Living Under Mercy
Eleventh Sunday after Trinity| Rev. Rolf D. Preus| August 27, 2006| St. Luke 18:9-14
“Also He spoke this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, ‘God, I thank You that I am not like other men; extortionists, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess.’ And the tax collector, standing afar off, would not so much as raise 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; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” St. Luke 18:9-14
Today’s Epistle Lesson and Gospel Lesson both define the gospel. The Epistle Lesson defines the gospel according to the fact of it. The fact is that Jesus died for our sins just as the Bible said He would. He was buried, and rose the third day. The gospel is the death of Jesus for our sins and His resurrection from the dead. This is no myth. He was seen by many witnesses. They were witnesses in the literal sense of the word. They did not simply have a religious experience. With their own eyes they saw Jesus alive from the dead after He had died on the cross. Over five hundred people saw Him at the same time. The gospel is fact, not fiction. Jesus died for our sins, was buried and rose from the dead on the third day.
In the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector the gospel is defined according to the reception of it. The fact that Jesus died for your sins will not benefit you unless you receive the forgiveness of sins that His death provides. The fact of the gospel is rooted in history that has happened once and for all. Jesus died once and for all. He cannot die again or rise again. It’s history. The reception of the gospel takes place here and now when and where we live. And it’s not as if you receive it just once in a onetime dramatic religious experience. You receive it in your need and without your need you won’t receive it. That’s the message of the parable our Lord tells us or the Pharisee and the publican.
Luther once said that hunger is the best cook. Jesus said, “Blessed are they that hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled.” The gospel is factual. It is historical. It isn’t simply a matter of opinion. It’s true whether or not you believe it, or experience any joy from it. But the gospel is not just fact. The gospel is God’s promise. The gospel does something for you. It gives to you what you hunger for. It gives you the righteousness that Jesus promised. It satisfies your spiritual needs. It quenches your spiritual thirst. But this promise is for the hungry. It is for the thirsty.
Some folks see little point in going to church on a Sunday morning, or at any other time for that matter. Work, travel, and various social events take precedence over going to church. The idea that going to church on a Sunday morning is a religious obligation is somewhat passé. There are few religious obligations these days. Where there is little sense of duty, there will have to be a sense of need. But there is often neither duty nor need.
The Pharisee understood his duty. He took it quite seriously. And he wasn’t willing to do just the bare minimum. He didn’t fast just a few times a year as was expected. He fasted twice a week. He didn’t just give a tenth on some of his income. He tithed on all of his income. He didn’t just do what the law required. He went above and beyond the law’s demands. He took his religion seriously. He gave thanks to God. He did his duty.
If more people practiced their religion with the seriousness of that Pharisee the world would be a better place. When he contrasted himself from other men he was not lying. He didn’t extort money from others the way tax collectors did. He didn’t cheat his neighbor. He didn’t commit adultery. He was a decent man and a good citizen. And he thanked God for it. He saw what a righteous man he was and did not neglect to give credit where credit was due. He thanked God. He remembered that he owed thanksgiving to God for God’s great generosity toward him. So he went to the temple to offer praise to God. His work, his leisure, his social life, and his travels did not keep him away from his religious duty. But he did not go home justified. God did not accept his praise. God did not receive his thanksgiving. His worship was in vain and his duty was left undone. He might as well have stayed at home.
What was lacking? Faith was lacking. But surely the man believed in God! He took God’s law seriously. He went to God’s temple to pray. He thanked God for making him the man he was. How can anyone say that the man lacked faith? He certainly gave greater evidence of believing in God than do those who don’t bother to go to church at all or only when they feel particularly religious. And they claim to believe in God! Surely the Pharisee believed in God!
Well, yes, he did, after a fashion. He believed that God was good. He believed that God blessed him with good things. He believed that God required obedience. He believed that God calls on us all to do our duty. If this is what faith is then the man had faith.
But this is not what faith is. Faith is born in humility. Faith is the gift of God. God elicits, established, and strengthens faith in your heart only after he humbles you. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled. It will happen now or it will happen on Judgment Day, but it will happen. You cannot exalt yourself. God is not impressed by our claims. When we presume to think we are more righteous than others we need to remember that God knows how righteous we really are. He doesn’t look merely at the outward act. He sees every motive. He knows where our hearts are. He understands sin better than sinners do. There is a knowledge from which we will run and hide. We must be abased. We must be humbled. And God Himself must do it. When He does He is preparing us to receive the gospel.
