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An Absurd Thing Happens (St. Luke 18.9-14)

Eleventh Sunday after Trinity

“An Absurd Thing Happens”
Philip G. Meyer, Pastor Emeritus

St. Luke 18.9-14

28 August 2022



Jesus sets the scene as he begins the parable. The venue is the temple and there are two men who have gone up to the temple to pray. They have gone there to the rites peculiar to the temple, not the synagog. The temple differed from the synagog because all of the sacrifices were made at the temple. All of this was open to the view of anyone present. Public prayer happened daily at 9 A.M. and again at 3 P.M., but private prayer could happen anytime. Some commentators think that these two men might have come at the time that the atoning sacrifice was made, which would make Jesus’ comparison all the more important for understanding his point. At these times the lamb was sacrificed for sin and incense was burned. “Let my prayers rise before You as incense, the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice” [Psalm 141.2]. We sing those words of the Psalmist in Evening Prayer. So in this context we are not talking merely about prayers but about forgiveness, and that lies at the point of comparison of the parable.

It might be helpful for us to compare it to our Divine Service because it is in the Divine Service that we come before God to plead his forgiveness and receive it through the sacrifice of the true Lamb of God, our Lord Jesus Christ. It is through his shed blood that we receive mercy.


The Pharisee, a member of the elite religious ruling class, was one who had devoted himself completely to serving God and keeping the Law as it should be kept. This Pharisee was “echt,” as the Germans would say. When my granddaughter spent her junior year of high school in Hanover, Germany, Christa Price, one of our members, told me that she would learn to speak proper German in Hanover because they spoke “echt Deutsch,” that is pure or Hoch—High—German, not one of the corrupted dialects. “Echt” in this context means “pure, real, legitimate, authentic.”

This Pharisee was “echt” is every sense of the word! He went there to pray. Outwardly this man was humble. He had the correct position to pray. He no doubt had his hands in the correct position for prayer. He followed the rules. He probably genuflected and bowed at all the right times, just like a Jew today prays at the Wailing Wall bobbing up and down at the proper times. His outward demeanor was perfectly liturgical, he followed all the rubrics to the T, no mistakes! He had a perfect, “echt,” physical position of piety.

But his prayer was merely a recitation of what he believes is a perfect life. However, he begins with a comparison to others. “God, look at me! I’m not like others. I worship You, the only true God. I want to do Your will.” Everything he has is from God. He doesn’t say, “God, look at what a good man I am; you must really be satisfied with me and the way I worship.” He knew that would be impertinent. He gives credit to God for his mercy. What could be wrong with this man’s worship, his liturgical piety? He tries very hard to do it all rightly. He has invested his life in doing it as “echt” as he could!

But then the veneer of his piety begins to peel away. He then proceeds to the Second Table of the Law, Commandments 4-10. He thanks God that he is not like those people who commit sins against these commandments! He thanks God!!! He boasts that he has extorted anyone, been unfaithful to his marriage vows, or any other gross sin, and then he thanks God for it. Not only that, but he fasts twice a week, Monday and Thursday as required. He tithed, gave 10% of everything he owned. What could possibly be wrong with such a pious man? What pastor wouldn’t like to have a congregation full of such men! No hint of immorality stained his character. The budget would be more than balanced! He is an excellent man if we view him like this. This Pharisee shouldn’t be faulted for keeping the Law, for doing what the Law commands. We, too, should do our best to keep our lives pure from sin and do what God expects of those redeemed by Christ.

Outward humility, however, is not really such a great quality. Helmut Thielicke, a pastor in Hamburg, post World War II Germany, warned that outward piety plays cards with the devil himself. He said,

For example, if one is a theologian—and why should I spare my own “trade” here?—one can be an unjustified, case-hardened Pharisee and champion what may be a correct and legitimate doctrine of justification with an angry, arrogant fanaticism for orthodoxy. . . . So we must be especially careful of the devout moments in our life. No confession of sin safeguards us against pride. Even humility is not a virtue which is immune to the devil.

Pastors in particular need to guard against the sin of self-importance and pride.

