23rd Sunday after Pentecost 2016 | The Pharisee and the Tax Collector
If you want to hear this parable from Jesus rightly, forget whatever you think you know about Pharisees.
Your instinct, like that of most Christians 2,000 years removed from the context, is to hate them.
Because they’re stuck-up, and holier-than-thou, and hypocritical, and on and on.
And it’s true that we do meet some Pharisees like that in the Gospels;
But that’s not the way Jesus tells the parable.
Because in first-century Israel, a Pharisee is a really great person.
He’s someone you want as a friend.
He’s the guy you hope your son will grow up go be.
He’s the man you hope your daughter will marry.
He’s faithful in going to church.
He’s disciplined in his prayer life.
He fasts twice a week.
He’s a hard worker and a faithful giver –
10% of everything that comes into his hands;
He’s well educated, well off, well respected, and well liked.
And on top of all of that, He’s so grateful that He goes to the Temple to thank God for blessing him.
Yes. I know he’s mixed up theologically.
That’s why he thinks that he is righteous for being such a good boy.
But Jesus didn’t tell this parable to a Pharisee.
He told this parable to regular folks, just like you,
who trusted in themselves that they were righteous.
So, in a word, Jesus says you are like the Pharisee.
You think you can stand before God based on what you’ve done.
Your diligent study of Scripture;
Your attendance at Church & Bible Study;
Your hard work and faithful giving.
But do you even measure up to the Pharisee?
Is your giving on par with his?
Are you as faithful in worship and Bible study as he?
Is your prayer life so disciplined you pray to God in thanksgiving that He has made you so pious?
If you were to bring your giving, your faithfulness, and your life before God’s throne, could you do so with half the confident of this Pharisee?
The very best he can do is not enough to save him. It’s not even close.
So what chance do you have?
As far as making a point goes, Jesus could have wrapped things up neatly right then
But He didn’t.
Jesus mentions the man in the back – a tax collector.
Again, historical context:
The tax collector is no hero.
He is, by every estimation, a liar, a cheat, and a scoundrel.
He makes his living selling out his fellow Jews to the Roman occupiers.
He rips them off, takes a big chunk off the top for himself,
and then walks around like nothing is wrong.
In the court of public opinion, he is the worst person imaginable.
He is a man bound for hell and destruction.
And the sooner he dies, the better. No one will miss him.
And he knows it.
As the tax collector comes to the Temple,
to the presence of the Almighty God of Israel,
the One who delivered them out of Egypt,
The One who drowned hard-hearted Pharaoh, and all his host in the Red Sea,
As he comes before that God, your God, the Righteous Judge, he dares not look up.
He dares not go near the Holy Place like the Pharisee.
Instead, he beats his chest, and with tears choking him, begs for mercy.
He knows what he has done.
He knows what he deserves.
And he begs God for the mercy he has never had on others.
And then their story is over.
There’s no dramatic moment.
They both just go home.
The tax collector is justified, i.e. righteous before God, and the Pharisee isn’t.
And everyone standing there got the point.
But things are a bit different now, I think.
It’s October 2016.
And many, if not most of you are life-long Lutherans.
That is, Christians who have spent nearly 500 years banking on the fact that you are saved by grace through faith alone, as Paul writes to the Church in Ephesus.
You’re saved by grace, through faith alone.
It’s on the big red banners.
It’s the verse that makes everyone’s top ten.
And inspires your favorite hymns:
“Just as I am Without One Plea” and “Chief of Sinners Though I Be”
And so you, heirs of the Reformation, heirs of the Gospel,
You can look at the tax collector, who in the face of God’s wrath against sin, begs for mercy, and say, “That’s me.”
“I’m the humble tax-collector, who goes home justified by grace through faith.”
But, one may wonder:
Do your sins really torment you, like they do him?
If we didn’t have Confession & Absolution after the hymn, and before the Divine Service, like we do now,
would you be lining up outside my office to confess and receive forgiveness?
The tax collector would.
He would treasure that absolution, and the one you receive after our common confession – he would cling to it like precious gold.
He would meditate on it day and night.
The joy of it.
That God Himself would speak, and declare him righteous for the sake of His Christ.
Do you thirst for mercy like the tax collector.
Will you be exalted because you are so good at humbling yourself?
What do you do?
What do you do if you are not as righteous as the Pharisee?
What do you do if you are not as repentant and humble as the tax-collector.
Have you been brought as low as he, low enough to be exalted?
That’s how we read this story.
It sounds like he was exalted because he humbled himself.
But the tax-collector didn’t go home justified because of his humility.
He went home justified because of God’s promise.
The tax collector’s plea for mercy was not shouted vainly into a void with little expectation of an answer.
He asked for mercy because he knew that it would be given to him.
Long ago, before he got into the tax collection business,
when he was just eight days old,
God made him a promise.
On that day, the little tax collector was circumcised.
He was made part of Israel, God’s own family.
The family God promised to take care of,
through which would come the Messiah, Jesus the Christ.
He went home justified because God makes good on His promises.
And that very Promise, Jesus Himself, is here, receiving the little children.
They’re just babies.
They don’t have a long list of accomplishments, anymore than they have much of a notion of guilt.
But God’s grace has nothing to do with what they’ve done, how smart they are, or even how they feel.
The children simply receive.
They receive love and mercy from Jesus.
And they are received with open arms by Jesus.
That’s the way it happened in the Gospel you just heard.
That’s the way it happened in the baptism you just witnessed.
You don’t get any more humble than being baptized into Christ’s death.
And you don’t get any more exalted than being baptized into His resurrection.
In Holy Baptism
You have been brought that low.
Lower than the tax collector:
All the way to the depths of the Red Sea, with Pharoah and all his armies.
By Baptism you have been brought up that high,
Much higher than the Pharisee,
To the perfect beauty and righteousness of Jesus.
All of that is for you.
All of that is divine and free.
Because when all is said and done, Jesus makes this story His own.
He tells it as He goes to the cross, perfectly keeping the law
that the Pharisee thought he was keeping.
He goes to there with thieves like the tax collector,
and before giving his last breath, pleads for mercy –
not for Himself, but for all of you.
Jesus even becomes the Temple
Torn down, and raised up again three days later.
Some days you feel like a Pharisee.
Some days you feel like a tax-collector.
But when Jesus tells the story His way, by His life, death, and resurrection.
You don’t get to be either.
Jesus says you’re the baby. You’re the child.
Who does nothing but receive gifts from Him.
Faith, Forgiveness, Mercy, and Joy.
Gifts to which, this morning, He happily adds one more.
His Body and Blood.
Broken for self-righteous Pharisees
Poured out for pitiful tax collectors
And given to all of you, His beloved children.