“The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ 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!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other” (Luke 18:11-14).
In this parable, no one has a problem identifying right and wrong. The Pharisee is wrong—we know that.
The Sunday School answer, when asked “Who’s wrong?”, is always the Pharisees—or, the disciples, Israel, Job and his friends, the Sadducees, the Chief Priests and principal men…
You get the idea.
We’re not surprised, anymore, by these “usual suspects.”
We know Jesus is right and everyone else is wrong.
We know the arrogant pride of the Pharisee, who prays thanking God that he’s unlike other men, is wrong.
And we know that the poor, miserable tax collector, standing far off, who beats his breast, Mea culpa, saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” (Luke 18:13), we know he’s right.
We know we shouldn’t emulate the Pharisee.
And we know that we should follow the example of the tax collector.
We know this, right?
But we should also know that the parables of Jesus are not always straightforward or obvious.
The Pharisee’s wrong, but—in especially one way—we’re exactly like the Pharisee and in complete opposition to the tax collector.
Consider how you speak.
I don’t mean the cursing, the lies, and the backbiting opinions you have. I don’t mean the obvious ill-speech that should be put away from Christian speech.
I mean—consider how you use the word “pride.”
I’ve mentioned this before, but consider the word and how you hear it used.
Pride is popular.
And since it’s popular, and everyone’s doing it, it can’t be wrong—right?
Pride is a vice.
One of the seven deadly sins, in that tradition.
But how many of you say you’re proud?
How many take pride?
How many of you pride yourselves in something?
Or how many of you have a pride and joy?
How many are bursting with pride?
These are common sayings to everyone.
But pride is a vice—immoral, wrong, and wicked.
Pride is not a virtue—meet, right, and salutary.
I don’t say this because some pastor said so. I don’t say this because some church council said so. Consider the overwhelming evidence from the Word of God.
Uzziah, king of Judah, wrongly offered incense before God. He did what a priest is given to do, and he was afflicted with leprosy until his death because of it. “When he was strong, he grew proud, to his destruction. For he was unfaithful to the Lord his God and entered the temple of the Lord to burn incense on the altar of incense” (2 Chronicles 26:16).
Nebuchadnezzar, the Babylonian king at the time of Daniel, is described this way: “When his heart was lifted up and his spirit was hardened so that he dealt proudly, he was brought down from his kingly throne, and his glory was taken from him…[and] his mind was made like that of a beast” (Daniel 5:20, 21).
Proverbs speaks this way: “One’s pride will bring him low, but he who is lowly in spirit will obtain honor” (Proverbs 29:23).
And again: “When pride comes, then comes disgrace, but with the humble [there] is wisdom” (Proverbs 11:2).
And “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall” (Proverbs 16:18).
The Psalm has it this way, among others: “For the wicked boasts of the desires of his soul, and the one greedy for gain curses and renounces the Lord. In the pride of his face the wicked does not seek him; all his thoughts are, ‘There is no God’” (Psalm 10:3-4).
James and Peter also quote the proverb, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6, 1 Peter 5:5; cf. Proverbs 3:34, cf. Greek).
And St. Mark records the words of our Lord: “From within, out of the heart of man come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness…”
Those stand together.
“…All [those] evil things come from within, and they defile a person” (Mark 7:21-23).
There’s no place for our use of the word “pride” when we consider what thus says the Lord.
Because it’s the pride of the Pharisee that makes him wrong—not his words.
We read the Pharisee’s words, knowing already that he’s wrong because he’s a pharisee, a usual suspect, but there’s a meet, right, and salutary way to pray his words.
The Pharisee prayed thus: “God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get” (Luke 18:11-12).
Believe me when I say, I don’t criticize the words of your prayers. Even if you don’t “grammar good when pray time,” I thank God that you pray.
So realize that if a man thanks God because he’s unlike others, or if a parent thanks God for keeping his child separated from the multitude of unbelievers, perhaps he observes the unbelieving hypocrites in the world.
In the Rite of Holy Baptism, we pray: “Grant that [this child] be kept safe and secure in the holy ark of the Christian Church, being separated from the multitude of unbelievers and serving Your name at all times with a fervent spirit and a joyful hope, so that, with all believers in Your promise [this child] would be declared worthy of eternal life; through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.”
If you’ve been here for the Rite of Holy Baptism, if you said “Amen” when you were given to say “Amen,” you prayed that prayer and agreed with it.
That’s part of what’s called Luther’s flood prayer.
We can thank God for separating us from the multitude of unbelievers. There are, and must be, distinctions between not only believer and unbeliever but even between believers.
