Eleventh Sunday After Trinity August 10, 1997
324, 323, 456, 652
Hymns from The Lutheran Hymnal (1941) unless otherwise noted
Also He spoke this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, ‘God, I thank You that I am not like other men; extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess.’ And the tax collector, standing afar off, would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” Here ends our text.
In Christ Jesus, Who “came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance,” Dear Fellow Redeemed,
How good is your posture? Do you stand erect when you walk down the street, or do you kind of slouch along, bent over and watching the sidewalk? Are you sitting up straight in your chair right now, or are you starting to slump down a little bit? Good posture is important, and I for one am not likely to forget it: the kids of my generation had good posture drilled into us just about every day when we were growing up. “Stand up straight!” our parents told us, “Or else you’ll have back problems when you get older.” “Don’t slouch in your chair,” said our teachers, “or you’ll damage your spine!” Correct physical posture is a good thing to remind ourselves of once in a while, and it’s a good thing to teach our children. Standing up tall and straight is good; slumping over low is bad.
Our text for today talks about posture, too…it describes the correct posture for approaching almighty God. The surprising thing is that good spiritual posture is just the opposite of good physical posture! Let’s look at the important lessons Jesus teaches in the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. Our theme this morning:
A person’s posture—the way he sits, the way he stands, the way he walks—can tell you a lot about that individual’s personality. I think all of us have enough pride in the way we look that we want to present an appearance of erectness and confidence. Given the choice, we’d much rather have the posture of a proud, ramrod-straight soldier than a humble, stooped-over beggar. Well, if you’re talking about physical appearance, that’s fine. But when we come before almighty God, we can’t afford to take that posture. The first lesson of our parable today is clear: stand tall in self-righteousness…and God will cast you down!
Many of Jews of Jesus’ day—especially the religious leaders—had an attitude problem. They tended to think very highly of themselves, and not much of anybody else. To them, “righteousness” was a matter of looking good on the outside; and they were confident that they looked very good indeed. So Jesus …spoke this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.”
What a good choice of characters Jesus made for His parable! In the eyes of Jewish society, these men were exact opposites. The Pharisees were considered the very tip-top of good upstanding religious people. In contrast, the tax collectors were looked on as the scum of the earth. They were Jews who collected taxes for the hated Romans. They were considered unclean because of their frequent contact with Gentiles, and they were often known to cheat people by collecting more tax money than the people actually owed. The Pharisees were the best, and the tax collectors were the worst…on the outside, at least. But Jesus is about to show us that when you’re standing before the Lord, it’s not what’s on the outside that counts.
“The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself…” The Pharisee picked a prominent place in the center of the temple. He stood proud and straight. He began his prayer, speaking in a loud voice so that everybody around him could hear. And—did you notice?—it wasn’t even to God that he was praying! Jesus said he was praying to himself. He was looking in the mirror of his own self-righteousness, and he liked what he saw. “God, I thank You that I am not like other men; extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess.”
A person needs to have a correct posture when he comes before God, but this Pharisee had chosen exactly the wrong one. He stood tall in his self-righteousness. He wasn’t really asking God for anything. He was telling God proudly how many sins he had avoided, and how many good deeds he had done. He even had the nerve to look down his nose at the lowly tax collector in the corner, “Thank you, Lord, for not making me a wretched sinner like this disgusting fellow!”
He looked so good standing there proudly in the Temple, in his flowing garments with their ornate borders! So pious, so righteous. But what is Jesus’ verdict on the proud Pharisee? “NOT JUSTIFIED.” Condescending pride and self-righteousness get you exactly nowhere with God! A much more thorough and perfect righteousness is what God demands. And for that righteousness you simply can’t trust in yourself, no matter how good you look on the outside. Jesus once said to the hypocritical Pharisees, “You are those who justify yourselves before men, but God knows your hearts. For what is highly esteemed among men is an abomination in the sight of god.” Lk 16:15. Get the message? Stand tall in self-righteousness… and God will cast you down.
So how’s your posture?—Your spiritual posture as a Christian, I mean. Don’t think the temptation to spiritual pride isn’t there for us, too. Just the other day I was looking through my old check registers, and I caught myself thinking with pride about how much my church contributions would add up to if you put them all together; what a fine fellow I was!—Spiritual pride. Do you ever sit around and total up your own good works? Do you ever find yourself looking down—just a little bit!—on the people outside our church, or on the other members of the church who don’t come very often? As if you’re somehow less of a sinner than them! As if you need God’s forgiveness a little less than they do!—Deadly self-righteousness. And how ridiculous, when you think about it…because we’re all in the same boat. We’re all sinners, and we’re all desperately in need of God’s forgiveness. Why kid ourselves? The Apostle John says, “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.”
But there’s a flip side to that. John goes on, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” I Jn 1:8-9. What is the correct posture that a Christian needs to have? It’s not tall and proud…but low and humble. Bend low in repentance… and God will lift you up in Christ!
Jesus uses the tax collector as an example of the perfect posture for you and I to assume when we come before Him in prayer. And the tax collector, standing afar off, would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast. Unlike the Pharisee, he stood in a remote corner of the Temple, stooped in the shadows. And unlike him, the tax collector wasn’t very proud of himself. He didn’t even look upward as he prayed. In his shame over his sin, he struck himself on the chest.
What did this tax collector have to say for himself? Not much. It wasn’t a very long prayer. He didn’t tell about all his good works. He didn’t excuse himself by telling about all the other tax collectors that were much worse than he was. In fact, he didn’t tell God anything. He just asked. He made one request: “God be merciful to me a sinner!”
Looking for a good prayer that doesn’t take long to recite? This is it. “God be merciful to me a sinner.” When you say those words, you’re owning up to your sins. You’re admitting that, if you got what was coming to you, you’d be lost eternally as a consequence of your sins. The Psalmist guarantees us that this is one prayer that God simply can’t ignore: “A broken and contrite heart—these, O God, you will not despise.” Ps 51:17. You’re also confessing that you know there’s only one way out of your sins, and that’s through God’s mercy. The tax collector found absolutely nothing in himself in which to place his confidence, so he took the only option that was left. He appealed to the mercy of God. And he got it. Jesus said, “I tell you, this man went down to his house JUSTIFIED!”
Here is the correct posture for a Christian: bend low in repentance, and God will lift you up in Christ! I wish I could read you all the beautiful passages in Scripture that talk about God’s mercy. His mercy is described as eternal, “from everlasting to everlasting”; it’s as high as the heavens and deep as the sea. His mercy never runs out—it’s new and fresh for us every morning. All the sins that plague our conscience are swept away when we come in lowly repentance and say the prayer of the tax collector, “God be merciful to me a sinner.”
For Jesus’ sake, we too are justified—declared “not guilty” before almighty God. God took the punishment that we deserved—lifted it like a heavy burden from our shoulders—and laid on the back of His Son Jesus. If there’s any pride left to us, let it be pride in our loving Savior, who carried that burden to the cross of Calvary. There he paid the price for every last sin you ever committed, or ever will commit. There he defeated the devil, and robbed hell of its victims. There on the cross Jesus flung open the gates of heaven to every sinner—yes, even to such sinners as you and I! In one of the best-loved verses of Scripture, the Apostle John says, “The blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin.” I Jn 1:7.
A pastor had just finished leading the first worship service in his new parish. As he was greeting the people, one of the members took him aside. “That was a good sermon, Pastor,” he said, “but next time, be careful not to call us sinners.” “Why, aren’t you a sinner?” asked the pastor. “Certainly not!” said the parishioner. “In that case,” he replied, “I guess Jesus’ message isn’t for you, anyway. After all, our Lord Himself is the One who said, ‘I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance!’” As you and I come before God today—and every day—let’s remember that we are sinners. Let’s assume the correct Christian posture, not one of self-righteous pride, but one of lowly repentance. Let us appeal only to the mercy of God in Christ. Like that tax collector, we will not be disappointed! What a joy it is to know that at this moment, somewhere in heaven, your Lord Jesus is saying of you: “This person went down to his house JUSTIFIED.” AMEN.
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.