The Eleventh Sunday after Trinity
August 27, 2017 A+D
St. Luke 18:9-14
In the Name of the Father and of the X Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Two Sundays ago, the holy Apostle Paul issued this warning: “Let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall. No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man.” (1 Cor 10.12). His warning echoes the fatherly wisdom of Solomon, who told his son, “Pride goes before destruction, And a haughty spirit before a fall” (Prov 16.18).
St. Paul warns us because he knows that our greatest enemy is not the thing we fear from the outside—sickness, disease, natural disasters, financial ruin, or even the devil. These things certainly cause fear, fret, grief and heartache, but by the grace of God many saintly people have endured all manner of suffering in their pilgrimage to the kingdom of heaven. In fact, the Lord has used these to draw His children closer to himself. On the path to heaven, however, your greatest enemy is your own self—your inborn selfish desire to live for yourself, your inner old man, your sinful heart out of which come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile [you]” (Mark 7:21-23). Your sinful, selfish flesh causes you to live as if God doesn’t matter, and you mattered most. And the worst thing for your soul is to believe in yourself to the extent that you forget God, and don’t rely on His mercy, and think you can live a day, a week, or a month without having His Word and holy sacraments shaping and forming your thoughts, words and deeds.
So do not be haughty, but fear (Rom 11.20). For when you have true fear of God, then true faith in God is alive in you. “The fear of God is the beginning of wisdom.” And the only way to have true wisdom is to receive it from above. It doesn’t come from in side you, it doesn’t even come from the world. It comes from God. For true fear causes you to cry out, “Lord, I am not worthy; Be merciful to me, a sinner”; and true faith gives you the courage to pray and the confidence to expect those prayers to be heard, “speak only the word and my soul shall be healed.” True fear causes you to say, “Yes, Lord, you speak the truth when you call me a dog”; and true faith gives you the courage to respond, “But even the dogs get to eat the crumbs which fall from the master’s table.” This is the prayer of the person who knows he can accomplish nothing on his own; who leans absolutely and completely on the Lord’s kindness; who will suffer anything and give up all in order to retain the Lord’s kingdom; and who will quickly strip off his pride and put on the coat of humility. For you know that God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble (Prov 3.34). Therefore, humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you in due time, casting all your care upon Him, for He cares for you (1 Pet 5.6-7).
Humbling yourself before anyone is hard. For who wants to admit that he is less than complete, that he needs someone else’s help? Aren’t we trained from the time of childhood to be self-sufficient? Don’t we feel ashamed when we have to ask for help? Are we scared of being vulnerable to our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ? Hasn’t the world even taught us that God helps those who help themselves—and so hadn’t we better get going and do what we can to make our life and our self better?
Such nonsense goes against true Christian faith because true Christian faith begins and lives in true humility. The humility that puts others before self. The humility that lives first for spouse and children, and for neighbor, and even for enemy, and never for self. The humility that lives to God with all you are and all you have. And the humility that firmly trusts that you can do for others, and don’t have to do for yourself because the Lord has done all for you, and gives you all you need to support your body and life. But most of all, true humility drives you to your knees and drives you to strike your chest while you say, “God, be merciful to me a sinner.”
That is what we see in the story our Lord tells us in today’s Gospel. There, in the tax collector hiding in the back corner of the temple, in the man who will not lift up his eyes to heaven, in the man who knows he really does not deserve to be in God’s presence, before God’s altar, near God’s priest and holy things—there is true humility. Because there is true faith—faith in God’s mercy. It’s the true faith that convinces this tax collector that he needs to repent.
This man is the picture of true faith, not because of what he does and how he acts and what he prays; but because of what he believes about himself, and what he hopes from God. And we see what his lack of self-belief and his earnest hope in how he stands before His God.
This man, our Lord says, goes to his home justified rather than the proud, self-confident, self-believing Pharisee. For the tax collector lays it all before God and says nothing about himself except that he is a sinner. No excuses. No qualifying words. No blaming others. Simply, “I am a sinner. I have acted as if God did not matter and as if I mattered most. I have thought ill of the people around me. I have promoted myself above others’ needs, and thought of what makes for my pleasure rather than focus upon the needs of others. God’s Word is true when it convicts me of sin.” And then, faith led the tax collector to add: “Have mercy.” That’s what God wants us to seek from Him, the divine act of mercy promised from the foundation of the world that the Messiah would shed His blood for salvation and restoration; that the Christ would be lifted up on the cross and all who believe would be saved.
And so the tax collector is justified—precisely because he does not justify himself or his actions. He is justified—precisely because he falls on God’s mercy and God’s kindness, trusting that God would fulfill His world. And he goes home justified—precisely because he came to God knowing that whatever he gave, whatever he said, whatever he offered would never be enough. So he goes home justified—precisely because he offered nothing, and received in thanksgiving the chalice of salvation that the Lord offered, and the forgiveness in the blood of the Lamb who was slain before the creation of the world. Why do we kneel at this altar and drink from the chalice of Christ’ blood? Why do we eat His body? Because there is nothing else by which to live. We bring nothing to the table, but we walk back to our pew justified.
This tax collector, who goes home justified, is worthy of our imitation. But don’t merely imitate his words or actions. Imitate his humility by refusing to believe in yourself, and by holding only to Christ. Imitate his humility by learning about and understanding the fearsomeness of God’s holy law and your desperate condition. Imitate the Tax Collector’s faith in God’s mercy ultimately demonstrated in the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. Imitate the tax collector’s humility by quenching the drowning your sins in the cup of mercy that Our Lord so generously provides at this holy altar.
In Jesus’ X Name. Amen.