In today's parable, we have two examples of how to pray. Which is correct? Our Lord says the second. Why? The first is an example of justifying yourself through good works, or the Law. The second shows the truth of justification through faith, or the Gospel.
In the first example, we have the example of the Pharisee. The Pharisees were religious men and enjoyed the respect of their community. Everyone thought the Pharisees were righteous men. Before his conversion to Christianity, St. Paul was a Pharisee. He writes in Galatians 1:14, And I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers."
But Paul also wrote in the previous verse: "For you have heard of my former life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it."
That is to say, because his righteousness was based on his own works and his pride in them, Paul fell into very grave sin: He rejected the Word of God and persecuted those who believed it to the death. Paul was a righteous man and religious in the eyes of his peers, but in God's eyes he was a rebel and murderer.
Nevertheless, in Christ there is redemption for all. Christ Himself called Paul to preach the Gospel and changed his life. That is why Paul writes in our epistle (1 Corinthians 15:1-10) "For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me."
But more typical was the Pharisee in our parable. "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.'
Many of his deeds were admirable on the surface, but they were not based on love of God and his neighbor, of which it is written in the Old Testament and affirmed by our our Lord that all of the Law if fulfilled in these two. In truth, the Pharisee, standing on his feet before God, did not fix his eyes on the Lord, but on the publican and proclaimed his superiority over this man in particular.
In truth, as Jimmy, Jason, Johnny and the rest are studying in confirmation class, nobody can fulfill all the 10 Commandments, that is, the Law of God as God wants us to do. Because from the fall of Adam and Eve, people cannot in any way fulfill the Law of God. Even Christians may keep the commandments only in an imperfect manner.
In a sense, the Law of God is necessary as a check, to prevent, up to a certain point, the manifestations of sin, and in that way maintain order and outward fair play in the world. Therefore God has blessed us with police, military and other civil authorities.
However, the most holy God is not concerned only with outward behavior. More than external actions, sin also consists of desires, thoughts and words. The last two commandments deal not with external acts at all, but specifically with covetousnes, the attitude of the heart which results in robbery, murder and adultery.
Furthermore, sin stains our very human nature. Beyond our desires, thoughts, words and actions contrary to the Law of God, we have inherited from Adam and Eve through our biological parents, the total depravity of human nature. As the Psalmist says (Psalm 51:5), Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me," and St. Paul writes, "For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out" (Romans 7:18).
The primary purpose of the Law is, like a mirror, to teach man the true knowledge of his sin. We see this in the example of the publican.
The publicans were tax-collectors for the Roman imperialists. They were Jews, but were not respected by their people. They were considered traitors and thieves, with some justification.
So the publican did not approach God with pride, demanding what was owed him. On the contrary, he approached the Lord with maximum humility and true repentance. Repentance is essential to receive the forgiveness of sins in Christ. That is why the Law should be preached to unrepentant sinners, but the Gospel to those who are troubled by their sins and terrified of damnation.
The Law demands, threatens and condemns; the Gospel promises, gives and confirms our forgiveness and salvation. God offers forgiveness of sins only in the Good News that we are saved because Christ fulfilled the Law, suffered, died and rose from the dead for us.
So let us draw near to God in humility and repentance, of course, but also in the hope and faith that we are justified through faith, not by works, and that in Christ we are children of God. Amen.
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