Text: Luke 18:9-14
Date: Pentecost XII + 8/19/06
What is bothersome about this little parable of our Lord is how easy it is to focus on the two characters presented and not on Jesus! It is easy to contrast the boastful attitude of the self-righteous Pharisee with the humble and repentant attitude of the tax collector. But so what are we to make of that? That it is bad to be proud, arrogant and boastful and that it is good to be humble? While that may be true and, indeed, a worthy lesson for us to learn, to make that in itself the point of this story is to completely miss the Gospel. For, so what if you take this parable to heart and watch yourself to make sure that you act always in the greatest humility? Is not boasting of humility just as self-serving as boasting of self-righteousness? The point is one could preach on this text without hardly mentioning Jesus Christ, or the good news of the Gospel.
The Law reveals our sin and need of a Savior. That Law is certainly there in the very first words introducing the parable: Jesus “told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt.” This is the person who has forgotten or never knew the scriptural diagnosis of all mankind that says, “no one living is righteous” (Ps. 143:2), and “all have turned aside, there is none who does good, not even one” (Ps. 14:3). The Pharisee’s proud, self-righteous attitude is almost embarrassingly plain and we all, with eyebrows raised, easily condemn him. But as soon as we begin, like him, to think of examples among our acquaintances, wishing, maybe, that ol’ so-and-so would hear these words, we are condemned as no better. And what of the humble, repentant tax collector? This too can be only condemning Law if all we get from these words is an example for us to emulate, the conclusion being that we, too, should be so humble and repentant, for we know that we are not humble. And if we try to act humble, is it not, after all, just an act?
The Gospel in this parable is to be found in its setting, in the particular plea of the repentant tax collector, and, of course, in the Person telling the parable.
First, it is significant that these two, the Pharisee and the tax collector, came to the temple to pray. The time for public prayer was at 9 a.m. and again at 3 p.m. This is the time of the atonement sacrifice when the blood of the lamb was offered to cover the sins of the people. The temple and the blood pointed forward sacramentally to the flesh and sacrifice of Jesus which, by the way, remained only days away! It is alone by that sacrifice, by the blood of Jesus, that all sin is covered, forgiven, forgotten by God and removed. Jesus is the Lamb of God to whom the temple and all the sacrificial lambs of Israel pointed, who takes away the sin of the world. Was the Pharisee relying on the benefits of the sacrifice he had just witnessed? That is doubtful as, in his prayer, he repeatedly referred not to God’s provision and gift, but only to himself, saying, “I thank you that I am not like the rest…I fast twice a week; I pay tithes on everything I obtain.” As seemingly “righteous” as the Pharisee appeared to be outwardly, the “twist” in Jesus’ parable is that not this Pharisee, but the despised but penitent tax collector “went down to his home having been declared righteous” by God.
You see, only the tax collector discovered the Gospel, as is revealed in his particular repentant prayer. He prayed, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” Normally the word translated “mercy” is that word you are so familiar with in the liturgy, the Kyrie, Eleison. But the tax collector, “standing at a distance,” not putting himself forward at all as did the Pharisee, his eyes cast down and not “up into heaven,” beating his chest, said not “O God, Eleison/have mercy on me,” as did the blind man (18:38-39), or the ten lepers (17:13). Rather, and significantly, he said, “O God, (hilasthaitee),” which means, “O God, be propitiated toward me.” Expiation and propitiation refer to the cleansing and reconciliation of the sacrifice of atonement. He was pleading for God’s mercy and grace not on the basis of anything in himself but solely on the basis of God’s gift of forgiveness through the sacrifice God himself provided, as he just witnessed in the temple. The Law of God always talks about you and your works. The Gospel is always about what God does, what He gives and provides as a gift on our behalf. So the repentant tax collector stands not only as an example but as a proclaimer of the Gospel, God’s action and gift on our behalf by sending the Savior to cancel our sin and debt by His atoning sacrifice and to open the gates of His everlasting, loving mercy and grace.
Furthermore, the Gospel makes all the difference also with regard to a person’s relationship and view of others. The self-righteous Pharisee looked with contempt toward others, comparing himself with the despised tax collector. How many of us have not breathed a sigh of relief as we see others caught in poverty, drug abuse or some sinful life style and thanked God that we were not so unfortunate or tempted? The tax collector, on the other hand, admits not only that he is a sinner but that he is “the sinner”! In comparing himself to others, he does not claim to be better; rather he knows and confesses that he is worst of all. As St. Paul said in today’s Epistle, “For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God” (1 Cor. 15:9); and as he wrote to Timothy, “The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life” [1 Tim. 1:15-16 (ESV)].
So while this parable warns us against Pharisaical boasting and self-righteousness and invites us to the humility of true repentance, it locates the only way to such humble faith in the sacrifice of Jesus, the Lamb of God, and in God’s declaration as righteous those who confess their total unworthiness and helplessness and trust solely and alone in the atoning sacrifice of Jesus’ body and blood on the cross. How does the old hymn say it? “Nothing in my hand I bring, Simply to Thy cross I cling” [LSB 761:3].
It all boils down to a simple matter of whom do you trust for your salvation—yourself, like the Pharisee, or God and the atoning sacrifice He has provided, as does the tax collector? That atoning sacrifice is Jesus, as that word the tax collector used in his prayer is found only one other time in the Bible, in the book of Hebrews:
“Therefore he [Jesus] had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people” [Hebrews 2:17 (ESV)].
And as for whether we compare ourselves to others, holding others in contempt or in mercy, “Have this mind among yourselves,” writes St. Paul, “which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” [Philippians 2:5-11].
Jesus Christ is our propitiation; the sacrifice that alone reconciles us to the Father and the Father to us. Let our prayer be, “O God, be merciful, be propitiated toward us sinners.” Then seal that prayer as you participate in the sacrifice of Christ, receiving his precious body and most sacred blood, knowing also that “because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread” (1 Cor. 10:16-17). Then you will be able also to love your neighbor as yourself.