The Eleventh Sunday after Trinity, 2016
Rev. Benjamin Tyler Holt
We can pray to thank God for what He’s given to us. We can pray to ask God for what we need. We might think that thanking is better than asking. It seems more polite. We should thank God for the many good things He’s given us instead of taking them for granted. Showing a bit of gratitude is better than begging for more and more things. Don’t you think?
But in this particular case, the man who thanked God went home guilty as sin and the fellow who begged God went home justified. There’s nothing wrong with thanking God. We may and we should. “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, for his steadfast endures forever” (Psalm 136:1). We pray that in the psalms as well as at the table. We thank God every day. We thank Him for what He has given us, what He is giving us, and what He will give us. When we thank God we’re confessing that God is responsible for every good thing we have in this life.
But asking God for His mercy is the best prayer we can pray. That’s because when we ask God to be merciful to us we’re confessing the greatest thing about God: He is merciful. God is merciful and we are beggars.
With those sentiments we can live and die. The life of a Christian, the life of faith and prayer, is the life of a beggar. It’s the only way a sinner can approach a holy God.
Whether we’re talking about riotous protests across our country, the lack of a balanced budget for our state, damaging gossip in the neighborhood, or the husband and wife in each home, we’re talking about people who won’t humble themselves before God. Sin is pride, elevating yourself above another. Placing yourself at the center of the universe and insisting that others revolve around you.
The Pharisee thanked God for making him better than others. Do you doubt his sincerity? Do you think he was lying when he said that he fasted twice a week and gave tithes of everything he possessed? He was telling the truth. And he was doing above and beyond what the law required of him. He was telling the truth when he said that he was not an extortionist or an adulterer. He certainly didn’t live the kind of life tax collectors lived. They made their income largely by cheating people out of theirs.
Make no mistake. The Pharisee was better than some others. You’d rather have him as a neighbor. You’d rather have him as an employer or employee.
Consider things as they are. Kids cheat their way through college. Fornication and adultery are defended by popular culture. Everyone is entitled, but nobody has obligations. The country is facing its future like a man who buys beer and cigarettes before buying bread and cereal. Law-abiding Pharisees would be an improvement.
That’s why we need to take this parable to heart.
Jesus told this story for us. It’s the most relevant story He ever told. He distinguishes between true and false prayer and true and false faith with perfect precision.
Prayer reveals faith.
There’s an old Latin expression, lex orandi, lex credendi, which basically means: “the way you pray is the way you believe.” This is true. Prayer is the exercise of faith. The faith is the content of prayer. Prayer puts into words what we believe. Faith informs prayer, and prayer reinforces faith. If we learn to pray rightly our faith will be formed rightly. Every church service should include the Lord’s Prayer. And every Christian should know it by heart. And every Lutheran should read their catechism and believe, teach, and confess what’s there.
The Pharisee prayed with himself. His prayer was about himself. St. Luke tells us that Jesus told this parable to people who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and that they treated others with contempt. The Pharisee’s faith was not in a merciful God. His faith was in himself.
The way you pray is the way you believe. So Jesus teaches us how to pray and in so doing He teaches us how to believe. The Lord’s Prayer, again.
How is God’s name hallowed? When His mercy is confessed.
How does God’s kingdom come to us? When His mercy in Christ is made known to us.
What is God’s will for us? To be merciful!
Why does God provide us with our daily bread? Because He is merciful.
Where does the forgiveness of sins come from? From God’s mercy.
What leads us out of temptation into the safety of God’s loving embrace? I hope you see where we’re going with all this: God’s mercy.
What is it that will deliver us from evil every day and especially on the last day? God’s mercy revealed in Christ our Savior.
The way you pray is the way you believe. We pray the Lord’s Prayer and we join with the tax collector in praying for God’s mercy.
That’s how we worship God together in church. The Kyrie: “Lord have mercy upon us, Christ have mercy upon us, Lord have mercy upon us.” There’s nothing we need more. And there’s nothing that God wants more than to be merciful, to forgive, and to save.
