The Prayer of Faith
Trinity Eleven Sermon| Rev. Rolf D. Preus| September 4, 2011| 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; extortioners, 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
We can pray to thank God for what he has given to us. We can pray to ask God for what we need. We might think that thanking is better than asking. It seems more polite. We should thank God for the many good things he has given us instead of taking them for granted. Showing a bit of gratitude is better than begging for more and more things. Don’t you think?
But in this particular case, the fellow who thanked God went home guilty as sin and the fellow who begged God went home justified. There is nothing wrong with thanking God. We may and we should. “Oh give thanks unto the Lord, for he is good and his mercy endures forever.” That’s from a well known psalm and is also a common table prayer. We thank God every day. We thank him for what he has given us, what he is giving us, and what he will give us. When we thank God we confess by that thanksgiving that God is responsible for every good thing we have in this life.
But asking God for his mercy is the best prayer we can pray. That’s because when we ask God to be merciful to us we are confessing the greatest thing about God. We are confessing that he is merciful. In order for God to be God we need to become beggars.
As Martin Luther lay on his death bed he said, “We are beggars. This is true.” With those sentiments he could die. With those sentiments we can live. The life of prayer, the life of faith, the life of a Christian is the life of a beggar. For this is the only way a sinner can approach a holy God.
Whether we’re talking about riots in London, the refusal of the U.S. government to balance its budget, the husband leaving his wife, or the neighborhood gossip reveling in spreading damaging reports about the neighbors we’re talking about people who will not humble themselves before God. That’s what sin is all about. It is pride. It is elevating oneself above others. It is placing oneself at the center of the universe and insisting that others do the same.
The Pharisee thanked God for making him better than others. Do you doubt his sincerity? He was! Do you think he was lying when he said that he fasted twice a week and gave tithes of everything he possessed? He was telling the truth. And he was doing above and beyond what the law required of him. He was telling the truth when he said that he was not an extortionist or an adulterer. He certainly didn’t live the kind of life tax collectors lived. They made their income largely by cheating people out of theirs.
Make no mistake. The Pharisee was better than others. You’d rather have him as a neighbor. You’d rather have him as an employer or employee. Look around! Kids cheat their way through college. Fornication and even adultery are defended by the popular culture. Everybody is entitled, but nobody has any obligations. The country is facing its future like a bunch of drunken teenagers driving a car off a cliff. To have more law-abiding Pharisees around, well, that would be something to thank God for!
And that’s why we need to take this parable to heart. Jesus told this story for us. It is the most relevant story he ever told, for he distinguishes between true and false prayer and truth and false faith with unerring accuracy.
Prayer reveals faith. There’s an old Latin expression, “lex orandi, lex credendi,” which roughly translated means: “the way you pray is the way you believe.” This is true. Prayer is the exercise of faith. Faith is expressed in prayer. Prayer is the putting into words of what we believe. Just as faith informs prayer, just so, prayer reinforces faith. If we learn to pray rightly our faith will be rightly formed.
The Pharisee prayed with himself. His prayer was about himself. St. Luke tells us that Jesus told this parable to people who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and despised others. The Pharisee’s faith was not in a merciful God. His faith was in himself.
The way you pray is the way you believe. So Jesus teaches us how to pray and in so doing he teaches us how to believe. Consider the Lord’s Prayer. How is God’s name hallowed? When his mercy is confessed. How does God’s kingdom come to us? His mercy in Christ is made known to us? What is God’s will for us? To be merciful! Why does God provide us with our daily bread? Because he is merciful. Where does the forgiveness of sins come from? From God’s mercy. What leads us out of temptation into the safety of God’s loving embrace? God’s mercy. What is it that will deliver us from evil every day and especially on the last day? God’s mercy revealed in Christ our Savior. The way you pray is the way you believe. We pray the Lord’s Prayer and we join with the tax collector in praying for God’s mercy.
