This morning we just heard a parable that Jesus told to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt. (Luke 18:9) We call this story “The Pharisee and the Tax Collector.” We may know the story very well, but do we really know the meaning? Maybe another question we need to ask ourselves is, “How well do I apply the meaning of this parable to myself?”
The parable itself is simple enough to tell. A Pharisee and a tax collector went to the temple to pray. The Pharisee spent his whole prayer bragging about himself. The tax collector confessed his sin and begged for mercy. Both men get exactly what they want. The Pharisee received the admiration of the people around him. The tax collector received God’s mercy. The tax collector was justified. The Pharisee was not. Even though the tax collector sinned greatly, God declared him to be righteous. Even though the Pharisee’s life looked very good to the public, he was still damned in his sin.
Jesus could not have chosen two people of greater contrast than a Pharisee and a tax collector. People looked up to Pharisees with a great deal of admiration. People looked down on tax collectors as the scum of the earth.
People hated tax collectors because they worked for the Romans who currently occupied the land of Israel. Tax collectors basically had a franchise relationship with the Roman occupation. It worked like this. Tax collectors would bid for the rights to a certain territory. Rome would give the right to collect taxes to the highest bidder. Any taxes that the tax collector could get over and above the bid was his to keep. In return, Rome would back up the tax collector with the law enforcement arm of the Roman army. It is amazing how many taxes you can collect when you have a few Roman soldiers with you when you collect them.
Rome did not care how many taxes were collected. There was no maximum or minimum. As long as Rome got its money, it didn’t really care if the tax collectors got insanely rich. From the point of view of the tax payer, it was a lot like a protection racket except it was not illegal because Rome didn’t care. It should not surprise anyone that most of the population hated the tax collectors.
Then there were the Pharisees. Pharisees worked hard at their public relations. It was very important to them that they looked good. Most people thought the Pharisees were the best examples of righteous living in the culture. You could expect a Pharisee to be obsessive about living according to the law.
The problem that a Pharisee had was in his motivation for keeping the law. Yes, he lived according to the law so that he looked good to his neighbors, but he also lived according to the law so that he looked good to God. That is a big problem.
You see, it is impossible to keep the Law in the way that God intended it. If you are going to deceive yourself into thinking that you can keep the law, you must whittle away at it until it becomes doable. That is what the Pharisees did. The Pharisees developed over six hundred guidelines for living … guidelines that they called laws. If you knew those laws really well, you would discover that they all had loopholes in them … ways to get around them without sinning. If you knew these laws well and used them skillfully, you could deceive yourself into thinking that you were living the righteous life.
The Pharisees taught that salvation only began with God’s mercy, but then each man had to contribute to his own salvation with a righteous life. Those who teach rules for living and preach how-to sermons are doing nothing new. The Pharisees were doing it a long time ago.
So when the Pharisee prayed, he bragged with a long list of all his good deeds. The fact of the matter is that he probably did everything that he mentioned in the prayer … according to the law that he learned in Pharisee school. He probably really did keep the law … as he knew it. What a tragedy it is that, in spite of his best effort, he was totally lost.
On the other hand, the tax collector is a living image of repentance. He knows that he is saturated in sin. He was aware that he deserved punishment every day of his life and forever in hell. He knew that he had earned the entire weight of God’s wrath with his sin. Never the less, he looked to God for mercy. He believed God was his only hope. He did not depend on himself, but entirely on God. This man went down to his house justified. (Luke 18:14)
In this parable, Jesus gives us a picture of the two main classes of religion throughout the world. While there are thousands of religions in the world, they all break down into two categories. In one category are all the religions that ask you to do some work for your own salvation. In the other category is Christianity, the one and only religion that asks nothing of you for salvation. Christianity is about God doing all the work of saving us.
The world is full of false religions. There are false religions to suit every whim of the heart. Islam has the five pillars. Buddhism has the eight-fold path. Reincarnation teaches that you are born into this world of suffering again and again until you get it right. The prophets of Baal in the Old Testament were trying to earn Baal’s favor when they cried aloud and cut themselves after their custom with swords and lances, until the blood gushed out upon them. (1 Kings 18:28) Since we are dealing with the lies of false religion, they can be anything that you want them to be. Never the less, they will all be about you making yourself worthy of your own salvation. A false religion may not require you to do everything for your salvation, but it will require you to do something.
Christianity, on the other hand, recognizes one simple fact: I cannot save myself. No one can. Instead Christianity proclaims a salvation where God does all the work of salvation. He even sends the Holy Spirit to establish faith in me because I can’t even believe in Him. As Martin Luther states in the Small Catechism: I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him. Christianity proclaims a salvation that is a free gift from God. I do nothing for my salvation. You do nothing for your salvation. God does it all. It is by the Holy Spirit’s gift of faith that that tax collector can enter the temple and pray, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ (Luke 18:13) Because God does all the work of salvation and He is faithful, true, almighty, and all-knowing, Christianity gives you one hundred per cent certainty of your salvation. You can be one hundred per cent certain of your salvation because you do nothing. God does it all. He earned our salvation for us and He delivers that salvation to us. He takes the dead soul and brings it to life.
The Bible clearly sets forth the work of God in earning our salvation. When the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, 5to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. (Galatians 4:4–5) First of all, the Son of God took on our human flesh in order to take our place. He took our place under the law and lived the perfect life that is impossible for us as Scripture says: For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous. (Romans 5:19) Then God laid the sin of the entire world on Him so that He became a great sinner in God’s eyes as the Bible says: For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Corinthians 5:21) Then He surrendered His body to men who nailed it to a cross. [Christ Jesus,] though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. 8And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:6–8) By His perfect life and His death on the cross, He has reconciled us to God and earned salvation for all people. You, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, 22he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him. (Colossians 1:21–22) He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world. (1 John 2:2)
So Jesus, the Son of God, has earned salvation for us, but that salvation would be useless if God did not also deliver that salvation to us. For the Bible says, “The mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot.” (Romans 8:7) It also says, “You were dead in the trespasses and sins (Ephesians 2:1) The Bible makes it clear that by nature we are spiritually dead and enemies of God. In our foolish arrogance, we believe that we can earn our own salvation. All of us are born with an inclination to be Pharisees.
God overcomes our hostility and brings us to life by the power of the Holy Spirit for No one can say “Jesus is Lord” except in the Holy Spirit. (1 Corinthians 12:3) The Holy Spirit does this through the Gospel for [the gospel] is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes. (Romans 1:16) and faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ. (Romans 10:17) So it is that the Holy Spirit produces and maintains faith through the Gospel and so delivers the saving work of Jesus Christ to us.
The Pharisee judged himself by comparing himself to other people: God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. (Luke 18:11) How often have you heard this story and thought, “God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this Pharisee?” As soon as we start judging our righteousness by comparison to other people, we begin to become like the Pharisee. As soon as we say that we are in any way responsible for our salvation, we join the Pharisee in bragging on our greatness. We draw attention away from God and toward ourselves. As soon as phrases like I should, I must, I have to, I ought to, and so forth enter our talk about salvation, we are in danger of taking on the responsibility for our salvation and losing it. This is a constant temptation.
Thank goodness that the Holy Spirit has called us by the Gospel, enlightened us with His gifts, and sanctified and kept us in the true faith. For it is God the Holy Spirit who delivers the salvation earned for us on the cross by Jesus Christ. He gives it to us by His gift of faith, and it is only by the Holy Spirit’s gift of faith that we can join the tax collector in the parable and say, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” (Luke 18:13) It is only by the Holy Spirit’s gift of faith that we can go home justified. Amen
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