Posted by: St. Mark Lutheran Church | March 9, 2011

Sermon on Luke 18:9-14

The Only Sinner Here is You

Downloadable version

Lessons: John 12:1-11, 37-50, Isaiah 59:12-20, 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:2, Luke 18:9-14

Hymns (from Christian Worship and CW: Supplement): 125, 714, 303, 117, 317, 306

In the name of Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh.

Lent focuses upon righteousness.  So does Christ’s parable.  Three times righteousness is discussed.  Those to whom Jesus spoke are said to be confident of their own righteousness (v9). One of the sins of which the Pharisee absolved himself was that of being unjust (v11; Here, the NIV has “evildoer,” but many other English translations more literally reflect the Greek and say, “unjust,” as in an unbeliever).  And then there’s Jesus conclusion:  I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God (v14).

Pay attention to each one.  To some who were confident of their own righteousness (v9). The parable’s audience is left vague, perhaps on purpose.  We aren’t told if it’s Pharisees or Jesus’ disciples.  It could be either one.  It could be a synagogue congregation.  Whoever they were, what was true about them is that they knew something about themselves:  “We are righteous.”  This group of people were persuaded of the fact, confident of the fact, and trusted in the fact that before God they were innocent, righteous, perfect, and holy.  They trusted that they had a right relationship with God.  And you say, “Well, don’t we teach that a Christian can be confident that he is reconciled with God?”  Yes.  Except listen some more:  To some who were confident of their own righteousness, and looked down on everybody else (v9). Notice how these righteous ones behave.  By their fruits they are known.  Their treatment of others reflects on where they see their righteousness.  These aren’t saints reveling in the righteousness of Christ.  These are sinners reveling in their own standard of righteousness, one which no one but they themselves can attain.

Just as the parable’s Pharisee was. Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: “God, I thank you that I am not like other men—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get” (v10-12). Luther is quoted as saying, “How can God put anything into a full vessel?”  This Pharisee defines being full of yourself.  He prayed about himself. Prayed about himself!  Even if we heard nothing more, we have enough to know that this is the kind of prayer Jesus forbade when He said:  And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full (Matthew 6:5). But, sadly, the Pharisee goes on:  “God, I thank you that I am not like other men—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.” Notice who the Pharisee looks down upon.  “It’s a good thing I’m not an adulterer or a thief or one of those pesky pagan unbelievers, those evildoers, those unjust.  Oh, and by the way, I’m thankful that I’m not like that unjust tax collector over there who’s trying to pray to you right now too.”  Oh the depths to which this Pharisee has searched his soul, huh?  He’s not an adulterer?  Then is he a man?  Has his eye never wandered, as David’s did to Bathsheba?  He’s not a robber?  Then is he human?  Is greed unknown to him?  He’s not an evildoer, he’s not unjust?  Was he not born of sinful parents?

The Pharisee was convinced that the only sinner in this room was the tax collector.  After all, who was so good as he?  I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get (v12). Analyze his claim.  I fast twice a week. Great, except where did God command that?  While fasting is discussed in Scripture, it was only commanded on the great Day of Atonement.  So, this fasting proves nothing.  I…give a tenth of all I get. This is the Biblical equivalent of saying, “Well, I don’t beat my wife.”  Great!  But a lot of husbands aren’t beating their wives, and a lot of pagans and unbelievers give to their false gods or charity.   This Pharisee is guilty of defining the law in such a way as to exclude himself from sinfulness, and the ever-popular works righteousness.  His God was not God the Father.  This Pharisee focused on himself.  And, as Luther writes in the Large Catechism, I say that whatever you set your heart on and put your trust in is truly your god (Large Catechism I:4).

