“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.

Despise yourself.

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
Luke 18:9-14
Rev. Benjamin Tyler Holt

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