Sermon, Trinity 11, August 28, 2022, Gospel, St. Luke 18: 9-14
God sees into our hearts. Jesus sees into our hearts. The Holy Spirit is pierces us with His Word to see the thoughts and desires of our hearts. From our hearts also come words. They can be words of truth or lies. They can be words of slander or praise. They can be words of forgiveness or words of condemnation. They can be words of confession and faith or words of self-praise.
In today’s Gospel lesson we see an example of Christ pointing out two examples of prayer, one by a man giving thanks to God for making him better than others, one a confession and a petition of a humble penitent for God’s grace and forgiveness of his sins.
The Pharisee stands in the Temple and thanks God for not making him like other men. He tithes better than other men. He tithes out of all he has, not just his income, but everything. He fasts better than other men. He fasts, not just once a week, but twice. He doesn’t extort money from others like other men do. He is just and fair in his dealings with others, not like most men. He is faithful to his wife, better than many men. He is not like a tax collector, taking more than the tax demanded by the Romans overseers, but something extra for himself, too, too much extra.
The disciples and the hearers of this parable probably thought, “Well, this man is certainly an example of a righteous man. His prayer must be a righteous one, too.”
Then Jesus turns to a tax collector standing by himself some distance away. He does not stand straight like the Pharisee. His head is bent. His eyes are cast down, avoiding the stares of others. He strikes his chest as he says a short prayer. He confesses that he is a sinner, who has nothing to set before God as proof of His being worthy of His grace, no fruits of faith lived through a holy life. He does not give thanks to God for making him better than others, because he does not see himself better than anyone. He does not compare himself to anyone else, either better or worse. He asks for God’s mercy.
Again, what did the disciples and the hearers of this parable for the first time think of this man? Maybe they thought, “He has some nerve going to God’s holy temple, admitting that he is a sinner, offering no thanks to God, and then asking God for mercy, as if God hears the prayers of sinners.”
If they were thinking this, they were in for a big surprise. As Augustine, the great church father, whose mother Monica we commemorated yesterday, said, “You heard the prideful accuser; you heard the humble accuser. Now hear the Judge speaking”
Jesus the righteous judge speaks. He tells us that of the two men in the parable, the tax collector went to his home the justified man, the forgiven man. In God’s eyes it is not the man or woman who declares himself or herself just, but the one who confesses himself unjust and looks for the Lord’s mercy.
Jesus tells us why. He says, “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”  Therefore the Pharisee, despite his godly life, was not justified, was not seen as righteous in God’s eyes, because he exalted himself, and the tax collector humbled himself, and was counted as righteous.
But in what way did the Pharisee exalt himself? Didn’t he give credit where it was due and thank God for his holy life? Aren’t we called as Christians to give thanks to God for all the good things we receive in life, including our ability to obey God’s law? Yes, we are called to do this. It is good to recognize that without God’s grace we are lost. But the Pharisee went beyond thanks. He compared himself favorably with others and saw himself as better than they were. Isn’t this the meaning of the phrase, “There but for the grace of God go I” Not really. For in acknowledging God’s grace we acknowledge our sin and give thanks that God has not looked upon our sin but at the faith we have that our sins are forgiven in Christ, who humbled Himself by taking the role of a servant and going to the cross to die for the sins of the world. The Pharisee never acknowledged any sin in himself, only good deeds that put him a cut above the mass of humanity. He didn’t ask God for anything, not feeling the need for anything, not even mercy.
Augustine described the Pharisee as a man who, going to his doctor, doesn’t tell him what is wrong with himself, but only tells him that he is in better health than other people.
The tax collector, however, does tell the doctor, the great healer-God- what is wrong with him-- his sin—his own sin, his most grievous sin, as he beats his chest to point out the source of his sin-his sinful heart. The tax collector comes to the great physician to receive the medicine of life-mercy, and receives mercy and a new, justified heart and conscience.
So what is the message for us? Is it that we should be wary of thanking God for changing our lives for the better? No, that is a good thing. We should be always thankful for every good gift of God to us. Many of us have struggled, or are now struggling, with destructive behaviors and lifestyles that God wants to change for the better through His grace. It is always a good thing to be grateful for God’s grace in helping us to lead godly lives according to His will.
Then is the message that we should never look in pity at the lives of others, who don’t have the things we do, or do the good things we do? No, that’s not the message either. First of all, it is impossible to close our eyes to the lives of others, and not make comparisons with our own lives. It is a good thing to have mercy on those less fortunate than we are, to help them and be kind to them, and especially to pray for them that they may come to know Jesus as God’s Son and their gracious Lord, as we do. It is a good thing to do charitable works, to tithe, to fast. All these things are good for us and for others and are pleasing to God. The problem comes when, as Jesus says, we exalt ourselves above our neighbor, when we make ourselves better than them in our own eyes, when we judge their hearts.
The message is not that we should go around continually beating our breasts, eyes turned downward, head hung low, in a show of humility, for that would be but to put before God our good works for His approval. God wants true humility, a broken and contrite hearts, which comes only from repentance and faith. True humility wastes no time or effort defending our sin or our sinful nature, but confesses sin and looks to God’s mercy in Christ, and receives it along with the healing and daily renewal that comes with the work of sanctification by the Holy Spirit.
The message of the parable is that God will lift up the poor in spirit through His glorious Word of mercy and forgiveness and promise of eternal life for all who believe in Him. The message is that God will do whatever it takes to create and sustain faith in His children. He will bring down the proud, so that they are left with nothing but the promise of God’s providence for them. He will lift up the vilest sinner from the pit of despair. And for those of us who neither despair of our badness, nor take pride in our goodness, He will sustain us on the path of righteousness throughout their lives with His Word and His Holy body and blood. When we stray from the paths of righteousness, and we will, for sin clings to all of us in this life’s journey, He will lead us back again to the path that leads to life and light.
He will call us again and again to His church, the gathering of the faithful, those who have been saved by grace, through faith, which is itself His gift, so that no one may boast of saving themselves, or coming to faith by themselves, as Saint Paul tells us this morning. God will call the poor in spirit to be lifted up by their brothers and sisters in faith, so that they may not stand afar off, but be surrounded by the love in Christ working through His people. He will bring down the haughty and lift up the humble. He will exalt and bring low, all for our salvation, all for our good. So let us give thanks to God for all His gifts, tell the great physician what is wrong with us and go down to our houses, justified, healed, forgiven. IJN+ Amen.
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