7 August 2016
Text: Luke 18:9-14
In the name of + Jesus. Amen.
The basis of any kind of thinking or doing anything in this life is to accept reality. Things are what they are. If you need a small Phillips screwdriver to do a job, no amount of wishful thinking is going to make a sledgehammer do the trick. Things will probably not end well.
The importance of accepting reality is also the case in matters of faith. Dr. Luther once said that a true theologian, a theologian of the cross, calls a thing what it is.
One of the most popular expressions among Louisianans is the concession, “It is what it is.”
It is what it is.
Of course, nowadays we are told that things are not what they are, but what they are identified as. This is why such formerly uncontroversial topics such as men’s and ladies’ restrooms are now topics for the Supreme Court to figure out. For nowadays, especially with human beings, it is becoming controversial to say that a person is this or that, even when reality itself says so.
Our Lord’s Parable, “The Pharisee and the Tax Collector”, could also be called “It Is What It Is.” Of the two characters in the Lord’s story, one of them is a true theologian of the cross, while the other is condemned to hell because he has not been “justified.” And like many of the Lord’s short stories, your expectations are challenged.
Let’s consider the Lord’s story in which two men come to the Temple to pray.
The first man is a Pharisee. This means he is a very clean-cut religious guy. He “stands by himself” – which is a way of saying that he perceives himself to be holy, that is, set apart from other men. And in fact, he thanks God for that kind of separation: “God, I thank you that I am not like other men” – and then he lists a bunch of sins that he thanks God that he doesn’t commit. Then he regales God with a litany of his own good works: “I fast… I give tithes.”
In fact, our Lord actually instructs us Christians to pray, to fast, and to give alms, teaching us this in the Sermon on the Mount. And so our Pharisee is obviously doing all three.
But the Pharisee is not addressing reality in his own self-examination. For the Lord Jesus Christ invents this character as a rebuke to “some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt.”
Where is our Pharisee’s trust? Is it in the blood of the sacrifice? Is it in the grace and mercy of the Lord? Is it in the promises of God revealed to the prophets and in the Scriptures? Or is his faith ultimately a faith in himself, in his supposed goodness, and in his own works?
And what is our Pharisee’s view of others? Does he treat the struggling tax collector with love and encouragement? Or is he using prayer as an excuse to insult the tax collector who has come seeking the mercy of God?
Before we can really think too much about the Pharisee, the Lord introduces us to another character, a tax collector. This means that he is a dirty collaborator with the enemy, a cheat and a thief, a liar, and one greedy for gain who intimidates and threatens his way to other people’s money.
And notice that the tax collector stands “far off” – perceiving himself to be damaged goods and unclean, unworthy of the holiness of God’s presence. He won’t even raise his eyes for fear of offending God on account of his sins. He beats his breast, a sign of sorrow. And he makes no reference to the sins he is innocent of, to the guilt of others, or to claimed good works. Instead, he cries out simply: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”
In his humility, the tax collector faces the reality of his own sinful condition, one that no man is exempt from, corruption springing from Adam and Eve, and carried about by every man ever born of woman with one sole Exception – who is Himself telling the parable.
Our tax collector does not trust in himself, but in the mercy of God as his only hope of righteousness. He does not attack or insult the Pharisee, but simply focuses on his own sins and his own need for a Savior.
The Lord Jesus Christ dies on the cross for every fallen son of Adam and daughter of Eve. The sins of all have been paid for by the blood of the one who not only tells parables but who works forgiveness by His atoning death on the cross. And what’s more, He has been raised from death for our justification, a justification that is applied to every poor miserable sinner ever born.
And yet, our Lord says something very exclusive and shocking to modern ears: one of these men is not justified. One of these men is bound for hell. Only one of these men goes down to his house having received the free gift of justification that Jesus has won for everyone.
“Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”
Who has exalted himself, dear friends? Was it the religious Pharisee or the filthy tax collector? Who has humbled himself? Our aloof self-righteous braggart or our broken and sorrowful tax collector?
Which of these two men acknowledges the reality about himself? Which is the real theologian of the cross? Before one can repent and believe the Gospel, as our Lord preaches to us, one must see the reality of who he is. The tax collector saw reality, confessed reality, and received the reality that Jesus has forgiven his sins and won for him everlasting life. The Pharisee ignored reality and followed a fantasy, identifying himself with something not real, and thus there is no repentance here, and no desire for God’s mercy.
The tragedy is that Jesus truly justified the Pharisee on the cross, but the Pharisee chose instead to justify himself with a lie. And as a result, he never asks for that which God would gladly give him: mercy, forgiveness, and eternal life.
Dear friends, the Christian faith is not about self-righteousness and earning a place in heaven by good works. The Christian faith is not about seeing oneself as good and looking down at others. For this is to deny reality. The Christian faith is receiving the mercy of God because we need that mercy. We lack righteousness on our own. For we are sinners. That is the reality. But Jesus has come to save sinners and restore us to life. It is what it is.
We Christians call a thing what it is. We confess the simple reality of the Gospel. We are not justified by anything other than the mercy of God which we receive only in humility. “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”
Yes, indeed, it is what it is! Thanks be to God! Amen.
In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.