Eleventh Sunday after Trinity| Rev. Rolf D. Preus| August 31, 2003| Luke 18:9-14
What is more important: What God does for us or what we do for God? What God says to us or what we say to God? Obviously, what God does and says matters more than what we do and say. Or maybe this isn’t so obvious.
You don’t have to go to church to pray. You can talk to God anywhere, any time. That is, if you know Him. If you don’t know God, how can you pray to Him? Folks who are more interested in their own words than in God’s words will argue that they don’t need to go to church to worship God. What they really mean is that they want to talk to God but they don’t want to listen to God talk to them. They think what they have to say is more important than what God has to say. And when they talk to God they invariably talk about what they have done, as if God’s works pale into insignificance when compared with their own works.
Jesus teaches us that God’s words and God’s works are far more important than our words and our works. Jesus teaches us why we need to go to church. We need to go to church in order to be justified. We need God to forgive us our sins. This forgiveness is grounded in what God has done, not in what we have done. This forgiveness is given to us by what God says, not by what we say.
Most people would rather come to church to hear a message of what we should be doing for God than to hear a message of how God has done for us in Christ. This is because people are more interested in their own achievements than they are in the suffering and death of Jesus. The Bible speaks both of what Christ has done for us and what we do for Christ. Jesus gave His life for us. We live our lives for him. The two go together. The theological terms are justification and sanctification. Justification is God forgiving us all our sins on account of Christ dying for us. Sanctification is God living in us and doing good deeds through us as He enables us to live for him. They go together. Both are important. But what is more important? What should we emphasize? What we do for God? Or what God does for us?
The Pharisee in the parable represents those who believe that what we do for God is most important. And, of course, he thanked God for all the good things he did for God. “God I thank you that I am not as other men.” To God be the glory. Give God the credit. There, but for the grace of God, go I. That could have been his prayer.
He cares about being good, and he must see his goodness. He sees it by comparing himself with others: robbers, evildoers, adulterers, or even as the tax collector. And shouldn’t he thank God for not being one of these people? It was bad enough that tax collectors worked for Rome with Rome promoting all sorts of sinful idolatry. In addition to that, the tax collectors made their money by cheating people. Like robbers and adulterers, tax collectors did real harm to people. They did not serve God. They openly despised God. The Pharisee was appalled at their brazen disregard for God’s law. He knew God was merciful, but he also knew that folks regularly abused God’s mercy and used it as an excuse for ignoring their duty to God. That was wrong. Their sin was intolerable to the Pharisee. His faith was focused on what he did for God.
He fasted, not once, but twice a week. He tithed, not just a tenth of his net income, but a tenth of everything he owned. He was a confident man, a man enthusiastic about living a holy life. He was a man who thanked God.
But his prayer was not to God. It was to himself. When your faith is focused on what you do – even when you give God the thanks, even when you give God the credit – your faith is vain because it is self-centered. You want to see your goodness? You want to celebrate your Christian service, commitment, and your devotion to God? You want to focus on what you do for God? Then look to your model, the Pharisee in the Temple. And listen to Jesus when He says that that man did not leave the Temple justified. He despised mercy for himself and for others and God does not cast His pearls before swine.
The tax collector represents those who are more concerned about what God does for them than about what they do for God. He compares himself to no one. He sees only God’s demands and he knows he hasn’t met them. He cannot see the fruit of his faith. He isn’t interested in anything good he has ever thought, said or done. He only knows that whatever he has done for God cannot undo his own sin, and for that, he is crushed. Look at him and see sorrow – not the sorrow of the innocent victim bemoaning his loss, but the sorrow of the guilty person who mourns his own guilt. He has anguish and self-loathing.
Why doesn’t he compare himself to others? Because he knows his biggest problem is not the sin out there – the sin of others – but the sin in here, inside him. When the Pharisee speaks of his own doings for God, he lists them. He gets specific. But when the tax collector speaks of his own sin against God, he specifies nothing, there would simply be too much. And he doesn’t quibble over what is or isn’t sin, he doesn’t excuse himself, he doesn’t even try to mitigate his guilt, and he makes no promises that he will do better. He pleads for mercy. That’s all. That’s all he can do.
Now the word that Jesus uses here for mercy means more than a general plea for God’s pity and compassion. It is a specific plea for forgiveness. Literally, he is asking God to set aside his anger on account of the sacrifice of the promised Savior. The tax collector pleads what God promised in the Savior. The prayer of the tax collector is well summed up in the words of the hymn:
I have naught, my God, to offer,
Save the blood of thy dear Son;
Graciously accept the proffer:
Make his righteousness mine own.
Where is your faith focused? On what you do for God or on what God does for you? Do you find it tiresome to come to church Sunday after Sunday and hear the same message of Christ’s crucifixion for sinners? Do you think that there is something bigger and better that God has to give you? Do you want to go beyond the message of the cross to a more positive message of your own victorious living? Do you think that perhaps there is too much mention of sin and forgiveness, that there must be something more powerful, more joyful, more uplifting than the message of the blood, suffering, and death of Jesus?
Then walk with the tax collector to the corner of the Temple and beat your breast and bare your soul to God. Before you ask what you can do for your Lord, how you can serve him, look at how much you need His service. Look at Him suffering for you, look at His death. Look at Him shed His innocent blood to take your place. Then see the fruit of that blood! From that holy sacrifice for you, God will work every good desire, word or deed you will ever do. Forget about your doings. Forget about celebrating your victory over this or that sin. Forget about all the good things you want to do for God. Instead, look at Jesus suffering for you. That is the focus of your faith, because that is the basis, the ground, the cause, and the source of the forgiveness of all your sins. We treasure the gospel of Christ’s suffering and death for us, because from that comes God’s word to us today and every day of our lives: I do forgive you, I have washed your sins away, I have set aside my anger, I am reconciled.
We treasure what God has done for us. We treasure Jesus: His holy living, His humble serving, His bitter suffering, His innocent dying, His victorious rising, His intercession at the right hand of the Father. We treasure Jesus – His words and his work – as a greater and more precious gift than all the works of all the holy people piled on top of one another.
Do you want to offer God your sincere and acceptable service? Do you want to give to God your body as a living sacrifice? Do you want to devote yourself wholly to the praise of God’s glory and so live a sanctified life in which the Holy Spirit lives in you and through you? Is this what you sincerely want?
If it is, you must first forget every demand God makes of you. You must ignore every accusation of His law. You must leave behind every failure, tossing away every regret, and hold on to Christ Who has met every demand, Who has covered your every failure and Who exchanges His life for yours. When Christ and His words and His works are our glory, we are born from above to live a new life.
It is an amazing thing. The more attention paid to Christ and to His works and the less paid to us and to ours, the more we are equipped by God to live the holy lives he calls us to live. First we leave the Temple justified, then and only then can we live the life of a Christian. God does good works through the one who sees no good works of his own, but clings instead to Jesus, wanting and needing nothing more. Where our broken hearts are joined to the sacrifice of Jesus on Calvary; where our God speaks his pardon to our souls; there is our faith and there is the foundation for every good thing we will ever do. Only those who have received mercy can live a life of mercy.