Now I’m not saying that there is a certain kind of religious experience that you must experience. You must feel just this way. You must say just these words. You must be able to examine your inner contrition and find the right level of sincerity, the correct amount of humility. Not at all. The tax collector went home justified. What did he see in himself? Nothing but sin. “God, be merciful to me, the sinner.” That’s it. He lays claim to nothing but God’s mercy. This is what repentance is all about. We don’t quibble with God. We don’t engage in a spiritual comparison with others. We don’t measure how deep our sins are and how good our righteousness is to see if perhaps our righteousness might outweigh our sin. No, we confess. How can we possibly understand our own sin? The very nature of sin is that it darkens the mind, confusing and misleading us. The humility out of which God exalts us is not a precondition that we must meet. It is rejecting any and all reliance on ourselves, confessing our utter sin and unworthiness, and throwing ourselves on the mercy of God alone.
Faith is trust. But it is not an unfocused trust in the general goodness of God. The tax collector prayed: “God, be merciful to me, the sinner.” It was a plea for forgiveness. He was asking that God not look upon his sin but look instead at the sacrifice for sin. God be propitiated to me. That’s what he prayed. Turn aside your anger. Don’t judge me according to my sins. Judge me according to your mercy. Don’t look at what I have done. Look to the blood shed for me. For the sake of the blood, turn your face of anger away from me and let your face of grace shine upon me instead. It is as we sing in 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.
His holy life gave He, was crucified for me;
His righteousness perfect He now pleads before Thee;
His own robe of righteousness, my highest good,
Shall clothe me in glory, through faith in His blood. (ELH #182, verse 6)
There is a popular opinion held by folks who don’t go to the temple to pray. It is that religious folks are generally like the Pharisee. The alleged hypocrisy of churchgoing Christians is frequently given as an excuse to avoid going to church altogether. Look at all of the hypocrites that go to church! Yes, a whole lot of hypocrites go to church. And a whole lot more stay home. Religious hypocrisy is not limited to those who set out to do their religious duty as the Pharisee in Christ’s parable did. Religious hypocrisy is endemic among those who ignore their religious duty. There are two features of the Pharisee’s religion that they retain with vigor. They trust in themselves that they are righteous and they look down on others. They trust in themselves that they are righteous. They don’t need to hear the gospel. The fact of it is irrelevant to them. The reception of it doesn’t cross their minds. They think they are good enough for God just as they are. And when you trust in yourself that you are good you will look down on others. It’s easy to see their faults when you are blind to your own. Indeed, the less you can see your own sins the easier it is to see the sins of others.
Those who live under mercy can show mercy. You know yourself as a sinner. You don’t trust in yourself that you are righteous. You know you are not. You cry out for God’s mercy. God justifies you. He covers your sin with the blood of Jesus. He directs against His dear Son the anger that you earned by your repeated disobedience. His innocent Son became your brother. Now God punishes His innocent Son in your place. His anger against all of sinful humanity is poured out upon Christ alone. Jesus Christ, true God and true man, quenches that anger. He takes it away. He bears all your sins away. And every time you come to church to pray, Jesus is here. Every time you confess your sins, Jesus, through His minister, absolves you. You don’t throw up to God any kind of promise or merit or excuse. You plead only two things: your need and God’s mercy. God’s mercy is only in Jesus Christ, and wherever Christ is, there God is merciful. So you come to the temple to pray. You come to meet Jesus. He never fails to cover your sin with His righteousness and your shame with His holiness. You receive the gospel. You eat and drink the body and blood of the Lord Jesus. You go home justified. That means you’re a saint.
But you don’t get to see your righteousness. You don’t get to feel it. You might feel just as sinful as when you arrived. Don’t go by what you see or feel. Listen to the words of Jesus instead: “I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” God exalts us to heaven, even while we struggle with our sins here on earth. But in God’s own time, when He is ready, He will reveal to our sight and all our senses the full depth, height, width, and breadth of His love. We will enjoy the love of heaven that God’s mercy in Christ guarantees. Meanwhile, we live alone by mercy.