August 23, 2020 A+D
St. Luke 18: 9-14
In the Name of the Father and of the +Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The pharisee is the caricature of a self-righteous braggart. He stands in the Temple and fakes gratitude, pretending that he is thankful that he is so great. In a similar way, the tax collector is the caricature of a Christian. He won’t dare to look God in the eye. He beats his breast. He asks for God to be merciful to him, a sinner, and he is justified by grace.
The punchline is no surprise. The pharisee is a hypocrite. He might appear outwardly good but his heart is black. He does not love God or his neighbor. He is deluded and only loves himself, trusting in his own works and goodness to save him. In contrast, the tax collector has faith. He knows he is a sinner, is ashamed of himself, and wants to do better. But that is not all. Despite that shame and sorrow, he is confident in God’s promises and consistency. He knows not only that God desires all men to turn and be saved, that He desires mercy and not sacrifice, he also knows the purpose of the Temple, its architecture and ceremonies. He knows what to ask God for.
I say that he is a caricature of a Christian because all we see of him in the parable is that glimpse of his confession and absolution. This is the heart of our faith. Christ died for sinners. He makes no distinction between them, but freely and gladly forgives anyone who repents and believes.
But there is more to being a Christian and to our faith than that. What took place both before and after this scene is also important and defining. We need to consider what brings a man, whether he is a notorious sinner like the tax collector or a young child, to repentance? We need to ask what that repentance looks like? And finally, we need to consider how the Gospel actually renders a change in believers.
True repentance comes from the Word of God. The Word exposes our sin and our lack of excuses. Thus the tax collector felt sorrow over sin, pangs of conscience, and also fear of God’s wrath. Without the Word of God, a person can feel regret and shame but he will also think that his excuses have merit, that he is not as bad as others or that he actually meant well or that what he did wasn’t really a sin. The Word crushes that false hope and reveals the truth.
But true repentance is more than just contrition over sin. It is also faith. The Word exposes sin, showing God’s goodness and justice. It also proclaims God promises and declares His mercy. It exposes His heart for man. The faith which believes that God’s Law and wrath are real, also believes in God’s purpose in the Temple, in the mercy that endures forever, in the Son of God who has become a Man and laid down His life for us. True repentance, that of the tax collector and not the pharisee, has two sides: a putting to death and a raising to life. That which follows are good works, fruits worthy of repentance, for true repentance is not stagnant but is a turning away from sin and a turning toward God.
The tax collector cannot come to the Temple and ask for grace and forgiveness while planning to continue in his wicked ways or by claiming that he couldn’t help himself. His repentance takes responsibility for what he has done. He could have resisted but he didn’t. It was his own fault and no one else’s. The Word teaches him that. At the same time, seeing the goodness of God and rejoicing in His mercy, the tax collector is ready to make amends and to try to do better. He is not going to keep on cheating people.
When he asks God to be merciful to him, he is not asking that his debt be forgiven as though it never happened. He does not want to be free of all consequences. He wants to be righteous. He not only wants and expects to be spared God’s wrath for his sins. He wants and expects to become what God created and intended him to be. He wants to bear the image of God. He wants to be a Temple of compassion and mercy and justice for the world.
It is no different for us. Do not deceive yourself. There are many who want to be freed of both sin’s consequences and also the Gospel’s consequences. They want to pretend that they didn’t sin or that their sins didn’t matter, didn’t cause any harm.
It is also possible to make a false confession which is most dangerous of all. We see this a lot with celebrities but it also happens in the Church. It is possible to concoct a subtle defense in the form of pretend self-accusation and false humility. This is the man who is described in Sirach as humbling himself “deceitfully while his mind is full of wickedness” (Sir 19:23). He admits that he has done some wrong or made some mistake in an abstract, vague way but then exaggerates his feelings of guilt and revelling in how he hit rock bottom, telling that he is not worthy of all his achievements and glory and the like. When this happens in the church, he often suggests that he now has better insight in the Gospel than before and that sin has made him a better Christian and theologian. The reality is that the sin is so obvious and public that there is no way it can be hidden. So he makes a great play of penitence, hoping that we will admire his frank confession and sorrow so much that we will forget his sin and not hold him accountable. This is a dangerous game and leads to damnation.
Our fallen flesh wants a forgiveness that spares us from God’s wrath but still wants to engage in selfish behavior. You cannot serve God and mammon. Believers cannot and do not remain in sin and unrighteousness. Repent. Make a true, sincere confession. Trust in God to take care of and forgive what you cannot take care of yourself.
Of course, it is hard. The fight against sin is a fight. Even if you manage by the grace of God to restrain yourself from notorious, public, outward sins, you still have the wickedness of your heart and your secret thoughts. You are not better than the tax collector. Don’t be less honest than he is either. You need grace, forgiveness. The Temple is fulfilled and the veil is torn in two. The mercy seat of old is replaced by the risen Body and Blood of the one crucified for the life of the world. He has stood in the gap for you, taken God’s wrath and accusations in your place. He has died your death to bring you life and to present you to His Father as His own immaculate Bride.
The means of justification are the means of sanctification. Here is your life. Don’t mock it or despise. Don’t neglect it or try to improve it. Receive it. Believe it. Trust in it. Thus do you go home justified.
In +Jesus’ Name. Amen.