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Last Sunday, we heard the parable about the persistent widow who found herself on the other side of sin. She was not asking the judge for forgiveness. She was asking for justice because she had been wronged. Now this morning, we hear the parable about the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. Here again we meet a man who is also appealing to the judge for justice. He wants to be recognized for all of the hard work and progress that he has made in his walk with God. At the same time, Jesus introduces us to a man off in a corner of the Sanctuary, who finds himself on the wrong side of sin. The last thing in the world this man wants is justice. He wants mercy. Mercy is his only hope.
At first glance, it seems as though Jesus has painted a picture in which we may easily distinguish the good guy from the bad guy. And isn't that just the way we like to see things. We like it when we can categorize people: liberal and conservative, democratic and republican, successful and loser, believer and unbeliever. We like when things are black and white, one or the other. And it seems like that's just what Jesus has done for us here.
But it's never that simple. Actually, the Pharisee is a man who has committed his life to God and to a holy lifestyle. The tax collector on the other hand, has undoubtedly cheated God's people at every opportunity because his primary interest is himself.
If you think you had the good guy and the bad guy in this parable clearly fixed in your mind, let me ask you this, which of these two would you trust to take this morning's offerings to the bank for deposit? Which of these two would you rather have teaching your children in Sunday School? Which of these two would you give, say $2000 of our mission's money to do something good with?
Not so simple is it? In the end, the one whom we would never trust with our money or our children is the one whom Jesus says went down to his house justified, while the one whom we would trust, does not. How are we to understand this parable and what are we to learn from it?
Let's take a closer look at these two. They actually have much more in common with each other than we may have noticed.
First, they both went up to the temple to pray. They go where God calls His people to come into His presence to receive His gifts. Neither of them practices a 'private religion.' Neither says, "I can worship God and pray where ever I want to. I don't need to go to church."
Second, as we hear both of these men pray, we realize that their prayers have something in common. Both pray with a sincere and thankful heart. Even though the tax collector's prayer is in the form of a petition, he is thankful that there is such a thing as mercy. He's thankful that even a second-class citizen like himself can come into the temple and approach the holy God and expect that God will hear His prayer and be merciful to him, a sinner.
The Pharisee also gives thanks to God. He doesn't simply say, 'God, look at what a great guy I am.' He says, "GOD, I thank YOU" for the way that I am. His praise is directed to God. He is thankful that the Holy Spirit has been at work in his life and has set him free from the grip of money and worldly success and sinful lusts.
Is this wrong? Could it be that in his heart he is fully persuaded that if the 10 Commandments mean anything at all then they are to be taken seriously and honored with a total commitment to live by them. That he has made progress in these things becomes clear to him as he looks over and sees that tax collector sitting off in the corner. "God, I THANK YOU that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector."
Is it wrong for this man to set the course and direction of his life according to God's holy law? Of course it isn't. Would that we were all more like this Pharisee in this regard. But it's very clear that there is certainly something wrong here. And that 'something' is clearly his pride. His pride causes him to exalt himself and treat others with contempt. And here, just as we saw last Sunday, we see just how easy it is for a good thing, like striving to be obedient to God's Law, to go bad in our hands.
Likewise, as corrupt and degenerate as this tax collector is, there is one thing about him that clearly good. He is humble and contrite. "But the tax collector, standing afar off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast saying, 'God be merciful to me, a sinner!'"
But don't kid yourself, even this can go bad very easily. There is such a thing as the "pride of humility." "Isn't it great that I'm so humble." "O God, I thank you that I am not like that Pharisee, so proud and contemptuous. Yes, I am an extortioner, unjust and an adulterer. But at least I admit it. I commit fornication twice a week and only give You 10% of whatever's left over after I've squandered my paycheck. But at least I don't pretend to be perfect like that Pharisee. I'm an honest man. I thank you O Lord that I am not like that prideful Pharisee."
