11 August 2013 at Salem Lutheran Church, Gretna, LA
Text: Luke 18:9-14 (Gen 4:1-15, 1 Cor 15:1-10)
In the name of + Jesus. Amen.
Jesus told this parable “to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and treated others with contempt.”
That about sums up the problem. That is the problem with every sinner, with all of us, with natural man and natural religion that naturally relies on man to be naturally righteous.
We’re not. And the minute we think we are, we look as ridiculous as the Pharisee in our Lord’s parable. From our standpoint, it looks very clear. We know that the proud self-righteous Pharisee is the bad guy, and we know that the humble and contrite tax collector is the good guy.
But how often are we willing to say: “I am that Pharisee, and I need to repent”?
For we are a proud people. We put bumper stickers on our cars that say we’re proud: proud of our country, proud of our honor students, proud of our golden retriever that is smarter than your honor student, proud of our college, proud of our professional sports team, proud of ourselves for being this or doing that. Proud, proud, proud.
How often we forget that pride is one of the seven deadly sins, that “pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.”
Of course, there is nothing wrong in taking pleasure in the accomplishments of our children, in expressing a preference for the home team, or in honoring one’s school. And maybe “pride” isn’t exactly the right word. But if it goes to our heads, or as Jesus puts it: if we treat “others with contempt” or we trust in ourselves that we are righteous, we have become the Pharisee in the story, and we are in desperate need of repentance.
The Pharisee is not simply being rude, nor does he need an attitude adjustment. Dear friends, the Lord Jesus says that this Pharisee is bound for hell unless he repents. This isn’t just a quirky personality trait, this is unrepentant sin, a rejection of Christ and His gospel, a worship of the self above God. And he is also misusing God’s name, rather than calling on God in genuine prayer, praise, and thanksgiving, the Pharisee is taking the Lord’s name in vain, making a mockery of prayer, praising himself, and perverting thankfulness into self-worship.
And notice that the Pharisee has a lot of good works that he boasts about: he is not an extortioner or adulterer, he fasts and gives alms. But, dear friends, he also puts his faith in his works. He never thanks God for His mercy, or for His forgiveness, for our proud Pharisee doesn’t think he needs to.
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, are we Pharisees? Do we have misplaced pride? Do we think that our offerings, our being in church, our morals, our good works, make us in any way more worthy of eternal life? Do we take pride in being Christian? In being Lutheran? In being LCMS? In being Salem members? Do we think God counts us worthy of everlasting life because of our denominational affiliation or worship practices? If so, we need to repent.
And this reading is truly the Gospel, dear friends, for it is a story. And it is a tale with a happy ending. For there is another character in our Lord’s parable: a lowly tax collector. This man is a sinner. He is likewise a fallen child of Adam, a man who likewise broke the commandments, a man who bears the scars of pride and mockery of God – but he has something else by God’s grace: a broken and contrite heart. For “he would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God be merciful to me, a sinner.’” The tax collector joins us in our liturgy. He prays with us: “I, a poor miserable sinner confess unto You all my sins and iniquities.” He sings with us: “Lord, have mercy upon us.” And with us he hears these words: “I forgive you all your sins.” For Jesus has these glorious words for him and for us: “I tell you, this man went down to his house justified.”
Though his actions do not merit it, though his sins deserve death, though his righteousness is as filthy rags before the holy God – the Father in His infinite mercy, for the sake of His beloved Son, through the ministrations of the Holy Spirit – the most holy Triune God has justified this man by grace alone.
And the Lord Jesus gives us even more good news: “the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”
Dear friends, in our humility, the Lord elevates us. In acknowledging our sinfulness, the Lord makes us righteous. In our contrition, the Lord forgives us. He hears our prayers for mercy. He answers our pleas for forgiveness. He reaches out to us in our lowly estate. There is truly nothing in ourselves that is righteous. We have nothing in which to boast – except in Christ and His cross, in what He has done for us, and how, in spite of how much we do not deserve it, the Lord Himself, in His mercy and pity, has justified us, made us righteous, forgiven our sins, and has even taken away the sting of death itself from us!
The Lord’s mercy answers the blood of Abel crying out from the ground. The Lord’s mercy even extends to Cain who killed him. The Lord’s mercy answers the prideful Pharisee with a call to repent according to the law. The Lord’s mercy even extends to tax collectors and poor miserable sinners who pray: “Lord, have mercy upon us. Christ, have mercy upon us. Lord, have mercy upon us” with the declaration of the gospel.
And with St. Paul, who like Cain, had innocent blood on his hands and yet was shown mercy by the Lord, we can truly say: “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace toward me was not in vain.”
For when we fast and give alms and attend divine services and study the Bible and uphold biblical teaching and Christian morality, let us never be prideful, arrogant, or boastful. For it is not we who are responsible for these works. Again, we can say with St. Paul, even when we are working hard, that “it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me” that accomplishes these deeds for the kingdom.
Dear friends, instead of thanking God that we are not sinners, let us rather thank God that we are sinners who have been forgiven. Instead of taking credit for our own justification, let us give the Lord Jesus all praise and glory for purchasing our justification at the cross, paying it in full by His suffering and death, sealing it by His blood, and delivering it to us by His Word and holy sacraments. Instead of pride, let us display humility. For we are beggars who come to God with empty hands, but we are beggars whose hands are filled with good things by a gracious and merciful God, whose blessings never cease, whose blood always avails for us, whose Word always endures, whose grace knows no limit, whose love is everlasting, and whose mercy endureth forever. Amen.
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