And He also told this parable to certain ones who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and viewed others with contempt: "Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee, and the other a tax-gatherer. The Pharisee stood and was praying thus to himself, 'God, I thank Thee that I am not like other people: swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax-gatherer. I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all that I get.' But the tax-gatherer, standing some distance away, was even unwilling to lift up his eyes to heaven, but was beating his breast, saying, 'God, be merciful to me, the sinner!' I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself shall be humbled, but he who humbles himself shall be exalted."
The Pharisee and the Publican
My Brothers and Sisters in Christ:
This has always been one of my favorite parables; The Pharisee and the Publican. Of course, we don't call the man a "publican" any more, he is now a "tax-gatherer" or a tax collector, but to me he will always be "a Publican". The name sounds better to me -- more mysterious and strange. So, the title of our sermon this morning uses the old, King James Version name of the parable, The Pharisee and the Publican.
It's a good story; clear in the details, and the characters are well-defined. The story is an illustration of the point that the Gospel makes before Jesus tells the story, and which Jesus makes after telling the story. Jesus told the parable, according to Luke, to certain individuals who thought that they were particularly righteous, and who viewed others - less righteous than themselves in their own humble opinions - with contempt. I think most everyone knows somebody like that.
In its original telling, the parable was devastating. Jesus apparently did not explain before telling the parable what His goals were in the telling, as our Gospel lesson does. He just started to tell the story. You can imagine that the Pharisees gathered to spy on Jesus were drawn in right along with the story. Here, in the story, was finally one of their own; pious, obedient, meticulous in his observance of the smallest detail of the Law. As Jesus told the details, I can imagine the Pharisees were checking off a checklist in their minds and proudly saying, "That could be me!"
Then Jesus dared to compare this marvelous example of Pharisaic morality to the dreaded and disgusting Roman sympathizer, the Publican! What an easy comparison! How good the Pharisees looked in the bright light of the contrast between the holy man of God and the sinner who stooped to stealing from his neighbors - for that is what tax collectors did in those days, they got rich by taking far more in taxes than they needed to, and the surplus was their profit - in addition to collaborating with the occupier of Israel! A Pharisee and a Publican! It's like shooting fish in a barrel!
When the Publican spoke in the parable, you might even imagine the Pharisees thinking that 'that miserable sinner had better be hiding his head and beating his breast!' God be merciful! Hah! At least he had one thing right, he called himself the sinner!
Imagine their horror and confusion when Jesus got to the punch-line, and said that the Publican went home forgiven and in a right relationship with the Lord, rather than and in contrast to the wonderful, sterling Pharisee. I know the parable wasn't a joke, so the summary should not normally be called a "punch-line", but Jesus' words must have struck with the force of a physical blow! The Pharisee went home without the favor of God, without justification, without approval. The "sinner" went home forgiven and at peace with God and therefore confident of God's blessings and favor! And every one of them who had counted each boast of the Pharisee off on their personal check-list stood there as guilty and condemned and without hope as the man in the story - only he was fiction, and this was their lives that Jesus was talking about!
And maybe it was your life, as well. Now, I hope that none of you are so foolish as to measure your stewardship and think you have it hands down over someone else. I cannot imagine that many of you actually look around you and compare yourself to others and say, "My! How good and God-pleasing I must be!" I have met some people who do, but I don't think that any of you fit that profile. Your connection to this parable is not quite that direct.
The parable applies to you, however, anytime you fail to be more like the Publican than like the Pharisee. Both characters were extreme examples, deliberately. That way you cannot miss the message. The message is, "everyone who exalts himself shall be humbled, but he who humbles himself shall be exalted."
Most of us have learned that the Pharisee was wrong - not wrong to try to be as much like he understood God wanted him to be, but wrong to boast before God and believe that he was thereby more God-pleasing than the Publican.
"For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God," is in the New Testament, and it hadn't been written yet, but "There is not a just man upon the earth that doeth good and sinneth not" had been - it comes from Ecclesiastes 7:20. And there was Isaiah 64:6 which says, "We are all as an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags." God's Word doesn't leave us room to boast about ourselves - and in this context, anything might be considered boasting other than humble repentance.
I am sure you know that feeling, the one that tells you that you're doing alright. You aren't perfect, but, hey!, nobody is. I think the parable applies to us when we have that sense of satisfaction with where we are and how we are managing our life spiritually and morally. I know that applies to us to some extent, at least, because we tend to live our lives as though we are independent. We think of ourselves as "us" and others - even the congregation in some sense - as "them". We imagine in the pride of our hearts that our lives are ours to live, and all about us, and we choose to do things with them - and we think we have chosen fairly well and responsibly and in a Christian manner.
And to some extent you may have, but only in outward and worldly sorts of things. When we stand before God, however, we are all beggars, like the Publican in the parable. Luther had written those words on the piece of paper they found in his hand after he had died. He understood that when we stand before God we deserve nothing, and we receive everything as gift of God's abundant goodness. We stand before God as utterly unworthy and not deserving the good things we possess at this moment, let alone forgiveness, life, and salvation. Each one of us have taken our lives into our own hands and done with them things we know we should not have done. We have dismissed others around us as less - less holy, less Christian, less Lutheran, less worthwhile as human beings. And you might be right, in some cases, on each count. The problem is dismissing them as though we can thank God that we are not like other people - particularly that Moslem, that Jew, that criminal, or that Protestant over there.
We are just like them in more ways than we are different, when we stand before God. We are sinners. We are a great deal like the Pharisee in the parable, we take our blessing for granted, or, worse, think we have earned them and others who have less have not earned good things like us. We have received the goodness of God without thanksgiving, and applied it to ourselves as though it were our just desserts, and not as a gift from the kindness of God. We use our stuff as though it were ours by right and as though God had no use for it - or us. And when our stuff is threatened, we worry and fear, as though God is not there to bless and keep us, and as though anything could happen to us without our heavenly Father being there to witness and to turn it to our good, and to keep us. We forget who we are - - - God's chosen and beloved, adopted into His family as His sons and daughters.
It is sin. It is sin to forget the price that Jesus paid for our redemption — and to fail to factor into our thinking the love of God that brought Him to send His Son to the cross on our behalf and in our place. It is sin to disregard all that Jesus has done so that we might be His own and know His grace and goodness. It is sin when we fail to praise Him and give thanks, and rejoice! Our fears and our anxieties all deny God's grace and goodness, and call His promises to us into question. Our self-centered thinking and using of our gifts as though our lives are only about us is sin. Our lives aren't about us. Christ's life was about us. Our lives are about one another - and about Jesus. Thinking that your life is about you, primarily, is sin.
It is sin of which every one of us is guilty. We should be like that Publican, beating our breasts and crying out for the mercy of God - "God be merciful to me, the sinner!" When we fail to be like the Publican, we just naturally tend to play the part of the Pharisee.
But when we humble ourselves and confess to God that we have sinned, and indeed deserve nothing but punishment, when we humble ourselves and cry out to God for His mercy, instead of taking it for granted and thinking we have a leg up on others, then God does forgive. When we confess our sins, God is faithful and righteous to forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
He is faithful means that He forgives us each and every time we humble ourselves and come to Him for cleansing by forgiveness. His righteous to do so because Jesus already bore our punishment. He took it in the whippings and beatings and mocking of Good Friday. He bore our grief and carried our sorrows, as Isaiah said, when He died in our place on the cross. Because He died, we do not have to - at least not the death in hell which we deserve. Our bodies will one day die - but we do not, we go to live with Christ in the presence of the Father immediately upon the death of our bodies.
And we will rise again - body and soul reunited for everlasting life. Jesus showed us on Easter that it is possible, and what it is that God has in mind for each of us on that last day. It is part of the great exchange of the Gospel - Christ took our sins, and we receive His righteousness as a gift, and with it receive all of the love and favor of God which His only-begotten Son deserves. This gift is poured out upon all who humble themselves as did the Publican, and cry out for mercy to God.
When we do, then we "go down to our houses justified", forgiven and at peace with God and therefore confident of God's blessings and favor, just like the character in the parable.
God doesn't want us to wander around feeling bad about ourselves. God would have us be like the Pharisee in some ways - striving to be holy and do what we know is right. He just does not want us to imagine that we are better than others. He wants us to know the truth, and never forget who we are, and what we are - sinners who really deserve no good thing from Him - and who He is and what He has done - which is the Gospel - and to rejoice in that knowledge. Then we don't approach others as less, or beneath us somehow. We come up beside them, knowing that we are just as they are, except God has shown us wonderful things and taught us to believe. Then we can avoid the trap of saying, "Let me give you a hand up to where I am," and say instead, "What a good and loving God we have, look at what He has done. Isn't it wonderful?!"
God wants us to be -like the Publican - humble, like the Publican - repentant, and - like the Publican - resting completely on the grace of God. "For everyone who exalts himself shall be humbled, but he who humbles himself shall be exalted."
And that is the meaning of the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.
(Let the people say Amen)
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