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A Tale of Two Religions (St. Luke 18.9-14)

Eleventh Sunday after Trinity

St. Luke 18.9-14

01 September 2019

“A Tale of Two Religions”
Rev. Jacob Sutton, Pastor

+ In the Name of Jesus +

Last Sunday, we heard of the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in 70 AD, some forty years after Jesus predicted it in His lament on Palm Sunday. Today, the lectionary returns us to the temple and through our Lord’s contrast of the prayer of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, we are shown exactly why the Lord brought about the destruction of the temple. He had been thoroughly rejected by His own people. But, at the same time, true religion that prays to and worships the Lord and lays hold of his promises is still to be found on the earth. The stone the builders rejected, He is the cornerstone of a new temple, a new Israel.

When it comes to how the world views religion, spirituality, or prayer these days, if you went about asking the man on the street, many people will say they are “spiritual but nor religious” – rejecting formal, organized religion, but maintaining some private, spiritual piety of some sort. Some sociologists classify such people as “nones” today: belief in “God,” yet belonging to no organized religion. For such people this sort of spirituality primarily exists to give themselves a sense of purpose, fulfillment, to make of one’s self a better, happier, well-adjusted, maybe more joyful person, and so forth. But everything is private. I suspect that “none” really stands for “I’ll admit to a survey I believe in the existence of a ‘God’, but I really just like to sleep in and keep to myself.”

Now some people tap into the desire to be “spiritual” and talk about religion and spirituality being for the purpose of joining a community of like-minded people, or who share a common viewpoint about God – perhaps in the area of ethics, social activism, or what have you.

One sees these views flesh themselves out in the socially woke liberal mainline denominations. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, last month at its convention, produced all number of statements affirming their social conscience. For example, they proclaimed themselves a “sanctuary” church body who will give sanctuary to illegal immigrants in our country at any of their congregations, breaking the first and fourth commandments. In the most heathen of all things, they voted overwhelmingly for a statement that says all religious paths lead to heaven, not just Christianity – this is called universalism.

All of this is quite a sad and disheartening conversation to have. What do you notice about this discussion? Who’s missing from the conversation? It’s the same person missing from the prayer of the Pharisee in the temple. For whether we are talking personal spirituality, or woke social activism masquerading as Christianity, in all these things there is no Jesus Christ and Him crucified and resurrected for the sins of mankind in their dialog. There is therefore an avoidance of dealing with man’s inherent sinful condition, and so no thought of the need for a savior from sin, not even of any need of dealing with sin. Religion to all too many is all about what makes someone happy, fulfilled, and gives them some purpose and direction in life. And if you Bible-thumping Christians over here are happy about Jesus, that’s great. Religion is like a pair of shoes, the late comedian George Carlin once said, find the one that fits for you, just don’t make me wear yours.

What religion means to all the heathen, to the unregenerate, is the exact opposite of what it means to a biblical, orthodox, truly catholic Christianity. The heathen know nothing of the Gospel of Christ – no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined the things of the Holy Spirit – but there is some knowledge of the Law, the work of the Law is written in their hearts. So the entire religious thinking of the heathen moves in the sphere of the Law. Religion to the heathen means man’s endeavor to placate the deity (which today is indeed likely to be his or her own ego!) through his own efforts and works, through worship, sacrifices, spiritual or moral exercises, social justice warrior campaigns, and the like. This religion, including all modern spirituality, is the religion of the Law.

Two men go up to the temple to pray. One Pharisee stands by himself and praises himself. He thanks his “God” that he is not like other men, the extortioners, the unjust, the adulterers, nor like the lying, thieving, no good cheating tax collector over in the corner. He is thankful to have his social conscience well adjusted. He fasts not once but twice every Sabbath. He tithes all that he receives, perfect to the letter. He’d be a real favorite of today’s heathen, but only if he dropped the part about adulterers, since today he ought not to speak against personal choices anyone makes.

Jesus teaches us that there are two essentially different religions in the world. There is the religion of the Law, pictured for us by the Pharisee and his self-righteousness, his self-exaltation.

The tax collector, meanwhile, stands far off and begs mercy from God, that God would be “propitiated” towards Him. He humbly and repentantly prays that atonement would be made for him and his sinful condition. God gives it. He “went down to his house justified,” that is, forgiven and reconciled to God. Righteousness is given as a gift to those who know their great need, as the tax collector did. But those who would assert their own righteousness, ironically, are unrighteous before God. Christ has come for sinners. If you would have Him and His righteousness, count yourself as such. The one exalting himself shall be humbled, but the one who humbles himself shall be exalted.

The Christian religion is therefore not like that of the heathen. It may indeed give purpose, fulfillment, and even joy, but the principle purpose of true Religion is that sinners would find forgiveness and life in God on account of the atoning life, death, and victorious resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. It is not a self-help program or a way to deal with the ups and downs of life, it is not a way to change the world and make it a better place in order to create some sort of temporal, earthly social utopia where everyone feels good about themselves all the time.

True Christian religion is a death and resurrection in which God heals the brokenhearted and binds up the afflicted. This is the religion depicted by the smitten, stricken, and afflicted Tax Collector. God does not set for us tasks to do in order to keep us in His good graces. He comes to us, delights in us, suffers for us, forgives us, and takes us to Himself. This world is a good creation of God, but it is not the final stop, it is not our ultimate home – we are pilgrims making our way. The Pharisee is looking to this life as his stopping place. The Tax Collector desires to go home, to an eternal home, forgiven, justified, and righteous before a holy God.

True Christian religion is faith in Christ, whose atonement for sins is preached for our comfort in the world by the Christian Church. Christians believe the Gospel, that is they have faith in the divine message given through all the inspired prophets and apostles and evangelists handed down to us in the clear, infallible Word of God: that through the substitutionary satisfaction of Jesus Christ, God is already reconciled to all men.

Through faith in the reconciliation effected by Christ, you know God as your dear Father, you have a good conscience, the assurance of grace (or God’s undeserved love), and enjoy the hope of eternal life, which God has promised to all believers in Christ:

Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God… More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation. (Romans 5.1, 2, 11; ESV)

This Lord Jesus Christ is your purpose, fulfillment, and joy in this temporal life. He loves you unconditionally, desiring to bring you to be with Him before His Father and your Father in heaven for all eternity.

The nature and character of Christian worship therefore differs radically from that of the worship practiced by the religion of the Law. Christians, like the Tax Collector, worship God as the God who has bestowed His undeserved love upon them:

Thus the service and worship of the Gospel is to receive good things from God, while the worship of the law is to offer and present our goods to God. We cannot offer anything to God unless we have first been reconciled and reborn. The greatest possible comfort comes from this doctrine that the highest worship in the Gospel is the desire to receive forgiveness of sins, grace, and righteousness. About this worship Christ speaks in John 6:40, “This is the will of my Father, that everyone who sees the Son and believes in him should have eternal life.” And the Father says (Matt. 17:5), “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” [1]

+ In the Name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit +

[1]  Apology IV: 310. Tappert, T. G. (Ed.). (1959). The Book of Concord the confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church.. p. 155


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