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Two Men Pray – Eleventh Sunday after Trinity (2018)

St. Luke 18.9-14, 12 August 2018, Rev. Jacob Sutton, Pastor

St. Luke 18.9-14
12 August 2018

Pastor Jacob Sutton
Pastor Jacob Sutton

Rev. Jacob Sutton, Pastor           

+ In the Name of Jesus +

He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector…” (Lk. 18:9–10; ESV)

I wonder sometimes if the Apostle Paul himself was the Pharisee depicted in Jesus’ parable. In today’s epistle reading you heard Paul describe himself as one untimely born, the least of the apostles, unworthy of the title apostle, because he was a persecutor of the Church of God.(1 Cor. 15:8-10) This he did not just by jailing and physically harming believers in Christ, as we see him do before his Damascus Road conversion in the book of Acts, but also by being “…the ones who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and were treating others with contempt.” (Lk. 18.9)

Pharisees like Paul had the appearance of a “beautiful, proud saint” to the world. (Luther) He appeared morally upright, and always performed pious acts of religiosity – earnestly endeavoring to serve God, and keep the law. Now these things are good things to do! We should all desire to be morally upright, mortify our sinful flesh, piously practice our faith, seek to serve God each day in our vocations, and be zealous to adhere to the Ten Commandments. There is no denying those are good and right to do.

“I thank you, God, that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even this tax collector…”

The Pharisee does thank God for the benefits that he received. That he was not a robber, adulterer, or like that moral slime, the Tax Collector off in the corner. The Pharisee thanks God that He fasts and tithes, and that he leads a life so above reproach that the entire world would have to say that he is an upright man. If we judged by outward appearances and deeds done, then the Pharisee appears righteous. He’s a chamber of commerce, leading citizen of the community sort of guy.

But Jesus invites us to look at the heart of the matter in hearing the Pharisee’s prayer. Without shame the Pharisee presumes to stand firm before God by his own works, even though in God’s sight, no man living is righteous. (Ps. 143:2) “He does not seek either grace or forgiveness of sins, nor does it occur to him that he stands in need of them.” (Luther) Therefore it does not occur to him that his neighbor stands in need of them either.

The Pharisee shamefully seeks his own honor and praise, breaking the first commandment. His prayer and worship stand as a misuse and disgrace of the name of God, breaking the second commandment. (Luther) He teaches his neighbors that God’s name is not hallowed, and the clear truth of God’s Word is not confessed to the neighbor. He does not hallow the Sabbath worship going on in the Temple he stands in, so that God might work in him according to His will, but puts forward his own works instead.

The Pharisee also “rumbles and blusters” (Luther) against his neighbor with regards to the second table of the law. In the Pharisee’s prayer we see no “Christian love or faithfulness by which one could trace that he sought and favored his neighbor’s honor and salvation.” (Luther) Instead, he just thinks the worst of his neighbor, does not consider his neighbors worthy of being regarded as a human being – does not see in the neighbor a fellow creation of his Heavenly Father whom he should love and desire to see receive God’s forgiveness and salvation.

“For when [the Pharisee] sees and knows that his neighbor sins against God, he does not think how he can convert and save him from the wrath of God and condemnation, that he may reform; he has no mercy or sympathy in his heart for the distress and affliction of a poor sinner, and thinks that he is rightly and justly served to be left in his condemnation and destruction, and withdraws from him all the duties of love and service God has commanded him to perform, that above all things he might bring his neighbor from his sins and condemnation into the kingdom of God by teaching, admonition, rebuke, and reformation… and worst of all, he is glad… because his neighbor is under the power of sin and the wrath of God.” (Luther; Church Postils, 355; previous quotes from 350-355)

The truth is, you and I stand there with the Pharisee, don’t we? Do we speak up and confess the truth to our neighbor about sin and repentance, faith and forgiveness? Or do we care more about our own reputation and keep silent, and let the neighbor continue in sin? Do we gossip, slander, and hold the neighbor’s sin up to God and others for condemnation, and seek to avoid dealing with our own sinful heart? A look into the mirror of God’s Law and an honest check of our conscience condemns us all.

