All Cleaned Up!

Text: Luke 18:9-17
Date: Pentecost XXII + Proper 25 + 10/24/10
Lutheran Church of the Incarnate Word, Rochester Hills, MI

In his narrative of our Lord’s journey to Jerusalem, and therefore the Christian disciple’s journey of faith with Jesus, once again St. Luke tells us of a parable Jesus told and supplies the point by describing the problem addressed, namely, that of “some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt.” It is interesting that this parable is so important, memorable and pivotal and yet appears only here in Luke’s Gospel alone. For this parable treats most directly the central teaching of the entire Bible and of the Christian faith, namely, the justification (or salvation) of the sinner by God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ for the sake of His bloody, holy sacrifice on the cross and mighty resurrection from the dead. After telling the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector Jesus concludes how only one of them went home “justified.” I looked at the rather unique translation of Luke and Acts by Clarence Jordan in his “Cotton Patch Version of Luke and Acts” to see how he translated the word “justified.” He calls the Pharisee the “church member” and the tax collector the “unsaved man.” So Jesus says referring to the tax collector, “I’m telling you, this man went home cleaned up rather than that one.”[1] To be justified means to be “cleaned up;” cleaned up of sin and God’s judgment of death.

Now you, I assume, got cleaned up to come to church this morning. Mother tells her children to come in and get cleaned up for dinner. When we’re going to have people over to our house we generally clean up the living room, kitchen or other rooms before they arrive. To be saved from sin, death and hell means to be cleaned up spiritually. The only thing is that sin has stained us so thoroughly and deeply that no one can get rid of sin on their own. Now if you just try to cover up your sin and pretend its not there you will be like those who Jesus said “trusted in themselves that they were righteous.” It was a phony, fake, pretend righteousness. The Bible says unequivocally of every human being, “there is none righteous, no not one” (Rom. 3:10).

So Jesus told this parable of two men who went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. Jesus has already had some words of warning for the Pharisees standing around and listening in, and tax collectors, of course, were commonly despised. In the Pharisee’s prayer he refers to himself five times. “I thank you that I am not like others…I fast twice a week, I give tithes of all that I get.” This is the “default setting,” if you will, of the fallen, sinful nature, that is, to look to yourself and your works to get right or cleaned up before God. The Pharisee is the epitome, the poster-boy of all who trust in themselves and dare to pretend even before God that they are so much better or moral than anyone else. The tax collector, on the other hand, is the picture here of humble repentance saying only the prayer of confession, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” Actually, the Greek has a definite article making him call himself, “the sinner.” This should remind you of the Apostle Paul’s great confession in First 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” (1 Tim 1:15). The first requirement to become a Christian and a member of the Church is that you must be a sinner! Only those who know and believe that their salvation, their “justification,” must come from God alone, from outside themselves, can dare to boldly confess their sin.

You need to know there is something very unique about the particular wording of the tax collector’s prayer. Almost all translations have him say, “God, be merciful to me.” Yet this is not the usual word for mercy, as in the liturgy, “Lord, have mercy” is “Kyrie eleison.” The tax collector says, rather, “hilastheiti,” meaning to be reconciled or propitious through sacrifice. It is the word used to translate the Hebrew “kipper” as in Yom Kipper, the Day of Atonement! So the tax collector’s prayer is much more in line with God’s revealed way of salvation through an atonement for sin than through any presumed self-righteousness. All Old Testament sacrifices, of course, pointed forward to the one and only perfect and worthy sacrifice of God’s Son, whose blood “paid the price” or redeemed the world, Old and New Testament, from sin and death, opening once again the kingdom of God to all believers, to all who do not refuse or reject God’s gift of forgiveness.

Jesus concludes, “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” Now, who might be the best illustration of this Great Reversal, the truly humble person? Infants! Babies! Therefore Luke includes not a change of subject but an illustration when people were then bringing even infants, babies to Jesus that he might touch them. The disciples rebuked them. “I’m sorry, Jesus is too busy right now for that;” illustrating that they hadn’t yet gotten the point of the parable. What point? That justification, salvation, even saving faith itself is not ever the product of anything in you. It is total, complete gift from God. So Jesus says, “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God. Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” And how does a child receive the kingdom? You’ve noticed, haven’t you, how infants, when they become at least a little aware of their surroundings, learn quickly to grab on to objects and stick ‘em in their mouths! Babies don’t “do” anything to receive what they need. Mom and Dad give them what they need. Well, so does God. But not just to infants alone, but to any and all who will simply let, allow God to give us what we need according to His good and gracious and merciful will. “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life” (Jn. 3:16). More than that, God so loves the world, that He even gives the gift of faith to enable us to believe in His Son and to receive eternal life.

You see, Jesus loved and reached out not only to the tax collectors but even to the Pharisees and all who are blinded by their sin, trying to clean themselves up and thus refusing the cleansing of the blood of Jesus by faith. We get cleaned up when we let God do the cleaning, the reconciling, the atoning through the all-availing sacrifice of Jesus Christ crucified. Those who so trust in Christ God declares justified, righteous, all cleaned up.

[1] Clarence Jordan (copyright ©1969), “The Cotton Patch Version of Luke and Acts,” Association Press, New York, p. 68.