23rd Sunday after Pentecost (Prop 25 – C)
October 23, 2016
Grace, mercy, and peace from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
The text that I have chosen for this morning’s sermon is the Gospel, which was read a few minutes ago.
Since the very beginning of time, pictures have been part of history. I can imagine young brothers Cain and Able drawing in the dirt with sticks. Cave paintings of mammoths and other ancient animals have been found in numerous places. As the times changed, so did the techniques; Renaissance paintings, black and white portraits, Polaroids, and now digital pictures and selfies, have all catalogued the human experience. I am guessing too that in every generation there have been those who were photogenic and those who really hated to have their pictures taken. Do you think the lady who posed for the Mona Lisa begged da Vinci to repaint it because she didn’t like her hair? Maybe, maybe not. Sometimes pictures can be deceiving depending on the perspective, but often times, the reveal the truth. We’re seeing ourselves as we really are. The Bible frequently presents to us pictures of ourselves and when we see them, we have to ask ourselves, what do I see?
When Jesus told His parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector He was taking a well-aimed shot at those whom Luke says, “trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt.” Not all Jesus’ parables were understood, not even by the disciples, but I the picture He painted today didn’t need an expert to explain. He says, “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.” The Pharisees were easy to identify in their flowing robes with long tassels and with the acknowledgments that greeted them everywhere they went. This was for good reason because the Pharisees were good people; they faithfully obeyed the Law, they gave their offerings, they regularly prayed. They were special; to others, but most of all to themselves. And this is where they went wrong.
Because they were self-righteous, they looked down their noses at others, just like what we hear in the parable. They believed they were saved because they were holier than others. They did what God commanded and they weren’t like the thieves, extortioners, or the tax collectors. They thought, “God loves me because I’m not like them.” The Pharisee makes this abundantly clear by standing where people can see and hear him. He can even see the tax collector who he specifically points out as a sinner not at all like him.
Pharisees no longer officially exist but this doesn’t mean that Jesus’ parable still isn’t relevant. When you look at the picture of the Pharisee do you see yourself? Do you think that you’re better than others? That your sins, while wrong, aren’t all that bad compared to others? “I’m not Hitler or bin Laden. I’m not a murderer or a thief. I don’t drink or curse. And I’m certainly not the Pharisee in the parable because I would never say that kind of thing.” If this is our attitude, even if we never actually say it, we’re Pharisees. We’re trusting in our self-righteousness and claiming God’s favor based on how we act or don’t act. And if this is how think, we’ve completely missed the point. We don’t gauge the seriousness of our sins by comparing them to others, we do so by comparing them to what God says and demands. And when we measure our sins against God’s intentions, we fail miserably. We’ll see that while we’re not serial killers or compulsive liars or bad parents, we’re still poor, miserable sinners who deserve God’s temporal and eternal punishments.
This is the picture that the Tax Collector has of himself; a rotten sinner, and he isn’t wrong. Generally speaking the tax collectors were not good people. They worked for the Romans and by doing so they betrayed their countrymen. They were also unscrupulous. If the Romans declared a tax of one gold coin, the tax collectors charged two; one for the Romans and one for their pockets. They were so despised that even self-respecting beggars would refuse charity from a tax collector.
So as he walks into the Temple with the Pharisee, they quickly part ways. The Pharisee heads into the middle of the crowd and the Tax Collector finds a corner spot to be all alone. Jesus says, “But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’” This broken man was so aware of his sins that he wouldn’t even look up to Heaven in the common posture of Jewish prayer. He pounds his chest as he clearly identifies that Sin is within him and that there is nothing he can do. He’s the opposite of the self-righteous Pharisee because he knows that he is wholly unrighteous.
As you listen to Jesus, is this how you see yourself? Do you see yourself as a sinner? Do you picture yourself as someone who is so unrighteous and so unworthy that to dare to look up would be a terrible affront to God? Do you inwardly beat your chest, trying to get God to notice you in spite of your sins? Repentance is a painful thing; it’s too look at yourself and to know that you are unworthy and that the only thing that can possibly give you hope is that if God has mercy on you, a sinner.
As we look at these two examples of repentance in Jesus’ parable, it’s quite clear that only the Tax Collector showed true repentance. But does this make him better than the Pharisee? No, not at all. Repentance doesn’t make us worthy of forgiveness any more than being good does. Nothing we do makes us deserving of forgiveness. Rather, repentance is worked in us when we hear God’s Word and realize that we are sinners. Not that we used to be sinners, but that we are sinners. So while the Tax Collector took the posture of a sinner, his repentance was more an act of the heart than of the body, and it is the same thing with us. God is the one who leads us to repent of our sins, to recognize our failings and to seek His mercy. King David put it this way in Psalm 51, “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.” This is true repentance.
At the end of the parable, Jesus refers to one of the men being justified. To be justified means that you are holy in God’s eyes, that you’re no longer just a sinner, but because you’ve received mercy, you are a forgiven sinner. The Pharisee believes he is forgiven because he’s not like other sinners. He seeks to justify himself but justification that comes from within will never be enough. To say that we’re better than another person is to refuse God’s mercy. The Pharisee goes home with nothing because he’s so full of himself. When we imitate the Pharisee, we’re not going home justified and forgiven to be exalted by God one day, we’re going home to await the day that God humbles us and does not have mercy on us.
The Tax Collector was justified, and so are you. Like the Tax Collector we’re seeking what we need for outside of ourselves. It means that we have nothing to offer God whatsoever. Not good works, not holy hearts, not even love. If the picture you have of yourself is one of a sinner, I want you to see Christ and His cross in the same picture. I want you to look at a picture of yourself in the parable and I want you to see someone who is justified. The Tax Collector sought God’s mercy, and he received it in an overflowing measure. When you come before God with downcast eyes and a broken spirit, you too will receive an overflowing measure of God’s mercy. Like the Tax Collector, you come before God empty and He fills you with forgiveness and sends you home justified and exalted. When you leave here, you are no longer a broken sinner, you are an exalted saint. And when you sin, when you once again see a picture of yourself that you hate, you can come here and receive God’s mercy. You receive mercy because the picture you see isn’t accurate. Instead, see that picture of yourself as being filtered through the Blood of Jesus, and then you’ll see yourself as you are – justified, holy, and forgiven.
The Pharisee and the Tax Collector did almost the exact same things. They both come to the Temple. They both stand. They both pray. They both go home. But the results of their duplicate actions couldn’t be more different. One is forgiven and one is condemned. They both see pictures of themselves but only one sees himself as he really is, a sinner who needs mercy. So look at your picture. Look at what God has done for you, and believe that God has had mercy on you a sinner, and now you can go home justified and at peace.
Now the peace which surpasses all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen