Have we given this Pharisee a raw deal? After all, if you pay attention, he does pray, “God, I thank you.” Look, he gives credit to God that he is not like the rest of men. He knows about grace. It’s wrongheaded of us to see those whom Jesus attacked as always and all the time mired in a works righteousness that knows only works and zero grace. This is how we often picture Jesus’ Jews.
That’s not to say there weren’t Jews who put all their faith in works, just as some Christians today do. They put all their eggs in the basket of themselves. But the Jews knew grace. They read their Old Testament and heard God say, “I did not choose you because you were good and righteous, I chose you because I am.” They knew God’s undeserved love.
But, because they were human, like us, they confused grace and works. “Now that I’m in, chosen by God, how do I stay in?” Thus, the keeping of the law. Virtue. “Do this and you will live.” So, while I’m not here to absolve the Pharisee, for we will rebuke him, I think we must speak with care about his heart problem.
Likewise, the tax collector. Let’s not ignore him. Maybe we miss he enters the temple a believer in God’s grace. That title, “tax collector” throws us, because it brings to mind the words “unclean”, “evil”, “wicked”. They collaborate with the Romans; like Zaccheus, they extort money to make profit. The Gospels lump them together everywhere with “sinners”, and worst of all, in Matthew 18, when all else has failed and the church must cast out a brother, Christ says treat him as “a pagan or a tax collector.” Yet our example of evil, crawls into the temple, prays to the Lord, beats himself, and refuses to look heavenward. He prays, “God, forgive me!” No wonder he went home justified.
That’s the point. The tax collector came empty of confidence in himself. He beats himself. He can’t look to heaven. Sin has destroyed him. This is what Lent does. Lent destroys our virtue and our sense of self-worth. The ministry of the keys does this: locking and unlocking heaven, giving and withholding forgiveness. The doctrine of justification does this: a declaration of righteousness given only to the most ungodly. My virtue takes a hike. If I count on my virtue, I move God to the side. I may thank him from time to time that I’m not like other men, and He has helped me with that, thank-you-very-much, but it’s still about me.
Thus Isaiah, “Our offenses are ever with us,” and “Our sins testify against us,” and “Our offenses are many in your sight.” Virtue destroyed. I have none. Nor have you. This is real. So Isaiah continues: “So his own arm worked salvation for him.” And Paul, “God made him who had no sin to be sin.” And then quoting Isaiah, “In the time of my favor I heard you.” God worked it. God’s virtue. God’s grace.
Back to Jesus’ parable. Jesus speaks to a specific audience: “to some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else.” He spoke to some who stood there sure and certain based on themselves that they were righteous. He endeavors to tell these “healthy”, “You’re sick.”
The hard part is that these people long ago decided this. They convinced themselves of their own righteousness. They talked themselves into it (“I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.”). They relied upon themselves and followed themselves.
So they knew. They knew that they were right with God and the world, in accord with God’s standards. They surrounded themselves with almost nothing except good news. Why, then, bother going to the Temple? Why pray? Why hear the Gospel? Why receive the Sacrament if you are so upright and just? These things exist only as opportunities to give God a little credit and then offer a report on the further successes in their/our lives.
Let’s explore those lives. Again, from the description of Jesus’ audience: they “looked down on everybody else”; “I thank you that I’m not like other men”, literally “the rest of men”
“The rest” is a term to explore. “No man is an island,” the poet says, but this group felt themselves so.
They declared themselves the exception to the rule expressed by the Holy Spirit through the apostles and prophets, “No one is righteous, not even one,” and “All have sinned” and the pre- and post-flood indictment: “all the thoughts of their hearts were only evil from childhood.” They hear this universal word and declare themselves immune, above and apart from it. More, they despise the sinful rabble and declare themselves “not like other men.”
The tax collector does the opposite. Instead of reveling in who he is, he despairs. Instead of saying, “I’m glad I’m not like other men,” he says, “I’m the worst. Call me, ‘Sinner.’ I miss the mark.” Rather than pointing to anything he’s done, for he can’t, because he always misses the mark, the tax collector says, “Forgive me. Show mercy to me. Sacrifice for me.”
