable is not primarily prayer, but rather justification, i.e., what it means to stand righteous before God. The Pharisee thought that he was righteous before God because of who He was and what He did, and this was certainly evident in his prayers. This reminds us that the pharisee-in-us stands proud before God, wanting to parade its own self and its own works before His throne. The pharisee-in-us thinks too highly of itself and too lowly of others and not enough at all of God. We have bragged about our service to the church. We have been willing to hold special posts in the church, but unwilling to attend to the study of the Divine Word. We have given gifts with the hope of recognition and the pride of seeing my name in print. We have come to church not primarily to focus on God, but to focus on me, myself, and my feelings (“How did that sermon make you feel today?”). We have been too absorbed in local circumstance – the way we’ve always done it; the way I like it; the way it makes me feel good (“Are people happy?”), instead of thinking things through from the perspective of the gospel. We have become so absorbed in personal likes and dislikes that we seem to have forgotten about the real presence of Christ altogether. Repent! “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled . . .

But the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” The tax collector, a despised IRS man of the Roman Empire, is a case study in the right doctrine of justification before God. He stood afar off, a posture that indicates that we should never come barging into God’s presence, but that we should approach God reverently, in awe, and only through Christ. He would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, for his sins weighed so heavily upon his heart that He was inclined to pray with the centurion, “Lord, I am not worthy that you should come under my roof, but speak the word only and my soul shall be healed.” The tax collector beat his breast, a profound sign of repentance by beating the heart as the source of sinful desires, for Jesus said that evil thoughts and desires proceed out of the heart. And the tax collector prayed a prayer similar to the Kyrie, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” The NT actually says, “God, make atonement for me, a sinner!” Again, picture the setting of this gospel lesson, the daily temple sacrifices at 9:00 and 3:00. As the tax collector prays, blood is being shed for his sins, prayers are being offered by the priests for the people, and incense is rising before God as a symbol of those prayers. “God, make atonement for me, a sinner!” The atonement, the full payment of the price for his sin, was being made at the very moment he offered this prayer. And God was merciful to this sinner, forgiving his sins based on the blood shed in the temple.

So it is for us! We see our sins and we pray with the tax collector, “God, make atonement for me, a sinner!” And God has made atonement for us on the cross. As the hymn puts it: “My sins, O Lord, against me rise, I mourn them with contrition; Grant th[rough] Thy death and sacrifice, To me a full remission. Lord, show before the Father’s throne / That Thou [did] for my sins atone.” We no longer make bloody sacrifices every morning and evening, for the great sacrifice and atonement for our sins has already been made once-for-all on the cross. Christ our great High Priest, the One who offers His own body as a sacrifice for our sins. Christ is also the lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world. And His blood is the incense that now rises before God as the morning and evening sacrifice, the one and only sacrifice that is acceptable to God the Father as full payment for all of our sins.

And so Jesus concludes, “I tell you, [the tax collector] went down to his house justified, rather than the [Pharisee].” The two went up together, probably singing the same ascent Psalm, a Psalm that talks about ascending the hill of the Lord. But they went down from the temple as two different men in God’s eyes: one righteous and one unrighteous. This is the main point of this familiar parable: your going home justified today is God’s free gift in Christ. We have been baptized. We have ascended our holy hill, the church. We have stood in God’s presence to receive and respond to His gifts, heard the word of justification, and received Jesus’ true body and blood. And His benediction sends us back to our daily lives, where His gifts are lived out in a holy and God-pleasing life in what we say and do. Yes, I say, we go home justified (i.e., righteous, forgiven) as God’s free gift in Christ.

“Therefore humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you in due time.” The rhythm of the Christian life is daily repentance and faith. Daily die to sin and crucify all that is not of Christ. And daily rise to a new life of full and free forgiveness in Jesus’ name. It’s just like Jesus’ own pattern of dying on Good Friday and rising on Easter Sunday. And it is all ours by faith in Christ, who makes us worthy to stand righteous before God. INJ. Amen.

Rev. Brian Hamer

Redeemer Lutheran Church, Bayside, NY

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