The grace, mercy, and peace of Christ Jesus rest upon each and every one of you this day.
In order to properly understand what Jesus is teaching in the parable we hear today, we need to keep things in proper focus. First off, it’s important to remember that Jesus “taught this lesson to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and they treated others with contempt.” A closer look—focus—at the surrounding passages reveals the fact that Jesus was teaching this lesson to His own disciples! He wasn’t teaching this to a bunch of Pharisees. His disciples were acting like a bunch of self-righteous Pharisees, convinced that their close ties to Jesus and all the miraculous things that were taking place under their watch and with their help put them in high standing with the heavenly Father and made them “locks” for heaven. They began to focus on all the wrong things for their justification, no different than the works-righteous Pharisees. This is why Jesus taught them a parable about God’s justification and Pharisees and the lowest scum of the earth—tax collectors. The gist: Don’t be like Pharisees. Be like the tax collector.
Okay…so what does this mean? Something about that just doesn’t sit right, does it? It sounds so works-oriented. “Here’s what you need to do and not do.” In order to properly understand what Jesus is teaching here, we need to have a proper sacrificial focus. In order to keep things in proper sacrificial focus so that we can rightly understand what Jesus is teaching here, we need to begin by focusing on the bloody sacrifices that were a part of Temple life. When you get into the original Greek, this all becomes crystal clear.
The English text states that the tax collector prays, “God be merciful to me, a sinner.” The original Greek is slightly different. In the original Greek this reads, “God, be propitiated to me, the sinner.” Propitiation: that’s Old Testament language. That’s sacrificial, ark of the covenant, mercy seat language. That’s Day of Atonement language. This is language that those disciples of Jesus would certainly know. They wouldn’t require explanation like we do.
Let’s start with the Day of Atonement—Yom Kippur. On that special day, the priest would slay the perfect, unblemished sacrificial animal and catch all the blood in basins. Half the blood of the sacrifice he would smear on the four corners of the altar, offering it up to God. He would also sprinkle that same blood on the mercy seat—the hilasterion—of the ark of the covenant, which is where God took His seat as He dwelt in the midst of His people. That hilasterion (mercy seat) was His earthly throne. God is sinless, dwelling amongst a sinful people. This means that the mercy seat had to be cleansed before holy and sinless God could take His seat among sinners. The sacrificial blood of atonement did just that, making clean and pure that which was defiled and impure.
The other half of that sacrificial blood that was caught up in those basins was taken outside and sprinkled on the people, covering over them and their sins with the atoning blood of sacrifice. In this way, the blood of the unblemished, perfect sacrifice fulfilled two purposes: A) it atoned for sin with God, and B) it covered over the people, letting them know that God was merciful and forgave them, not because of their works and deeds and honors, but because they were covered over in the blood of the all-atoning sacrifice that took their place and paid their wage for sin. Because of that all-atoning sacrificial blood, God was propitiated to them; that is, they had God’s grace and favor, which was theirs through faith alone in God’s promise alone. They believed God when He assured them of His mercy, grace, and favor, which He attached to this sacrificial blood. It’s all very “sacramental,” isn’t it? God’s command and Gospel promise of grace attached to something real and tangible. That’s the very definition of a sacrament.
But let us not just focus on the Day of Atonement. Every single day—twice a day, morning and evening— the Temple priests would slay an unblemished lamb and offer the whole thing—body and blood—up to God on the altar of sacrifice. In this way, the sacrifice never stopped. God set it up this way so that the Israelites, through faith, could always know and see that Almighty God had mercy on them and was propitiated to them. This daily sacrificial/sacramental offering served as a reminder of the all-atoning sacrifice that had been made on the Day of Atonement. Every single day—twice a day, morning and evening—atonement was made for their sin. God attached His promise of mercy and grace to that sacrificial lamb. That sacrificial lamb was on that altar in their place. Blood was shed for them; the lamb’s death a substitute for their own. Through faith they could be assured that God was reconciled and propitiated to them.