Now you know the meaning of Jesus’ words:  Do not judge, or you too will be judged….  Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye?  You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye (Matthew 7:1-5). So often you’re judging with the plank in your eye, confident in your own righteousness because you take care of your family, you go to church frequently, you give to charity, you put something in the offering, you show up to work on time, you volunteer, you obey your parents, you pay your taxes, you pray.  But what have you done that you weren’t supposed to be doing?  And why do you spend your life looking at them, as if they’re the sinners in the room, when you’re right here, so conveniently sinful?  Have you filled yourself up so fully with you that there’s no room for God to do His work?  Paul is blunt: …if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing….  You who are trying to be justified by law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace (Galatians 2:20, 5:4).

Finally we find true righteousness.  The tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”  I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God (v13-14). He went home justified not because he beat his breast and drew blood.  He went home justified not because he refused to lift his eyes up to heaven.  He went home justified not because he spoke the right magical formula.  He went home justified because he had faith.  And everything Christ said about this man showed it.  This man, not the Pharisee, knew that God’s law condemned him.  And God’s law did its holy work.  It terrified this man.  He hid in a corner.  He couldn’t look God in the face.  He beat himself up.  He begged.  This is the first part of repentance, as the Augsburg Confession says, Repentance consists of two parts.  One part is contrition, that is, terrors striking the conscience through the knowledge of sin (AC XII:3-4). Unlike the Pharisee, who looked at himself and rejoiced, the tax collector looked at himself, saw his sinfulness, and understood the weight of his sin.  And he cried.  He knew himself.  He was not just a sinner, so many translate it.  He literally calls himself, the sinner. There’s no one else in this room or in his class.  And rightly, he does all he can do – beg that God might hear and have mercy.

And such a word is a word of faith.  That’s the second part of repentance.  The other part is faith, which is born of the Gospel or the Absolution and believes that for Christ’s sake, sins are forgiven.  It comforts the conscience and delivers it from terror (AC XII:5). Such a word is spoken based on the words of God, Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow (Isaiah 1:18).  I will forgive their wickedness and remember their sins no more (Jeremiah 34:31). Such a word is spoken based on the actions of God.  The word that the tax collector used translated “mercy” by so many English translations means more than that.  The tax collector didn’t use the most common words for mercy or forgive.  He used an uncommon word.  A word whose root was used by Paul in Romans 3, when he wrote:  God presented [Jesus] as a sacrifice of atonement through faith in His blood (v25). The tax collector wasn’t simply asking God to look the other way.  He asked God to make the sacrifice necessary to atone for His sins.  He knew that without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.  He begged God to do this thing which he could not, which the Pharisee felt he’d done already.  And, victoriously, Paul said to you tonight:   God made Him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God (2 Corinthians 5:21). And so this tax collector went home justified not on account of himself, but on account of Christ.  Paul, again: But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify.  This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe.  There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.  God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement through faith in his blood….  …so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus (Romans 3:21-26). It is God who justifies through Christ, who became the sinner in your place, so that now you are not alone in that room or in that category.  In fact, quite the opposite.  Now, by faith in the blood of Christ, you aren’t even in that room marked sinner any more.  Jesus said about the tax collector what can be said about all believers in Jesus, I tell you that this man…went home justified before God. This is the meaning of that obscure word in Habakkuk, The righteous will live by his faith (2:4), faith in the God who sent His one and only Son to die in your place and rise from the dead, faith in the God who saw that there was no one…so his own arm worked salvation for him, and his own righteousness sustained him (Isaiah 59:16).

Now is the time, now is the day, and not just because it’s Lent.  God, in Christ, brought the righteousness you needed, offered the sacrifice required, atoned for the sins, and paid the price of guilt.  Still sinning, we beat our breasts, we plead with God, “Have mercy!”  And we hear the pastor say, By the authority of Christ, I forgive you your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit (SC Confession, IV). Do not doubt, but firmly believe.  For Jesus says, I tell you. The sins that are forgiven here are forgiven in heaven.  All else is loss, as Paul writes:  I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith (Philippian 3:8-9). And now, you’re ready for Lent.  For you have Christ.  Amen.




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