Sermon for the Eleventh Sunday after Trinity
Text: Luke 18:9–14
Grace, mercy, and peace be unto you from God the Father and Jesus Christ our Lord.
The temple was a busy place. From morning to evening people would come with their free will offerings and their sin offerings. Mothers and sons would be brought for the rite of purification and presentation and the produce of the fields would be waved before the Lord. But twice a day, at morning and evening, a lamb would be offered on the altar as a burnt offering for the sin of the people. Then incense would be burned as the people gathered to pray. Each would speak the petitions of his heart so that they would be heard, just as the Psalm teaches: Let my prayer rise before you as incense, the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice.
It is at one of these hours of prayer that the Pharisee and Tax-Collector each come into the temple to pray. As was common in that day, each speaks his prayer out loud. The Pharisee prays first, standing by himself, yet where others could hear: God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax-collector.
“O give thanks unto the Lord, for He is good, and so am I;” that is the gist of the Pharisee’s prayer. Or as Mac Davis summed it up, “Lord, it’s hard to be humble when you’re perfect in every way.”
The Pharisee isn’t thanking God for the marvel of His act of creation. This isn’t the same kind of thanksgiving that that we find in the school’s theme verse for the year from Psalm 139:14: “I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well.” The Psalmist—King David—and the children of First Lutheran, have a very different intent to their words than the Pharisee. The Pharisee gives thanks to God not for how he was made, or the blessings God has bestowed on him, but for what he has done for God. I am not an extortioner. I am not unjust. I am not an adulterer, I’m not like this tax collector. I fast, I give tithes.
The Pharisee puts all the attention on what he has done. Before God and man he claims to have something to offer God. The Lamb sacrificed on the altar means nothing to him. The incense wafting out of the temple in his mind signifies not his prayers ascending to heaven to be heard by God, but his achievements ascending to the heavens to draw God’s attention to how great he is.
The tax collector, on the other hand, stands far off, bows his head, and beats his breast as he prays, “God be merciful to me a sinner!” If he prays loud enough for those around him to hear, it is not because he desires their attention, but because he does not even care if they know how bad he is. He is not afraid for men to know that he is a sinner, because the one who really matters already knows. The word he uses for “be merciful” is really be propitiated. It is the word that gives the name to the covering of the ark of the covenant, hilasterion, or the mercy seat. The idea is that the blood of the covenant is sprinkled on the ark of the covenant each year on the Day of Atonement. This is the one day that the High Priest is to go into the most holy place behind the curtain. The blood of the covenant atones for the people and they are reconciled to God. This reconciliation is lived out by the people in part by their participation in the public worship at the daily sacrifices. The blood of thousands of bulls and goats has been shed in the temple courtyard as, day after day, year after year, sacrifices are made to God.
The tax collector’s prayer is tied to the sacrifice burning on the altar. God, let this blood count as mine, let this death be counted as my death to sin that your judgment would not fall upon me.
Not all the blood of beasts
On Jewish altars slain
Could give the guilty conscience peace
Or wash away the stain. (LSB 431:1)
Martin Luther noted in his lectures on Psalm 51 that “the proper subject of theology is man guilty of sin and condemned, and God the Justifier and Savior of man the sinner.” To exalt yourself is to look past your own sin. You cannot exalt yourself or find anything good in yourself without overlooking or discounting your sin. To overlook your sin is to trust in yourself that you are righteous,s and it leads you to treat others with contempt. So learn to humble yourself and say with the tax collector, “God have mercy on me a sinner.”
For it is God who exalts the humble. It is God who justifies and saves man the sinner. The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners (1 Timothy 1:12). Dear friends in Christ, do not be so quick to have the world look on you as a good person that you do not look upon yourself as a sinner. For to deny your sin is to deny your Savior.
Luther went on regarding the proper subject of theology being man guilty of sin and condemned and God the Justifier and Savior of man the sinner to say, whatever is asked or discussed in theology outside of this subject, is error and poison. Yes we can talk about God’s act of creation, we can speak of the history of the Israelites in the Old Testament, we can talk about Paul’s missionary journeys, and what the glories of heaven will be in the resurrection. But to take any topic from the Bible and separate it from the proper distinction of the Law which shows us our sin and the Gospel which shows us Christ our Savior is to turn from the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the joy of His salvation.
All Scripture is God’s calling to us to repent of our own efforts to achieve anything for ourselves or for him and cling to the redemption He has provided in Christ Jesus. Or in other words the entire message of the Bible is Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.
Like the tax collector then, we pray before the altar bearing the sacrifice that atones for our sin; we stand at the foot of the cross and say, “God, be merciful to me a sinner.” We pray with confidence because Jesus takes the fruit of the altar of the cross and places it before us on the altar here and says, “Take, eat, this is my body which is given for you”; and “Take drink, this is the cup of the new covenant which is shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.”
It is not the blood of beasts, but the blood of Christ—poured out not on the ark hidden behind the curtain, but onto sin parched lips.
Glory be to Jesus,
Who in bitter pains
Poured for me the lifeblood
From His sacred veins!
Abel’s blood for vengeance
Pleaded to the skies;
But the blood of Jesus
For our pardon cries. (LSB 433:1, 4)
The peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.
Soli Deo Gloria