+ In nomine Patris et Filii et Spiritus Sancti + Amen.
Text: Luke 18:13
Theme: Mercy For The Sinner
Dear friends in Christ Jesus,
God reads the heart. Those whose hearts are filled with evil intent should take careful notice of this truth. Those who are seeking God’s forgiveness should take great comfort. Christ has come for sinners. No one is beyond the pale of His mercy. No one is so far gone that Jesus cannot redeem them. The event of the cross accomplished an atonement so infinite human depravity can never exhaust it. Through the power of Jesus’s death and resurrection the believer’s sinfulness is exchanged for Christ’s righteousness. That is the implication of our baptism. We are His forgiven people.
Today the Holy Spirit intends to shatter a widely held stereotype about what it looks like to be right with God. Jesus’ target audience is clearly defined. “To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else…”1 The Pharisees are clearly in Jesus’ sights. The listeners would have been familiar with the context. Daily sacrifices took place in the temple at 9am and 3pm. It was customary for people to come for corporate prayers at these times. Private prayers could be made at any time but were often made at these scheduled public times also. Faithful Jews were not remiss in their observance.
The contrast in the parable is stark and easily identified. Two men are at the temple praying. One is a Pharisee, the other is a tax collector. The Pharisee makes a public show of his piety. He’s there to proudly remind others of his status and standing. The tax collector humbly pours out his heart before God. He’s not looking for praise from men but mercy from God. Both are engaged in the same activity at the same time. Contrary to the social expectation of the day, it’s the tax collector, not the Pharisee, who goes home justified.
The critical issue lies right at the heart of Christ’s redeeming work. Trust in our own righteousness is the height of idolatry. We might think it’s easy to excuse ourselves of this transgression in our day and age. After all, we live in a culture of affluence, skepticism, and the exaltation of the scientific method. The idols of materialism, human philosophies, and technology must surely be the prime candidates. But let’s come at it from a different angle. Is the favour of God and admittance into His eternal kingdom an assumption that we make? Do we believe, that in spite of our faults, we’re passable in God’s sight? Belief in the inherent goodness of the human makeup is the foundation of self-righteousness. If we are basically good, what need is there for a Saviour? The Pharisee gave thanks to God but did not seek His mercy. He was putting his own worthiness on display, not God’s compassion.
The Holy Spirit has a difficult job under these circumstances. His task is not to rebuke the sinner for crass transgressions (like the theft or adultery the Pharisee mentions in his prayer), but for the underlying cause- the belief that God has no right to stand in judgment. Jesus says that when the Holy Spirit comes, “He will convict the world of guilt in regard to sin and righteousness and judgment.”2 His judgment can be ignored but never avoided. Confidence that God has no right to stand in judgment is the basis of all human arrogance. All false and naïve hopes- held in ignorance or arrogance- will be shattered when He comes again “with glory to judge the living and the dead.”3
The tax collector is depicted in sharp contrast to the Pharisee. His plea is candid and heart-felt. “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”4 He recognizes his need to be liberated from the consequence of his sin. He stands at a distance from other people, yet hoping that God is near. His hope is not in vain. The Scripture says, “The Lord is near to the broken hearted and saved the crushed in spirit.”5 And again, “The Lord is near to all who call on Him, to all who call on Him in truth.”6 Indeed, God is near to us in Christ, right in our midst. He is near in the words of absolution and His body and blood in Holy Communion. He was near to the tax collector and He is near to us.
Yet, there are many who do not want to hear this message of God’s presence. The call of society is to spin the message in a different way. The way we say things is important. But the manner in which we say things should never compromise the content of what we say. The truth cannot be sacrificed. There’s no place in the church’s corporate conversation for political spin. The following light-hearted example might be instructive: A certain man and his wife owned a poodle. They lived in a three-story home with a balcony on the third level overlooking a lake. The dog was especially precious to the wife. The wife went on a trip overseas. She called home on the first day and asked her husband, “How are things?” He said plainly, “The dog’s dead!” She was devastated. After collecting her thoughts, she asked, “Why do you do that? Why can’t you be more tactful?” He said, “Well, what do you want me to say? The dog died.” She replied, “Well, you can give it to me in stages. For example, you could have said, ‘The dog went out on the balcony.’ And then when I travel to London the next day and call, you could tell me, ‘Honey, the dog fell and had to be taken to the vet. In fact, he’s in the hospital and not doing well.’ And finally, when I call you from Rome, ‘Honey, brace yourself. Our dog died.’ I could handle that.” The husband paused and said, “Oh, I see.” Then she asked, “By the way, how’s my mother?” He said, “She’s on the balcony.”
The apostle says, “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience.”7 As Christians we are charged with knowing what we believe, not so we can pride ourselves on our learning, but so we can be faithful witnesses to those who doubt, those who live without the truth, and those who oppose it. There are no shortcuts here. The Holy Spirit molds, shapes, and refines us through the dynamics and tensions of bearing Christ’s name in the world. It’s always on-the-job-training.
Dear friends, there’s really no easy way to break the bad news that we’re sinners. We’re all in desperate need of God’s forgiveness. But that makes the truth of God’s love in Christ all the more treasured. Sin, Satan, and hell are conquered by Jesus’s saving work. We have purpose now and a bright future ahead. These are truly reasons to celebrate. God supplies everything the believer lacks, most importantly, power over death itself. Remember, Jesus Christ is risen from the dead!
Who knows what pangs of conscience Jesus wants the hearer to envision that this tax collector was suffering? Was his career ruined? Was his family in crisis? Was his heart rent by some trauma? It makes no difference. It’s the same for us. The mercy of God would not be denied him. The demeanour of his heart was reflected in the posture of his prayer. He, and not the Pharisee, went home as the forgiven child of God. It’s the same forgiveness that opens the door of our eternal home. Amen.
+ In nomine Jesu +
Twenty Third Sunday After Pentecost
23 October, 2016
Reverend Darrin L. Kohrt
1 Luke 18:9 2 John 16:8 3 The Nicene Creed
4 Luke 18:13 5 Psalm 34:18 6 Psalm 145:18
7 1 Peter 3:15-16 8 1 Corinthians 11:23-26