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
Luke 18:9-14
Rev. Benjamin Tyler Holt

Jesus said to him, “Recover your sight; your faith has made you well” (Luke 18:42). That’s how it was read a few moments ago, but that’s not quite right.

The man is well. Jesus restores his sight. But the actual word that Jesus uses is saved. It could read, “Recover your sight; your faith has saved you.”

The King James has it that way, for what it’s worth.

And here’s why it matters: if faith makes you well, we’ll doubt our faith every flu season.

We’ll think the man was made well because Jesus restored his sight.

That’s wrong because faith doesn’t guarantee good eyesight, otherwise there’d be no blind, deaf, weak, hurting, or sinful Christians.

 Jesus doesn’t say “made well.” He says saved.

Faith in Jesus Christ doesn’t guarantee good health. It doesn’t guarantee eight hours of sleep each night or nine months of ease whenever you need it.

Lots of other false gods promise those things—but not faith in Jesus.

But faith in Jesus does guarantee salvation.

And nothing else does that.

But here’s where it’s most difficult:

In our day-to-day lives, for which do we feel the greater need?

Eyesight? A clean bill of health? Wealth? Ease?

Or salvation?

The Gospel lesson today hits us hard, because it contrasts the seeing (and unbelieving) disciples with the blind (but believing and therefore saved) beggar.

And we should prefer to be the blind beggar.

Though you don’t want to be blind, you really don’t want to be one of the Twelve, because at this point, they don’t understand.

“Taking the twelve [disciples], [Jesus] said to them, ‘See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written about the Son of Man by the prophets will be accomplished. For he will be delivered over to the Gentiles and will be mocked and shamefully treated and spit upon. And after flogging him, they will kill him, and on the third day he will rise’” (Luke 18:31-33).

Jesus could not be more clear. 

Seventeen times prior to these verses in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus refers to the Son of Man.

The disciples know it’s Him.

And yet, St. Luke writes that ”they understood none of these things. This saying was hidden from them, and they did not grasp what was said” (Luke 18:34).

In three separate ways, Luke tells us that, seeing, the disciples do not see. Hearing, they do not understand. And having Jesus there, they yet have nothing at all because they lack faith.

And so we read of the blind beggar.

“As [Jesus] drew near to Jericho, a blind man was sitting by the roadside begging. And hearing a crowd going by, he inquired what this meant. They told him, ‘Jesus of Nazareth is passing by.’ And he cried out, ‘Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!’ And those who were in front rebuked him, telling him to be silent. But he cried out all the more, ‘Son of David, have mercy on me!’ And Jesus stopped and commanded him to be brought to him. And when he came near, he asked him, ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ He said, ‘Lord, let me recover my sight.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Recover your sight; your faith has saved you’” (Luke 18:35-42).

This beggar is the example of faith.

This blind beggar is a perfect illustration of the Christian because he’s blind (which means he believes what he hears) and because he’s a beggar.

We are all beggars. This is true.

Each of us, before God, is an empty cup needing to be filled. Each of us, before God, has nothing to offer God that He needs. We are, arms outstretched and palms up, in need of what He has to give.

And this blind beggar gets it. Literally blind, he hears and believes and trusts.

Having Jesus there, he has everything.

Notice, Jesus is near and the beggar cries out, “Son of David, have mercy!” He knows who David was.

He knows who Jesus is.

So yeah, this beggar gets it. “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy.”

But what happens? This blind beggar and example of the Christian faith cries out to what end?

He’s rebuked by the crowd.

And it at least seems like Jesus is ignoring him.

Jesus, who knows all things, doesn’t answer him immediately—and that’s on purpose.

We should all learn to be like the blind beggar.

He ignores the rebuke of Man out of faithfulness to God.

And he’s got thick skin. He remains faithful and cries out all the more even when it seems that God Himself is silent or uncaring.

Practical wisdom tells us the squeaky wheel gets the grease and the impudent friend what he needs.

But God wants to give you all that you need. So how much more will our Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him (cf. Luke 11:5-13).

Prayers stay the same for years, sometimes.

That God doesn’t give you what you want doesn’t mean He hasn’t given you everything you need.

Maybe you want for yourself what God doesn’t want for you? If that’s the case, it’s not God who should change.

That’s a difficult lesson to learn.

But we’re not alone in having to learn it.

Nor are we supposed to keep our desires to ourselves.

The blind beggar can’t see Jesus, but he trusts that Jesus hears. He trusts that Jesus answers. So when rebuked by Man and seemingly ignored by God—when it would seem that he has all the reasons in the world to stop praying—he cries out all the more, because he knows that God is merciful.

Literally blind, he hears and believes and trusts.

“And Jesus stopped and commanded him to be brought to him…” He commands him to be brought to Him, because by your own reason or strength you cannot believe in Jesus Christ your Lord or come to him.

“…And when he came near, [Jesus] asked him, ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ He said, ‘Lord, let me recover my sight.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Recover your sight; your faith has saved you.’”

The faith that saves the blind beggar was there before Jesus restored his sight. It was there before he cried out the first time. It was there when he was rebuked, and it was there when it must’ve felt like God was ignoring him and refusing to answer his prayer for mercy.

The faith that saves the blind beggar is there apart from the miracle of sight restored.

And—regardless of his sight—the man is saved.

Jesus heals the blind man for many reasons.

Because the man asked.

Because Jesus is there to give sight to the blind.

But our reason—the reason Jesus did that then but not now—the reason we don’t get our miracles the way they got theirs—is because Jesus wants us to seek and ask for more than eyes that see.

He wants us to believe and be saved.

So that in the resurrection we have all that we ask for and more.

That’s what’s at stake.

Jesus, in healing the blind man, is showing us what the resurrection looks like.

And in telling the blind man that his faith has saved him—Jesus is showing us what is most important.

Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved.

And then—in the resurrection—everything else will be added unto you.

In Jesus’ name, Amen!

Quinquagesima Sermon, 2020
Luke 18:31-43
Rev. Benjamin Tyler Holt