The Tax Collector who stands afar off from the Pharisee is far from perfect. He has not been so desirous in the past of leading a chaste and decent life. The Tax Collector has been leading a morally repugnant life. He steals from his fellow countrymen by overcharging when collecting the Roman emperor’s tribute taxes. Zacchaeus, the wee little man, the one who climbs the Sycamore tree for the Lord he wanted to see, who meets Jesus in the next chapter of Luke’s Gospel after this parable, admits to Jesus he has defrauded people and so will repay it four-fold. And with ill-gotten wealth, it should not take us much imagination what debauchery and immorality could be purchased, even in first century Palestine.

We stand there with the Tax Collector too. We do not lead a chaste and decent life in thought, word, or deed. We stand with him having done things we ought not to have done, and having left undone the things God would have us do – we are poor, miserable sinners.

Two men went up into the Temple to pray. Who are you? In many ways you are both men. Hypocrites and scoundrels. But if you are going to pick what sort of a man to be between the Pharisee, who has honor in the eyes of his fellow man, who is that pillar of the community with the pious and steady job, and the Tax Collector of public shame and regret after the prayer in the Temple, pick the Tax Collector.

As we have an example of prideful hypocrisy in the Pharisee, we do instead have an example of humble repentance and faith in the Tax Collector. As we have an example of how not to pray in the Pharisee, we do instead have an example of how to pray in the Tax Collector. The Tax Collector stands humiliated by his sin. The Law has struck him down, terrified and shown him worthy only of God’s condemnation and wrath. He smites his breast, truly sorry for his sins. He confessed His sins before the mercy seat. He looked there, at the smoke rising from the blood sacrifice of the lamb on the altar, and trusted God to be good to His Word, to cover for him, to receive him by grace, to forgive him.

And God did. “He went down to his house justified.” That is what the Temple was for, and that is why Jesus has now opened the veil to heaven by His blood for every sinner. Nothing can keep us from God’s mercy. Atonement has been made, once for all, mercy without measure and without price, leading to eternal life. This mercy is for repentant Pharisees and Tax Collectors, along with prostitutes, addicts, the proud and the haughty, those given to anger and jealousy, the lustful and the covetous. It is for the young and old, the sick and the poor, the widowed and orphaned, the distraught and the downtrodden, the grief-stricken and those facing death itself.

The Church has deliberately chosen the Tax Collector for her model of prayer. His actions in the parable are precisely why we typically bow our heads and close our eyes and fold our hands in prayer. We come before God as sinners in need of mercy. We want to go home justified. We do not trust in ourselves or our works. If we are righteous, it is not our righteousness but Christ’s righteousness that has been bestowed upon us as a gift through His Word.

For the tax collector in his repentance and faith to go home justified also means more than that he was let off the hook for all his sin. It means that he went home changed, to start anew. We expect, in fact, that in an outward way he began from that point forward to look, in an external way, like the Pharisee. He fasted twice a week to train his flesh. He tithed of all that he had in compassion for the poor and the desire that God’s Kingdom be expanded and also to curb his flesh. He resisted evil. He did good deeds for his neighbors. And, when he failed God and neighbor again, as is inevitable this side of heaven, he returns to the mercy seat in repentance and faith – which we call, practicing and remembering your Baptism, seeking absolution from your pastor, receiving the blessed supper of Christ’s body and blood, the Lamb of atonement’s high feast.

“Last of all, as to one untimely born, [Jesus] appeared also to me, the least of the Apostles, insufficient to be called an Apostle,” Paul recounts, “…but by the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace toward me was not in vain.”

By the grace of God, as it was for the Apostle Paul, as it was for the Tax Collector, you have been removed from the Pharisee’s school of hypocrisy and self-righteousness, and from the Tax Collector’s den of thievery and debauchery, and have been remade by God into a new creation. Through Baptism and the Word of God’s forgiveness in Christ, through the powerful word of Christ’s resurrection which He received and believes and proclaims, God has changed Paul into someone who now can say, “…by the Grace of God I am what I am, and His grace toward me was not in vain.” Let those words, repentant and forgiven sinners, be the beginning and the end of all of your prayers as well.

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

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