So we see that a fatal cancer infects the Pharisee. It has made him compare himself to the lowest common standard—this tax collector—so as to exalt himself in God’s eyes. He tramples on his neighbor, regarding him as less than human garbage. He probably thought of the tax collector, “It serves him right to be in this predicament!” He brags about all the gifts God has given him but he’s made an idol out of them. It is himself that he is worshiping, not God! He can’t get past the First Commandment. It’s a sin that pastors in particular must guard against. We must guard against the thought that God needs us more than we need him. We must not think that we can stand before God and not incur his wrath for our arrogance and self-congratulations.


He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt:

It’s as old as Adam and Eve, or in view of today’s Old Testament reading, Cain and Abel. Even though God warned Cain that sin was crouching at the door of Cain’s heart, it finally got him. He thought of himself as better and got rid of the evidence so he didn’t have to think about Abel anymore. Truth be told, we are often happy when our neighbor suffers when things go badly for him. Some people will actually hurt themselves if they think that they can cause another to have greater harm. The Germans have a word for that, too. It’s called Schadenfreude, that is, rejoicing in the misfortunes of others. So, our Pharisee did to the tax collector.

The tax collector, too, had gone to the temple to pray. Jesus has him standing far off, staying as far away from everyone as possible. He doesn’t want to be seen because he’s ashamed of his sins. It needs to be said that even in private prayer the Jews prayed aloud. It seems that this tax collector did not want others to hear his sins because he was ashamed. Try speaking your prayers aloud sometime and record what you felt doing it! I can assure you that even if you are alone and not in the family circle you will hear yourself and you may not like what comes out of your mouth!

The tax collector violates all the rubrics of public worship. He will not raise his head toward God. He did not elevate his hands in a gesture of prayer. He did not genuflect. He is not in the least “echt,” proper, pure, liturgically correct. He keeps his head down and beats his chest as a sign of grief and shame, and the only words he utters are these:

God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’

Where do you suppose he got those words? Certainly not from his heart! He must had heard the Word of God, but where? Jesus gives us insight. Perhaps he would have been one of those tax collectors and sinners with whom Jesus had often dined. This is a parable, not an historical account, but we see it connect cleanly with our Lord’s preaching. The parable was told to “some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt.” This poor man pleads nothing but mercy. He has no outward keeping of the Law to plead. He publicly identifies himself as a sinner, a law breaker, one not worthy of asking God for any gifts. He is completely open before God. He pleads nothing. He begs mercy. As Luther said on his deathbed, “We are all beggars. This is true.”

The Pharisee’s words were out of his corrupt heart. He pleaded himself before God, but the tax collector’s words might be said this way,

“God, be propitiated to me, a sinner.”

Every now and then we hear that word Propitiation. The Apostle John uses it a few times but this one is pure gold:

He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world. [1 John 2.2]

Propitiate means to earn the favor of another, in this case, God. God is propitiated toward us because of the righteousness of Christ. It is Christ who has earned it by his innocent life, suffering, and death. His death turned aware God’s wrath forever. Our worship piety has nothing to do with it. Of course we want to be reverent but even this does not earn us a single point before God!

This propitiatory work of Christ is delivered to you every Divine Service in Word and Sacrament, especially in the body and blood of our Lord, the one sacrifice that takes away the sin of the world. The opening words of a Lord’s Supper hymn say it plainly:

Jesus Christ, our blessed Savior,

Turned away God’s with forever;

By His bitter grief and woe

He saved us from the evil foe. [LSB 627.1]

“An Absurd Thing Happens!” Two men went up to the temple to pray but only one of them went home forgiven. The Pharisee, the man we might say “had everything going for him,” the man who worshiped in a very “echt” way, lost it all, but the man who had nothing whatsoever ends up with everything good that God can bestow. He comes away with forgiveness, life, and salvation. How wildly illogical it seems! It’s absurd to the natural man’s thinking that the Pharisee was condemned by God and the tax collector is accounted righteous! Who has ever heard of such a thing! But that’s what God does in Christ.

One more thought if we were to continue our Lord’s parable: Do you think that the Pharisee went on as before with his worship in the temple? Do you think he continued to offer the same self-righteous prayer? And what about the tax collector? Do you think he went back to his old life of scheming and cheating now that he had God’s mercy, his forgiveness? It’s something for us to ponder, is it not?

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

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