Please forgive any typos in this manuscript. The text for the sermon is the Gospel Lesson, Luke 18:9-14.
The parable that we read this morning from St. Luke 18, beginning at verse 9, is striking in its message, and sobering in its clarity—and worthy of our close attention. If you have your Bibles, please turn with me to Luke, chapter 18, where we find that the humble acknowledgment of our need for God’s mercy results in justification—while prideful trust in one’s self does not.
Jesus’ parables don’t always being with a sentence that tells us who he was explicitly speaking to when he told a parable, like this one does. The passage says that Jesus spoke this parable to certain which trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others.
It is important to note here that this trust in one’s self, that one is righteous, is put alongside despising others—as if those two things go together. In fact, they do go together. This attitude is illustrated in the narrative of the parable, but it is still instructive for us to consider the important thing that Scripture teaches us here simply by juxtaposing (by putting together) these two sinful attitudes. We can all see around us the practice of people despising each other. Upon a moment’s reflection, you can probably draw to mind even very recent examples where you have seen this or encountered it on the internet. It seems one of the reasons that this is so common is because the human heart, when it is entrapped by sin, wishes to escape from the guilt that rightly comes from sin—and so deflects from that guilt by blaming others, and by seeking to prove one’s own righteousness. This doesn’t mean, as some will often allege, that every time a fault or a negative thing is pointed out, that it is done to despise others, or with ill intent. The Church must be clear about sin, and about the effects of sin. This is often a very subtle issue, and involves our attitudes—but this parable gives us an example that can be helpful as we consider those subtleties.
In the parable we are presented with two men, who are both doing what seems from the outside like a good thing—they are going to the temple to pray. One of them was a Pharisee. Now, because of the way that Jesus often clashed with the Pharisees, and because they often opposed Him and his mission, we have a pretty negative view of them. If a person is “pharisaical,” it means that that is a person marked by self-righteousness. But in the time when Jesus spoke this parable, the Pharisees were greatly respected as a religious group that took seriously the law and took the claims of God seriously—even if it was true that many of them did so in a hypocritical way. The other man that came to the temple is called in the older translations “publican.” A publican was an employee of the Roman Empire in the provinces—in this case, most likely, this man was a tax collector. As someone who was, apparently, working in public service for the hated invaders, the Romans, who occupied Israel at this time period, it would be expected that this publican was a wicked man who didn’t care for His people and only cared about earning money for himself. It would be expected that he was a wicked man, while the Pharisee was a righteous man—almost as if we were to tell a story today and replace the Pharisee with someone in the role of priest, and the publican as a drug dealer. We would expect, in telling the story, a particular outcome for how the priest would pray, and how the drug dealer would pray—but the parable inverts those things.
The Pharisee came to pray not really even to pray to God, but because he doesn’t really even trust in God. Remember, the parable is against those who trust in themselves that they are righteous, and he certainly does that. This is illustrated for us in the fact that the text says he stood and prayed with himself. This means, ironically, that he came perhaps in name to pray to God, but in fact was praying to Himself. The fact he stands in prayer is not necessarily an issue, since in the ancient world standing in the temple to pray was not unusual—but his standing here, and the fact that he is basically praying to himself because he trusts in his own religious excellency, demonstrates that his standing instead of kneeling metaphorically demonstrates his view of himself.
And the fact of the matter is, the Pharisee has done some good things, and kept himself from some bad things. He lists out here extortioners, those who are unjust, adulterers, or even traitors like the publican, and he seems confident that he has not been guilty of those sins. Jesus doesn’t dispute that he hasn’t done those bad things. In addition, we see here that he has done some good and positive things as religious duties. He has fasted, he has given tithes of all that he possesses—in other words, he has rightly been doing some good things. Jesus isn’t telling this parable to tell us that actually extortion and adultery are good things we shouldn’t worry about, and that fasting and tithing are useless. No, the Pharisee here actually has good reason to be thankful—but the thing is he isn’t actually thankful to God. He gives thanks for his own acts, not for God’s acts.
