Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
I. Looking for Salvation
1. This morning I would like to reflect for a moment on the inevitability of death and specifically how people in our world are constantly looking for salvation from death. Death is the ultimate evil in our world. Despite all the differences people might have, it is the common enemy that all humans share. One day, we will all die. That’s an uncomfortable thought, but it’s only uncomfortable because we recognize the truth of it. Unless our Lord Jesus returns to make all things new first, we will all die. Since the fall of Adam, all men have been destined for this fate. And so, since the fall of Adam, humanity has been searching for salvation from death. Some people try to find salvation from death by cheating death. These people might eat strict diets and use detailed exercise regiments to improve their health so that maybe, just maybe, they can cheat death and find their salvation from it. They might place their trust in science and medical interventions, hoping and trusting that through protection from disease they can cheat death and find salvation from it. But now the latest hope that some people have is to cheat death by prolonging their life long enough to where they are able to upload their conscience to a computer where they will be able to live forever and find salvation from death. Other people try to find salvation from death trying to beat death, rather than cheating it. To beat death means that you accept the inevitability of death, but you are going to make the most of the time that you have, living in the moment and enjoying a life of freedom so that when death inevitably comes around you will have experienced the fullness of life already and thus, in a way, will have found salvation from death. The problem with all of these approaches is the same, and it’s twofold: First, these approaches don’t actually offer salvation from death—death is still an inevitability in all of them. Second, the posture and attitude of these approaches is one of prideful arrogance. It’s as Proverbs warns us:
“Pride goeth before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall” (Proverbs 16:18 KJV).
When we trust in ourselves and our own abilities, we will fail to find salvation. The Scriptures also warn us that
“God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6/Proverbs 3:34).
Simply put, eternal salvation from death cannot be found on our own. And so, today we will consider our Gospel text—our Lord’s parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. As we consider these two characters, we will see that:
Eternal salvation is found by:
1.) setting aside our prideful trust in ourselves and
2.) humbly trusting in Christ alone.
II. Setting Aside Pride (the Pharisee)
2. In our text for today, we are introduced to two men who have gone to the Temple to pray. The first man is the pharisee. He stands up and prays:
“God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get” (Luke 18:11-12).
Now, let’s not be unfair to this pharisee. His stance while praying is the typical stance of Jew while praying. Standing and looking to the heavens was the way that you spoke to God. And he addresses God, just like any other Jew would. The pharisee begins his prayer like anyone might, with the words, “I thank you…” It’s always a good practice to offer thanks to the Lord when you begin to pray. But this is where the pharisee’s prayer becomes problematic. Again, to be fair, it’s not wrong to thank the Lord that he has protected you from becoming an extortioner, one who is unjust, or an adulterer. To pray in this way is to recognize, as the well-known phrase goes: “There but for the grace of God go I.” But this is not what the pharisee is praying. The pharisee is not thanking the Lord for what he has done for him. Essentially, the pharisee’s prayer is: “God, I’m thankful that I am so great and that I’m not like the low-lifes of society. I do all of the right things and go above and beyond.” This isn’t a prayer of thanks, despite the way it begins. It’s a prayer of prideful boasting. And in the midst of his prideful boasting, the pharisee thanks the Lord that he is not “unjust.” This pharisee is thankful that because of how great he is, he is justified, that is, he is made right with God and granted eternal life because of his own efforts. He’s not unlike the people of our world, striving for salvation from death by his own prideful arrogance. Our Lord warns us at the end of the parable of God’s great reversal:
“For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 19:14b).
My friends, the pharisee offers us an example of precisely what not to do. We must not trust in ourselves. We must not take up the posture of prideful arrogance. If we desire eternal salvation from death, we must set aside our prideful trust in ourselves.
III. Humbly Trusting in Christ (the Tax Collector)
3. If the pharisee offers us an example of precisely what not to do, then the next man we meet in the parable, the tax collector, offers us an example of precisely what to do. The tax collector is, in nearly every way, set in contrast to the pharisee. He stands far off. He won’t lift his eyes up to heaven out of shame for his sinfulness. He beats his breast as a sign of penitence. And his prayer is strikingly humble:
“God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” (Luke 18:13c).
Everything about this tax collector was humble. He recognized his sin and that his very presence in the Temple of God was an offense to the Lord’s holiness. But yet he was there. He knew that the sacrifices which were offered in that place made propitiation for his sin. It was not his merits or works which gave him the right to stand before God and pray to him. Everything that this tax collector brought in and of himself was offensive to God. And yet, in his great mercy, the Lord offers forgiveness to those who trust in him:
“…the one who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 18:14b).
And so, our Lord says of the tax collector:
“I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other” (Luke 18:14a).
See, it is only by humbly trusting in Christ and his great mercy that we find eternal salvation. Christ offered himself unto death in our place so that eternal salvation from death can be ours. As Philippians 2 tells us, our Lord accepted the greatest reversal of all. He humbly took on the weight of your sin and mine so that he could suffer what we deserved. He offers us salvation from death—exactly what we humans are searching for. And yet, in our prideful arrogance we too often dismiss our Lord’s gift, arrogantly seeking on our own what he offers us freely. But, as Martin Luther famously said in his Heidelberg Disputation: “It is certain that man must utterly despair of his own ability before he is prepared to receive the grace of Christ.”
Like the tax collector, it is by humble faith in our Lord Jesus’ atoning death on the cross alone that you and I go down to our homes justified. For:
“…the one who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 18:14b).
May God grant this same mind of humility and faith to us for Christ’s sake.
In the name of Jesus. Amen.
The peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.