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adapted from N. Nagel

Luke 18:9-14

Rev. Andrew Eckert

Eleventh Sunday after Trinity
Our Savior Lutheran Church  
Stevensville, MT

Sun, Aug 23, 2020 

We can learn a lot from standing in line.  There is the ethical crime of cutting in line.  But consider standing in the wrong line.  Perhaps you waited a long time.  When your turn comes up, you are told that you were in the wrong line.  You must go start all over again.

There are many people in the Church who, in a sense, stand in the wrong line.  They spend lots of time without really knowing why they are here.  They were probably put in this line, so to speak, by their families long ago.  They can meet with their friends and relatives while they wait in this line.  There are lots of reasons to spend time here, lots of activities to occupy them.  They are also not upset if they lose their place in line.  There is no rush or anxiety if you do not really know why you are there.  They may miss their turn or drop in and out of line.  They can always come back another time.

Some people are in the Church line for political or social reasons.  They want the Church to make declarations on this or that topic.  Those people also are in the wrong line without knowing it.

In a line you are waiting to meet someone at the front of the line.  But are you in line to meet the right person, and do you know how to meet Him?

Today’s Gospel shows us two people waiting in the Church line.  The Pharisee was, first of all, a line-cutter.  He walked right past everybody else and took up the front position.  He had priority, a better claim to attention than anybody else.  His credentials, as he saw it, were proof and evidence of his rights.  The Pharisee knew his way around and knew that politeness usually pays, so he politely thanked God.  It was merely politeness because he had not received anything from God.  To be thankful is to respond to a gift.  But the Pharisee just knew that he did not need any help or gift.  He trusted in himself, yet it was nice to be polite, so he thanked God.

As the Pharisee stood at God’s desk, so to speak, he looked around at other people waiting in line and found them pathetic.  He spotted the man who made money swindling farmers.  The Pharisee looked sternly at a little child’s noise and even more sternly at the mother.  The Pharisee did not see anybody that he could admire.  There was nobody like himself.  This made him feel comfortable and pleased.

It is easier to be content if we see somebody else as less than ourselves.  When things go wrong in our lives, we are consoled by the fact that others are worse off than we are.  No matter how depraved we are, we can still name somebody more depraved to look down on.  We crave something excellent in us that raises us above others.  This superiority is then emphasized.  If we have powerful muscles, we scorn weaker and smaller people.  The person with the quick mind will make fun of the slow person.  If someone is musically talented, he will regard unmusical people as less than himself.  When we feel inferior to anybody on some point, we quickly discover some other point in which we are superior.  Although so and so may be more well-liked than we are, we make more money.  Although they have great children, they cannot spend as much as we do.  Theoretical communism, perfect equality, will never work, for we would be utterly miserable if we could not find somebody less than ourselves, somebody to look down on, somebody to make us more pleased with ourselves.

The Pharisee had no difficulty in finding people less than himself, so he felt fine.  He listed his superiorities.  He fasted twice a week while most ordinary people fasted once a week, at most.  The common people were such dreadful sinners that the Pharisees, who did not have much or any sin to atone for, fasted for the sake of other people’s sins.  And these other people should realize how sinful they were in comparison with the Pharisees.  Therefore, it was the custom on Tuesdays and Thursdays to fast with special public prayers and services.  Tuesdays and Thursdays were market days, and everybody would be in Jerusalem to see those pious Pharisees fasting for the sins of the people.

The Pharisees acted similarly with the tithe.  The Law of God required a tenth of one’s produce or income.  Many farmers and traders did not give the required tenth.  To point out this sin, the Pharisees had the habit of giving not only a tenth of their own produce and income but also a tenth of what they bought.  The Pharisees knew they were likely buying untithed goods.  To have no part in this robbing of the Lord, the Pharisees tithed such purchases also.  This cost them a lot.  We know that one’s money is usually the last thing to come under the control of the love of Christ.  So you see, these Pharisees did have a lot to show for themselves.  We must be careful not to despise the Pharisees.  They lived clean, decent, useful lives.  They felt a keen responsibility for the welfare of their people.  They did their utmost to fulfill the Law of God.

Before we despise them, we should compare their exemplary lives with our own.  How many of us are ready to give ten percent twice over to the Lord?  Nor may we assert our superiority by saying that they had good works that do not count; we have faith.  This is a favorite way with us lazy Lutherans.  We see others doing so much for various causes, and we say, “Yes, that is true, but we Lutherans have the pure Gospel.  We are justified by faith alone and not by works.” We thank God that we are not as others are: Roman Catholics who pray to Mary, Anglicans who muddle the Gospel, etc.