The reason he isn’t actually thankful is that he seems to be putting his trust in his own righteousness, in his own religious obedience, as the means by which he can stand before God. He seems to think that God’s justice is like a scale, in which God will weigh out if you’ve done more bad things than good things, or more good things than bad—and if you’ve done more good, than that means that you are going to be ok. The Pharisee thinks that he is right with God, because he’s done enough things to earn God’s favor, and not done enough sin to lose God’s favor—and he despises others, like the publican, who he thinks is clearly lost his place in God’s covenant through his life of sin.
This figure is contrasted in the parable with the publican. In contrast to the Pharisee, who proudly saddles up to the front of the temple, near the altar, to pray in front of everyone, the publican stands far off. In contrast to the Pharisee who stands up straight, the publican keeps his eyes lowered—he won’t even look up to heaven. In contrast to praying proudly and verbosely, the publican beats his breast to show his mourning, and says: God, be merciful to me, a sinner.
You see, the publican knew that he couldn’t trust in himself. He knew that he was a sinner. Publicans and tax collectors had a reputation of taking advantage of their position and the backing of the Roman Army to enrich themselves, effectively stealing from their countryman. This was a man who knew his sin. And he did not come to the temple to get social respect, he didn’t come to demonstrate his justification of himself. He came to repent, to get right with God by pleading for God’s mercy. He knew that he deserved God’s punishment for his sin—yet he pleaded for mercy.
Jesus tells us that the publican departed from the temple right with God—justified before Him, while the Pharisee departed not justified. Despite all the apparent good that the Pharisee had done, the fact that he did not confess his need for God, even in the midst of the good things that he had done, means that he was not right with God. Meanwhile, the publican, who confessed his sin before God—and significantly, turned to God for mercy—departed from there justified.
A recent study by a group called “Lifeway” indicated that 2/3 of Americans would say that they are sinners. Many folks in the world today have an idea of what sin is—they have an idea that their life is perhaps not all that it should be. That they have not done all that they should have done. Yet I would guess that a good portion of that 2/3—in fact, the study says more than half of it—does not acknowledge that in their sin they have need of God to save them. Instead, they acknowledge they are sinners, but say they are working on it. To say that they are sinners but working on it is essentially to do what the Pharisee did here—to trust in themselves, that they can make themselves righteous through their actions.
But the Gospel of the Christian faith proclaims to us, in the midst of our sin and our great need, that we cannot earn our justification. If we trust in ourselves, we will not be right with God. The Gospel proclaims to us God’s provision for sin, which was made by Jesus Christ, our Savior. Jesus came and died for this sins of the world, that by faith and repentance God’s people might turn to Him, and ask for His mercy. And God, who is rich in grace in mercy, when His people turn to Him in repentance and faith, delights to give mercy. To rightly work on our sin, then, is to turn our lives over to God—to confess our sins, to trust in Him to forgive our sins, and to trust in Him and His grace to be healed of our sins.
So the question for you today is: Who are you trusting in? Are you trusting in yourself, and despising others? Do you look at your own religious observance, and look at other Christians or other people in the world who may not have a good understanding or practice of the faith, who may in fact of a bad or deficient practice in their lives, and think to yourself: thank you God, for not making me like them? One of the main challenges of a small church, and a small denomination, is that we can become self-righteous and censorious—we look to our own obedience for our justification, and make our religious practice about not being one of the bad churches, instead of making it about who we are called to be by the Spirit.
Are we trusting in ourselves, or do we pray truly: God have mercy on me, a sinner? This parable is one of the reasons why the liturgy teaches us so regularly that we are in need of God’s grace and mercy. The greatest need of human beings is to be made right with God—and here Jesus reminds us is that God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble. If we come to him in pride, listing our achievements, despising others for not being like us—then we will not depart from here justified. But if we come in humility, which is key to true faith, we can say in the words of the liturgy, and with the whole Church, God be merciful to me. And God honors that prayer, in faith.
So let us come now in faith, to pray that God might have mercy on us, and that we might walk in humility—and in His ways—all the days of our lives. Amen.