Jesus says, “Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 18:14).
The most obvious way that a man exalts himself is to boast like the Pharisee in the Temple. “I fast twice a week. I give tithes of all that I get.” Such shallow attempts to make oneself righteous must be denounced, even ridiculed.
“For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin” (Romans 3:20).
Because— “We know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified” (Galatians 2:16).
“Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith?” (Galatians 3:2).
“For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, ‘Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them’” (Galatians 3:10).
The problem with the Pharisee wasn’t his fasting or tithing, Christians are to fast and tithe.
The problem wasn’t his strength of will to resist adultery or extortion. It’s not a problem that he didn’t take advantage of his neighbors or give in to greed.
God commands all of that.
The problem was, the Pharisee thought he was righteous enough from how hard he worked, that his simplicity was enough to earn God’s favor, and that whatever failings he had were insignificant compared to other people, so—therefore—he was the one to be loved by God.
In fact—the Pharisee was living what the Bible calls the good life. Quoting Psalm 34, St. Peter writes:
“Whoever desires to love life and see good days, let him keep his tongue from evil and his lips from speaking deceit; let him turn away from evil and do good; let him seek peace and pursue it. For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous, and his ears are open to their prayer. But the face of the Lord is against those who do evil” (1 Peter 3:10–12).
In avoiding evil and doing good, giving away his material possessions, and training his flesh for hardship, the Pharisee enjoyed a life of peace and health.
There’s no real or lasting pleasure in sin, even for sinners. If you don’t believe me, pick a rock star who lived long enough to have a biography written about himself, and read his biography.
Debauchery does not lead to happiness.
The good life is not found in what the world counts as pleasure.
Even Oprah—who denies that Jesus Christ is Lord—knows, deep down, that to be happy you must make other people happy. She knows you must give your life and your stuff to others.
If you get to choose what sort of an unbeliever to be: either the Pharisee who lived in poverty and service to others but was heading to Hell, or the Tax-Collector who lived in luxury and sought to maximize pleasure at every turn but was also headed to Hell—if you must choose between the two—pick the Pharisee.
Blesséd, in a sense, is the man who doesn’t know what a hangover feels like, who’s never had to worry if the girl was pregnant, or if he had aids. Blesséd is the man who’s never been beaten up in the back alley of some bar, or arrested, or vomited on himself.
Blesséd is he—but, of course—that’s not true blessedness. True blessedness isn’t simply the good life promised by the Law. True blessedness is the righteousness bestowed by Christ on sinners.
If you get to pick what sort of a man to be, either the Pharisee, greatly honored in the community with a steady job, or the Tax Collector, hated by all, pick the Tax Collector who prayed, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” (Luke 18:13).
He went down to his house justified.
He confessed His sins before the mercy seat.
He trusted in God to cover him and to receive him by grace, to forgive him. And God did and does.
That’s what the Temple was for and that’s why the Temple veil is destroyed at the death of Christ (cf. Mark 15:38).
Nothing separates us from the love of God and His mercy. It’s open to women and Gentiles, to tax collectors, prostitutes, and pimps. It’s open, even, to Pharisees and life-long Lutherans.
The Church has deliberately chosen the Tax Collector as her model of prayer. His actions in the parable are precisely why we bow our heads and close our eyes and fold our hands in prayer.
Years ago, Lutheran confirmands were taught to beat their breast when they confessed sin or received the Sacrament.
Mea culpa. Mea culpa. Mea maxima culpa.
My fault. My fault. My own most grievous fault.
We come before God as sinners in need of mercy.
We want to go home justified.
We don’t trust in ourselves or our works.
If we are righteous, it’s not our righteousness but the righteousness of Christ that’s been bestowed on us as a gift through His Word.
We want to be the tax collector in his penitence and piety not in any of his previous perversion.
That he goes home justified means more than that he was let off the hook for all the bad stuff.
More than that, he went home changed, the new man.
In an outward way, we expect that he began from that point forward to look like the Pharisee. To fast, training his body. And to tithe, training his heart and providing for the poor. Resisting evil. And doing good.
Luke records this parable in chapter 18, and in chapter 19 he tells us about another tax collector convert: Zacchaeus, that wee little man who climbed a sycamore tree. When Jesus came to his house, Zacchaeus receive him joyfully, and, in the freedom of the Gospel, pledged to give half of all his goods to the poor and to restore ill-gotten gains fourfold.
Jesus said to Him “Today salvation has come to this house” (Luke 19:9).
Yes, because Jesus is there.
And yes, because Zacchaeus loved Him.
The Gospel changes both tax collectors.
It delivers not only the outward peace and satisfaction of the good life, but it also gives an abundant life, a life lived with God, by His Law, in repentance and faith, in service to neighbor, and with joy.
Lutherans confess: “When a person is born anew by God’s Spirit, liberated from the Law…and led by Christ’s Spirit, he lives according to God’s unchangeable will revealed in the Law. Since he is born anew, he does everything from a free, cheerful spirit” (FC SD VI.17).
That’s what is true. That’s what we believe. But there’s a caveat. On this side of glory, we struggle.
Lutherans also confess: “Believers are not completely renewed in this world. The old Adam clings to them right up to the grave. Therefore, the struggle between the spirit and the flesh remains in them. They delight in God’s Law according to the inner man, but the law in their members struggles against the law in their mind. Therefore, they are never without the Law. Nevertheless, they are not under, but in the Law. They live and walk in the Law of the Lord, and yet do nothing in the Law because of force” (FC SD VI.17).
The Law does little good for the unrepentant.
The Pharisee’s obedience only gave him a good life here on earth.
But the Law does great good for the Baptized. We confess: “This doctrine of the Law is needed by believers in order that they may not make up a holiness and devotion of their own. Using God’s Spirit as an excuse, they must not set up a self-chosen worship, without God’s Word and command” (FC SD VI.20).
Lest we make up our own standards and turn ourselves into libertine hedonists, Christians-in-name-only, inventing an entirely new and perverse form of self-worship and self-righteousness that brags in the un-faith of not doing works, loving God and neighbor, lest we follow our heart and lose our faith, God gives us His Law.
But it’s also true that our good works, done in faith, become pleasing to God as they obey the actual Law in an outward way. We are not under the law. We are under grace, forgiven, free from the curse and condemnation of the law through faith in Christ.
Our good works, though imperfect and impure, are pleasing to God through Christ. We act in God-pleasing ways—not because of the compulsion of the law but because of the renewal of the Holy Spirit—without coercion and from a willing heart, as baptized, justified, and saved Christians.
Yes, there’s a war in your members.
Your struggle and sin.
But you fight the Old Adam as a son, not a slave.
You fight as one redeemed by Christ the crucified, not as a worrier.
You fight as one to whom the victory has been given, not the one who would earn the victory himself.
You fight as one who goes down to his house justified, prepared to live in this world and the world to come.
Yes, we struggle.
But we struggle as one who has conquered by faith in Jesus Christ.
In Jesus’ name, Amen!
Trinity 11 Sermon, 2020
Rev. Benjamin Tyler Holt