We trust either our deeds or God’s mercy, that’s what it comes down to. There’s nothing in between. This’s why Jesus told us this story. The true faith prays for divine mercy. The false faith trusts in its own righteousness. The true faith praises God’s grace. The false faith praises its own works.
The word that the tax collector uses for mercy in today’s gospel lesson is not the word most commonly used in the New Testament. The usual word for mercy is a word that refers to God feeling sorry for our suffering. When we pray for His mercy we’re calling on the kindness of the One who can solve our suffering. It’s a general plea for whatever God is willing to give us in our need. And all that He gives is good.
The word that the tax collector used for mercy refers specifically to the mercy of forgiveness. It’s as if he prays, “God, remove your anger from me. Forgive me. Be gracious to me for the sake of the blood.” It’s the plea of faith in the forgiveness of sins that comes to us from God through the bloody sacrifice offered up to the justice of God. All this is packed into that one little word: mercy.
It may seem unfair that ignores the righteous deeds of the Pharisee and requires no righteous deeds from the tax collector, but that’s not what’s happening.
The righteous deeds of the Pharisee were all bogus. They weren’t righteous at all because they weren’t done in love.
It’s love that fulfills the law.
The Pharisee pointed to all sorts of good deeds done in apparent conformity with the Second Table of the Law. But in examining them we see that none of them was a good deed because the Second Table of the Law is summed up in, “Love your neighbor as yourself” and he didn’t love his neighbors, he only compared himself to his neighbors. He has no good deeds.
The tax collector, on the other hand, appealed to the sacrifice of the Savior. The word he used for mercy appealed to the sacrifice by which sin is forgiven, by which God’s anger is stilled. He knows that the forgiveness of his sins has a cost. It’s nothing less than the blood of God.
The sinner’s prayer is a cry for mercy, reminding God reminding God of what He’s already done for us. I plead the death of Jesus. I plead His righteousness, His suffering, His obedience.
It was all offered for me and for my salvation. And for you and yours.
Before He can be our Savior we must be sinners.
What does the tax collector says: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner” (Luke 18:13). Literally, he says “the sinner.” He doesn’t include himself in a group. He stands alone. The self-righteous compares himself to others and sees he’s better than they are. The Christian compares himself to God’s law and sees himself for what he is.
As the psalmist wrote:
“If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand? But with you there is forgiveness, that you may be feared” (Psalm 130:3-4).
And again he writes:
“Enter not into judgment with your servant, for no one living is righteous before you” (Psalm 143:2).
The sinner stands in comparison to others, using their sins to deflect attention from his own. The righteous one stands alone as a sinner, begging for mercy from God for Christ’s sake.
He confessed himself to be the sinner. Jesus says he went home righteous.
God justified him. God justifies sinners.
This’s the most offensive feature of our Christian faith, and it is the very central truth upon which everything else we believe rests. God says that sinners are righteous.
It offends the proud because they want credit from God for the good that they do. It offends religious people, because they think God’s unjust to justify someone who’s not just. It’s a lie, they say. So they deny that God justifies sinners.
God does not make a sinner into a saint by a gradual process where he becomes more of a saint and less of a sinner and in time becomes fully righteous and fit to enter into heaven.
We are sinners. We do sin. But, by the grace of God, by the mercy of God, He has called us by the Gospel, gathered us, enlightened us, and sanctified us. We are sinners and saints. Beggars before a merciful God.
It’s precisely as sinners that we cry out for God’s mercy. We don’t stop being sinners, ever, even when God tells us that we’re just and righteous.
We’re good enough for God, not on account of anything we’ve done, but solely on account of the obedience and suffering of Jesus our Savior. God hears our cries for mercy and justifies us. He forgives us. He sends us home as saints, justified.
As sinners we believe and pray. As saints we live and die. And God is merciful!
In Jesus’ name, Amen!
This sermon is based off of one preached by Rev. Rolf Preus.