And that leads us now to the third point of similarity between these two men and that is, they both have a self-perception. They both have a clear picture in their mind of their self-worth and their basic character. The Greek philosophers had always stressed the importance of "knowing thyself." Both of these men certainly do.
But it's right here where the great distinction between these two becomes clear. Here's where we can begin to understand the basis for the judgment that Jesus makes about these two. The question that crystallizes the difference between these two men is this one, "how have these men arrived at their self-perception?" "What is the standard by which each of these men have arrived at certain conclusions about the character of their life?"
The Pharisee sees himself against the standard of others. And not just any others, but in particular, he chooses a tax collector as the standard against which he forms his self-perception. He chooses someone against whom he compares favorably. It's certainly not that the Pharisee thinks he's perfect. He knows he's prone to certain temptations and faults and he's got issues. But he keeps them under control. Not like that tax collector who has no self-discipline and who let's the demons in him run free.
As honest as the Pharisee might actually be, this kind of self-assessment by looking down, always produces pride. Anyone who looks downward and measures his own life against the bad example or misfortune of someone else's life will immediately become proud. And where he cannot find another life that is below him, he will do what is necessary run someone down in order to make himself look better.
Now maybe we can begin to see what is so different about the tax collector. There is no one else in his field of vision but himself and God. "He would not lift his eyes to heaven," Jesus says. And neither did he look from side to side. God's Word, and God's Word alone was his standard. When he looked upward he saw the divine Law that every single life will be judged against. And anyone who looks upward like this and measures his own life against the Law of God and who hears His Word say "You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy" will immediately become humble and cry out for mercy. (Lev.19:2) "God be merciful to me, a sinner."
The Pharisee wanted God to see him through the tax collector and his sinful life. The tax collector wanted God to see him through the cross of Jesus Christ and Him crucified for sinners just like him.
The cross of Christ is the rose colored glasses through which God sees all who hide behind it. The cross is the fountain of life from which all of the mercies of God flow onto all who thirst for that living water of cleansing and forgiveness and refreshment that only God can give.
What Jesus wants us to understand by this parable is that when we measure our self-worth according to His Word and His Word alone, we see nothing but sinner. We have nothing to say for ourselves but "God be merciful to me, a sinner."
God sees us through and through. We don't fool Him with our pious pretenses for one minute. We may fool others, we may fool ourselves, but we don't fool God. The only time I'm ever truly honest is when I stand before God "Just as I am, without one plea, but that Thy blood was shed for me and that thou bidd'st me come to Thee." (LSB #570 st.1)
But what a confession of faith this is. A confession like that must believe that it is for sinners that Jesus has come into this world. It must trust that God is merciful to sinners and will not judge us according to our sins but according to another standard, a standard so low, so degenerate, that by comparison, you look holy and righteous in God's sight. And that standard is the cross of Christ who became sin for us. He took all the sin of the world on Himself and so that against the cross, God sees nothing but saint, for Christ's sake.
To this, the only honest plea that a sinner can make, our Lord is here assuring us that He sees us, not according to our own self-image, but according to the image of God in which He made Adam in the beginning and in which He made us in Holy Baptism.
One more thought before we conclude. I can't help but wonder what might have run through this tax collectors head as he left the temple that day? Did he leave church that day thinking, 'now that I have the assurance that God will be merciful to me, I can go on with my life of extortion and injustice and adultery as before'? Or was he thinking, 'How can I continue on in my sin a minute longer? I will strive to amend my sinful life in sincere gratitude.'
Let's hope it was the second and not the first. And let's also hope that this same tax collector doesn't return to the Temple this time next year and with his new and improved life, thank God that he is not the man he used. "I thank you that I am not like those other tax collectors." How easily that which is good goes bad in our hands. All it takes is one look at our neighbor, one comparison to someone else.
The truth of the matter is this. We must always remain on our knees before God and keep our eyes fixed on Jesus. Because mercy is our only hope.