No, my friends, we may not condemn the Pharisee.  We must learn to recognize and condemn THIS Pharisee.  This Pharisee is the hardest one of all to recognize.  A Pharisee is always looking at other people or, rather, looking down on other people and seeing them as less than himself.  Sizing them up as less than himself, the Pharisee measures himself according to other people and finds himself bigger and better than they.

This is not even the height of Phariseeism.  That is in people taking the Law of God and using it for their self-glorification, strutting before God and expecting Him to agree with their good opinion of themselves.  God becomes a mere assistant to one’s self-admiration.  Such people are at the furthest distance from God, for between themselves and the living, personal, holy God they have put the Law of God, transformed into a set of rules according to which they can pronounce favorable judgment on themselves, glorify themselves, trust in their own rightness, and despise others.

My dear friends, there is a Pharisee in us all.  How often do we look at other people and find them inferior?  How much of our thanks to God is not based on our indebtedness for what He has given?  How much of our Christianity is thought of as us being nice, decent persons whom others can admire?  Such self-regarding morality blocks us off from God, from looking upward to Him and seeing ourselves alone in His presence.

There was someone there that day who knew that he stood in the presence of God, the personal, living, holy God.  He was afraid.  He did not dare go right into the sanctuary.  That was for the good people, the people who had tamed God and gotten Him under their control.  This man knew he did not belong in the Church, so he stayed outside.  He did not think that he knew how to pray.  He lacked the fine phrases and outward gestures.  He just blurted out the truth about himself standing alone in the presence of God.  He was a sinner.  Mercy was his only hope.

The true realization of sin does not come as we compare ourselves with other people.  It comes in the presence of the living, personal, holy God.  When we stand before God with every deceit and pretense stripped off, we see what we amount to.  God is the standard by which He judges.  “You shall be holy: for I the Lord your God am holy.” We are not the least bit the way He is.  We are sinners.  As long as we look at ourselves in comparison with other people’s performances, we shall not know what we are.  The recognition of what we are comes only when we look up to God and stand before Him alone.

“God be merciful to me a sinner.” The tax collector feels that other people may be all right.  He does not judge them or look at them.  He stands alone before God.  It is between him and God.  When one confronts God, one is a sinner.  As sinners we have no rights before God.  Our situation is desperate.

Imagine a refugee waiting in a passport line with papers that are not quite straight, hoping for freedom and another chance at life.  That is fear and desperation.  His only hope is that the official can be fooled.  When you step before God, there is no hope in trying to fool Him.  Your faulty papers cannot establish your right to freedom and a new life.  When you face God, no papers, recommendations, or references will help you.  You stand there as what you are.  You know that He knows what you are.  If you try to make a deal, your chances are ruined.  If you try to bribe an honest man, he will not accept it.  God is the most honest of all.  You cannot make a deal with God.  You cannot buy God off.  Anything you get from God is a gift.  If you claim your rights from Him, you will get them, and that will be the end of you.

The Pharisee claimed his rights.  He spoke for God and gave the verdict.  He declared himself righteous.  He did not need God.  He did admirably without God.  Therefore, he went down to his house without God.  The tax collector knew all his rights were forfeited.  He gave God the right to condemn and reject him.  Only by the mercy of God could he stand.  He cried to God for mercy.  He returned to his house having received mercy.  He returned with God. 

The tax collector was in the right line.  The line is marked, “For Sinners Only”.

Not that sin recommends one to God – quite the reverse.  Our Lord neither condemns the exemplary life of the Pharisee nor does He commend the disreputable life of the tax collector.  The crucial point is that the Pharisee negotiates with God, calculates, and tells God the answer.  God is expected merely to nod approval.  God has no choice but to accept and admire this splendid man.  The tax collector surrenders every claim and calculation.  The decision rests with God.  Hence God has the possibility of showing mercy.  Mercy is only possible when you surrender yourself into the hands and decision of God.  Where there is not God’s mercy, there is only hell.

The Pharisee did not surrender himself into the hands and decision of God.  The tax collector did.  The tax collector went down to his house justified. He was given mercy.  He was forgiven.  Now he was God’s free, glad, and grateful man.  You who have come to Church this morning must ask yourselves, “In which line do I stand?” Remember that in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem the entrance door is small and low.  It is only possible to get in on your knees.


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