Now, what most people don’t know in our day and age, and what Jesus’ disciples would most certainly know and understand, is the fact that when that proverbial Pharisee and tax collector went into the Temple to pray, that all-atoning, all-propitiating sacrifice was on the altar, in plain view for all to behold. Okay…so what does all this have to do with the tax collector and his plea for mercy? Remember: The original Greek does not say that he pleaded for “mercy.” It says that he asked God to be propitiated towards him; that is, be hilasterioned towards him. Using this sacrificial, mercy seat word, Jesus is making clear that the tax collector had faith in God’s promise of mercy, grace, and forgiveness.
You can almost picture him beating his chest with one hand, confessing his sinful reality to God, and pointing to the Holy of Holies with the other hand, holding God’s own Word and Promise up to Him, calling on God to remember and keep His Word to be gracious and merciful—to be propititated—towards him, not because of who he was or what he had done (like the Pharisee did), but because of who God was and what He had promised and what He had done. Let me ask you: What was the focus of this man’s faith and trust? Was he focused on his works, his wealth, or his social standing? No! His faith was focused on the all-atoning sacrifice of the lamb that was on the altar and the sacramental promise God attached to that sacrifice as he was praying.
This guy knew his sin. He didn’t try and justify himself. He didn’t try to make excuses for his sin, nor did he try to shift the focus to his good works, as if they could make things better. He knew his utter depravity, and he confessed it. That’s why he called himself “the sinner.” The English translation often changes that definite article to “a sinner,” but that’s not what he said. He truly saw himself, through the eyes of faithful repentance, as thee sinner. (Kind of like Paul referring to himself as the “chief of sinners.”) That’s why he called on God for His mercy, forgiveness, and atonement. His was true and faithful worship. He was focused solely on God and His sacrificial, sacramental promise.
Faith alone in God’s grace alone, which He bestows on His people because of the blood of the sacrificial lamb alone. This is why Jesus says he went home justified while the Pharisee did not. Don’t be like the Pharisee. Be like the tax collector. When kept in proper Christ-centered focus, it makes perfect sense, doesn’t it?
Folks: Look around you. Nothing has changed. Behold! The all-atoning sacrificial Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! You have been propitiated to God because of Him and His all-atoning sacrifice. Scripture tells us very plainly that He continues to stand before the throne of His heavenly Father, forever bearing the cruciform marks of His all-atoning sacrifice that paid for all of your sin, those marks forever reminding His heavenly Father that “it is finished, once and for all.” The water and blood that flowed from His side at crucifixion has sprinkled you and covered you in Baptism. You have been covered over in His all-atoning righteousness, baptized into His death and resurrection. His blood covers you in righteousness, and He Himself nourishes you from this altar with this same all-atoning Body and Blood.
I guess my only question for you as we bring this to a close is: “Is this [the crucifix; Word and Sacrament] your focus?” I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that we, as stewards, will be called to give an account of our stewardship when we’re called home to heaven, and that fact rattled more than a few cages. Why? Such fear reveals the ugly Truth of our inner-Pharisee. “Have we done enough? Are we good enough?” These are questions that only a foolish Pharisee would ask! The faithful Christian has nothing to fear, for the faithful Christian never puts the focus on himself or his works. The faithful Christian puts all the focus on Christ. The faithful Christian, just like the proverbial tax collector, points to and holds up to God the all-atoning sacrifice of the Lamb. “For the sake of the innocent, bitter sufferings and death of Your beloved Son, Jesus Christ, have mercy on me. Be propitiated towards me.” From now and into all eternity, the focus is on Christ. And the best thing of all, God Himself repeatedly assures you (through the one who stands in His stead and by His command) that for His sake you are forgiven. “It is finished. Be at peace.”
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ: Be like the tax collector. Be at peace, for God is propitiated to you because of the all-atoning, once-for-all sacrifice of the unblemished Lamb, Jesus Christ. May this divine justification—this grace, mercy, and peace of Christ—be not in vain! May it be witnessed in all that you say, think, and do. May this [the cruxifix] be always in proper focus.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit…AMEN.
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