That’s how we worship God together in church. “Lord have mercy upon us, Christ have mercy upon us, Lord have mercy upon us.” There is nothing we need more. There is nothing that more perfectly displays to our faith the nature of the God we worship. The tax collector revealed the faith of the faithful in the prayer he prayed.
We are trusting either in our deeds or in God’s mercy. There is nothing in between. This is why Jesus told us this story. The true faith prays for divine mercy. The false faith trusts in its own righteousness. The true faith praises God’s grace. The false faith praises its own works.
The word that the tax collector uses for mercy here in our text is not the word most commonly used in the New Testament. The usual word for mercy is a word that refers to God feeling sorry for our suffering. When we pray for his mercy we are calling on the goodness and kindness of the One who can alleviate our suffering. It is a general plea for whatever good the good God is willing to give us in our need.
The word that the tax collector used for mercy refers specifically to the mercy of forgiveness. Literally, he is praying, “God, remove your anger from me. Forgive me. Be gracious to me for the sake of the blood.” It is the plea of faith in the forgiveness of sins that comes to us from God through the bloody sacrifice offered up to the justice of God. All this is packed into that one little word: mercy.
How can God be just in ignoring the righteous deeds of the Pharisee and in not requiring any righteous deeds from the tax collector? But that’s not what is happening. The righteous deeds of the Pharisee were all bogus. They weren’t righteous at all because they weren’t done in love. Love is the fulfillment of the law. The Pharisee pointed to all sorts of good deeds done in apparent conformity with the Second Table of the Law. But in examining them we see that none of them was a good deed because the Second Table of the Law is summed up in, “Love your neighbor as yourself” and he did not love his neighbor. So much for his good deeds!
The tax collector, on the other hand, appealed to the sacrifice of the Savior. The word he used for mercy appealed to the sacrifice by which sin is forgiven and God’s anger is stilled. He knows that the forgiveness of his sins has a cost. It is nothing less than the blood of God. His prayer is expressed by the hymnist:
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.
That’s what the sinner’s cry for mercy is. It is reminding God of what God has done for us. I plead the death of Jesus. I plead his righteousness, his suffering, his obedience – for it was all offered for me and for my salvation.
Before he can be my Savior I must be a sinner. Note what the tax collector says: “God be merciful to me, a sinner.” Literally, “the sinner.” He doesn’t include himself in a group. He stands all alone. The self-righteous compares himself to others and sees he’s better than they are. The Christian compares himself to God’s law and sees himself for what he is.
As the psalmist wrote:
If You, LORD, should mark iniquities,
O Lord, who could stand?
But there is forgiveness with You,
That You may be feared. (Psalm 130, 3-4)
And again he writes:
Do not enter into judgment with Your servant,
For in Your sight no one living is righteous. (Psalm 143, 2)
The sinner stands with others, using their sins to deflect attention from his own. The righteous person stands alone as a sinner, pleading nothing but his sin to God and the mercy God gives us for Jesus’ sake.
He confessed himself to be the sinner. Jesus says he went home righteous. God justified him. God justifies sinners. This is the most offensive feature of our Christian faith and yet it is the very central truth of it upon which everything else we believe rests. God says that sinners are righteous.
It offends the proud because they want credit from God for the good that they do. It offends religious people because they think that God is unjust to justify someone who is not just. It’s a lie, they say. So they deny that God justifies sinners. They teach that God makes a sinner into a saint by a gradual process whereby he becomes more of a saint and less of a sinner and in time becomes fully righteous and fit to enter into heaven. The notion that a sinner could be a sinner and a saint at the same time is unthinkable to such people.
But that’s what God says happens. It is precisely as sinners that we cry out for God’s mercy and it is in our sin that God tells us that we are just, we are righteous. We are good enough for him, not on account of anything we have done, but solely on account of the obedience and suffering of Jesus our Savior. God hears our cries for mercy and justifies us. He forgives us. He sends us home as saints. As sinners we believe and pray. As saints we live. What a life! Amen