St. Paul writes to the Church in Corinth, “When you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you. And I believe it in part, for there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized” (1 Corinthians 11:18-19).
So, recognizing that, we can pray the words of the Pharisee—or ones very close to them.
It’s not his words that make him wrong but his pride.
Just so, the tax collector isn’t right because of his words but because the object of his prayer and faith is Jesus.
“God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” (Luke 18:13), prayed by the unbelieving hypocrite, is not a faithful prayer. Jesus says, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father in heaven” (Matthew 7:21). And the will and work of God is that you believe in the One whom He has sent.
If the words are right, but there is no faith in the Lord Jesus, though the words are right, you’re still wrong.
I mention this a lot—and I need to stop apologizing for it, because it’s the Word of God—but in the book of Job, Bildad, Zophar, and Eliphaz—and even Job—say things that look correct, but their worldview is wrong, the basis of their words are wrong, and so, though the words look right, they’re still wrong.
Because the Living God justifies sinners—and not because of the tax collector’s words—Jesus says, of that tax collector, “This man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 18:14).
Pride actively exalts the self.
It always compares.
Think about how we use the words.
I’m proud of you.
I take pride in my work.
I pride myself in being honest, or whatever.
You’re my pride and joy.
I’m bursting with pride.
When we say these things, we’re really talking about the unholy trinity of Me, Myself, and I versus everyone we don’t like—or—the people we think aren’t as good.
It’s as if we say, “I’m proud of you. You’ve done something good, but you don’t feel good about doing good, that’s not what I said, I said ‘I’m proud of you.’ You should feel good because of me and how I feel. What makes you feel good is my pride in you.”
And how terrible is that.
I take pride…I pride myself…I’m bursting with pride…you are my pride…
Pride is of the self—exalting the self and standing in opposition to God.
Pride is the vice. The sin. The evil God hates.
Righteousness and humility are the virtues.
If you recognize an ease with pride and speaking this way, take your inspiration from Job, when he gets it right.
Confronted with all of what thus says the Almighty Lord, Job responds, finally, “I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes”(Job 42:6).
That’s the true climax of the book of Job, right there.
Learn from him.
Don’t see yourself as worthless.
You’re not worthless.
You’re the treasure hidden in a field for which our Father in heaven gave all that He owned to buy you back from sin, death, and satan. That’s your worth—God purchased you with His own blood.
I mean—despise yourself such that you don’t desire to add value to Christ.
Despise yourself such that you despise pride.
You didn’t create the world from nothing in six days, resting on the seventh.
You didn’t hang on the cross, forgiving the sins of the world.
You don’t take pride in Jesus’ work—you rejoice that Jesus came not to be served but to serve and to give His life as a ransom.
You don’t pride yourself in your faith in Jesus—you thank God for creating faith in you, growing it to maturity, and harvesting its fruit for the sake of your neighbor.
You don’t burst with pride about God’s will—you confess, rather, that His will is done even without your prayers, but you pray that it may be done among you also.
And you don’t sing or say that Jesus is your pride and joy.
Rather—He is your joy.
Now, I’ve said all that, and need, also, to say this.
I’ve spoken the wrong way, regarding pride, countless times.
Pride is so common a vice in our nation, one month of every year is devoted to its worship.
Everybody does it—so you can’t disagree with it.
Pride is the way of the world.
But I try, now—and I say this so that you will, too—I try, now, to say what I actually mean.
Instead of I’m proud of you, I try to say, You’ve done a good thing! Well-done! Good job!
That speaks not of pride but of what is truly good.
It speaks not of self, making a comparison, but of the other, the one doing the good thing and even of the God who alone is good.
How strange is this to our ears?
To describe a thing as God-pleasing instead of pride-inducing?
Realize the difference between pride and that which is meet, right, and salutary.
The tax collector isn’t proud but humble, trusting in God who justifies sinners.
Jesus wasn’t proud but obedient, desiring to honor our Father in heaven and save you.
The Christian isn’t proud but humble.
Not selfish but obedient.
This is how we can speak to confess the faith—to give witness to Christ and His work for our salvation.
This is how we can speak—that self may decrease and Christ may increase (cf. John 3:30).
And this is also how we, as Christians, can be examples of humility and faith for others.
St. Paul writes to the Church in Philippi:
“Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us. For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself” (Philippians 3:17-21).
“For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 18:14).
In Jesus’ name, Amen!
Trinity 11 Sermon, 2021
Rev. Benjamin Tyler Holt