The tax collector didn’t use the liturgical word that we sing so often and prayed tonight, “Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy.” In Greek that’s eleison. The tax collector said hilastheti, a temple word. It shows up, in various forms in the New Testament. In Hebrews 2, “That he might make atonement for the people.” In 1 John 2, calling Jesus “the atoning sacrifice for our sins.” In Romans 3, “God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement.”
In other words, the Pharisee appeals to his actions, to his righteousness. “I fast, I tithe.” To which God says, “Great, so does that man over there, and better than you.” The tax collector appeals to God’s actions, His righteousness. “God, you have to do this thing. Please do this thing.” The tax collector begs for what Isaiah promised: “the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, by his wounds we are healed”; what Paul says God accomplished: “God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them…. God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” Or, in Jesus’ words: that we might go home justified, that is, right with God.
I said before that Lent must destroy our virtue. You might hear that and say, “Ah, yes, so we can sin all the more.” Of course not. It means that the be-all, end-all of God’s plan is not our virtue; it is, rather, His virtue. The virtue brought forth in Christ. It is, to be sure, the destruction of that Pharisaic tendency that resides in us to keep score: our score compared to the rest of men, or at least that pathetic wretch over there. And, at the same time, to relieve us of our fear as we look at that man over there who fasts twice a week, who gives a tenth, that fear that causes us to cower and say, “But I’m not like that man, surely God loves him and not me.”
For in both instances we alienate ourselves from God and his grace. But here comes God, in His Word, ready with something alien, something outside of us: Himself. A Lutheran professor of theology named Steven Paulson contends that the Reformation was all about preaching, because it “centered preaching on two words that were normally controlled by a sacramental system with the law at its heart: ‘Te absolvo’ (I forgive you). What havoc those simple words created.” What havoc indeed. Instead of searching about saying: “What have I done? What can I do? What must I do? What can I leave undone?” Instead God gives righteousness. He declares it. He says, “I forgive you. In Christ. The righteous for the unrighteous. My godly Son who gave His life for you, the ungodly.” Sweet havoc!
I wreaked this havoc among our children last week when I made them recite the Catechism: “The use of the keys is that special power and right which Christ gave to his church on earth: to forgive the sins of penitent sinners but to refuse forgiveness to the impenitent.” And again, “I believe that when this is done, it is as valid and certain in heaven also, as if Christ, our dear Lord, dealt with us himself.”
When Paulson talks about a sacramental system controlled by the law, he meant the Pope’s system of confession and satisfaction, illustrated by the Pharisee who based his thankfulness on God’s grace AND (there’s the key word), AND his fasting and tithing. But this curves us in on ourselves. It makes the keys and the forgiveness that comes with them something we dole out for a price, instead of free of charge. It lessens the certainty, that “as valid and certain in heaven” bit, that makes forgiveness forgiveness. I don’t rest my confidence on my works, my priest’s ordination, or on anything else except my heavenly Father’s promise based on the atoning sacrifice of His dead and now resurrected Son.
The rest just happens. Lent, the keys, and justification destroy virtue, but only in the sense of my sensing it and reckoning it to myself. Think of Scripture’s pictures of virtue: “When did we?” believers cry out on Judgment Day when Jesus catalogs their good deeds. “You are salt; you are light” Jesus says in his most famous sermon. “If a man remains in me, and I in him, he will bear much fruit”, Jesus assured, not like a mother pushing mightily to deliver a child, resulting in something to boast about. It’s breathing, blinking, heart beating, lip licking. Stuff you can’t even count. This is Luther’s famous description of faith: “It does not ask whether good works are to be done, but before the question is asked, it has already done them, and is constantly doing them.”
Of course, then, going home justified means going home to do pious, virtuous, religious things, that is, good works. With justification comes repentance: “God, have mercy on me, a sinner,” for we still are that: sinners. But in Christ, the new thing is that God lifts you up above this virtue by which you exalt yourself. In other words, in Christ, He exalts you. You are righteous and holy, declared so by the Father, on account of the Son, by the working of the Holy Spirit. You have peace with God through Christ.
Still we kneel. We beat our chests, literally or spiritually. We bow our heads. To receive. God places a gift into our hearts and hands. He says, “I forgive you because of my Son.” He has spoken that forgiveness to you tonight. He speaks it now. He will feed you on it in a moment in the sin-forgiving body and blood of Christ, so that, tonight, once more, you go home justified. Amen.