August 12, 2018 A+D
St. Luke 18:9-14
In the Name of the Father and of the +Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
“Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”
The most obvious way that a man exalts himself is to boast like the Pharisee in the Temple. “I fast twice a week. I give tithes of all that I get.” Such shallow attempts to make oneself righteous must be denounced.
Romans 3:20 (ESV) For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.
Galatians 2:16 (ESV) yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.
Galatians 3:2 (ESV) Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith?
Galatians 3:10 (ESV) For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.”
The problem with the Pharisee was not his fasting or tithing, nor was it in the strength that enabled him to resist extortion, taking advantage of his neighbors, adultery, or giving in to greed. The problem was that the Pharisee thought that he was righteous enough, that his strength was enough to earn God’s favor, and that whatever failing he had were insignificant compared to other people and therefore he was the best candidate to be loved by God.
In fact, the Pharisee was living what the Bible describes as the good life. Quoting Psalm 34, St. Peter writes: 1 Peter 3:10–12 (ESV)
10 “Whoever desires to love life and see good days,
let him keep his tongue from evil and his lips from speaking deceit;
11 let him turn away from evil and do good; let him seek peace and pursue it.
12 For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous, and his ears are open to their prayer. But the face of the Lord is against those who do evil.”
In avoiding evil and doing good, in giving away his material possessions and training his flesh for hardship, the Pharisee enjoyed a life of peace and health. There is no real or lasting pleasure in sin even for sinners. If you don’t believe me, pick a rock star and read his biography. Debauchery does not lead to happiness. The good life is not found in what the world counts as pleasure. Even Oprah knows, deep down, that to be happy you must make other people happy, that is, you must give your life and your stuff to others.
If you get to choose what sort of an unbeliever to be: the Pharisee who lived in poverty and service to others but was heading to Hell, or the Tax-Collector who lived in luxury and sought to maximize pleasure at every turn, but was also headed to Hell, pick the Pharisee. Blessed, in a sense, is the man who doesn’t know what a hangover feels like, who has never had to worry if the girl was pregnant of if he had aids. Blessed is the man who has never been beaten up or arrested or vomited on himself.
But, of course, that is not enough for true blessedness. True blessedness isn’t simply the good life promised by the Law. True blessedness is in the righteousness bestowed by Christ on sinners. If you get to pick what sort of a man to be between the Pharisee with honor in the community and a steady job and the Tax Collector of public shame and regret after the prayer in the Temple, pick the Tax Collector. He went home justified. He confessed His sins before the mercy seat. He trusted in God to cover for him, to receive him by grace, to forgive him. And God did. That is what the Temple was for and that is why the Temple veil is destroyed. Nothing can keep us from God’s mercy. It is open to women and Gentiles, to tax collector, prostitutes, and pimps. And it is also open to Pharisees and life-long Lutherans.
The Church has deliberately chosen the Tax Collector for her model of prayer. His actions in the parable are precisely why we typically bow our heads and close our eyes and fold our hands in prayer. We come before God as sinners in need of mercy. We want to go home justified. We do not trust in ourselves or our works. If we are righteous, it is not our righteousness but Christ’s righteousness that has been bestowed upon us as a gift through His Word.
We want to be the tax collector in his penance and faith not in his debauchery. He goes home justified means more than he was let off the hook for all the bad stuff. He got to have his cake and eat it too. It means that he went home changed, to start anew. We expect, in fact, that in an outward way he began from that point forward to look, in an external way, like the Pharisee. He fasted twice a week to train his flesh. He tithed of all that he had in compassion for the poor and desire that God’s Kingdom be expanded and also to curb his flesh. He resisted evil. He did good.
Luke records this parable in chapter 18. In chapter 19 he tells us about another tax collector convert: Zacchaues, small of stature and user of sycamore trees. When Christ came to his house, he receive him joyfully and in the freedom of the Gospel pledged to give half of all his goods to the poor and to restore fourfold all that was ill-gotten. Jesus said to Him “Today salvation has come to this house.” Both tax collectors are saved, or justified, in their houses, that is, where they live, for their lives. The Gospel changes them. It delivers not just the outward peace and satisfaction of the good life, but it gives an abundant life, a life lived with God, by His Law, in repentance and faith, in service to neighbor, with joy.
Thus the Formula of Concord:
When people are born again through the Spirit of God and set free from the law (that is, liberated from its driving powers and driven by the Spirit of Christ), they live according to the unchanging will of God, as comprehended in the law, and do everything, insofar as they are reborn, from a free and merry spirit (FC SD VI.17 in Kolb-Wengert, 590).
There is a caveat. On this side of glory, we still struggle. The Confession continues:
“Since believers in this world are not perfectly renewed—the old creature clings to them down to the grave—the battle between spirit and flesh continues in them. Therefore, they indeed desire to perform the law of God according to their inner person, but the law in their members struggles against the law of their mind. To this extent they are never without the law, and at the same time they are not under the law but in the law; they live and walk in the law of the Lord and yet do nothing because of the compulsion of the law (FC SD VI.17 in Kolb-Wengert, 590).
The Law does little good for the impenitent. The Pharisee’s obedience only gave him a good life here on earth. It does great good for the Baptized. The Confessions say that “believers require the teaching of the law: so that they do not fall back on their own holiness and piety and under the appearance of God’s Spirit establish their own service to God on the basis of their own choice, without God’s Word or command” (FC SD VI.20 in Kolb-Wengert, 590). Lest we make up our own standards and turn ourselves into libertine hedonists masquerading under the name of Christian and invent an entirely new and perverse form of self-righteousness that brags in not doing works and thereby lose our faith, God gives us His Law.
So also then our works, in faith, become pleasing to God as they obey the actual Law in an outward way. We are not under the law. We are under grace. To not be under the law, to be forgiven, justified, is to be free from the curse and condemnation of the law through faith in Christ. Our good works, though imperfect and impure, are pleasing to God through Christ. We act in God-pleasing ways—not because of the coercion of the law but because of the renewal of the Holy Spirit—without coercion, from a willing heart, insofar as we are reborn in our inner person, baptized, justified, saved. At the same time we continually do battle against the old creature, not as slaves but as sons (FC SD VI.23). Thus we aren’t merely justified for the Last Day. We are justified to go home, to live in this world as well as the next.
In +Jesus’ Name. Amen.