Sermon for Trinity 11
Genesis 4:1-15 + Ephesians 2:1-10 + Luke 18:9-14
As we have learned from God’s Word on many occasions, the whole world is divided in two, and has been ever since the days of Adam and Eve. There are Cains and there are Abels. There are Pharisees and there are tax collectors. There are spiritually dead people and people who were once dead who have now been made alive. There are children of wrath and children of God. The damned and the saved. The not forgiven and the forgiven. The unrighteous and the righteous. The not justified and the justified.
And you can’t tell them apart by looking at them. You can’t tell them apart by the color of their skin or by how they’re dressed, how rich they are or how poor. And you can’t necessarily tell them apart by what they do. When you get right down to it, there’s one thing that separates them from one another, and that thing is faith in Christ. Faith is the difference between those who are justified and those who are not.
You couldn’t tell any difference between Cain and Abel in how they looked on the inside. They were both born in their father Adam’s image—his sinful image that is passed down to all of his children (except for the One born of a virgin). You couldn’t tell any difference between Cain and Abel in their worship. People have tried to point to the different types of sacrifices each one offered—Cain with his grain offerings and Abel with his animal offerings—as if God preferred the animal sacrifices to the grain sacrifices. No. One thing separated Cain from Abel, and that thing was faith. As the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews says, By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain, through which he was commended as righteous, God commending him by accepting his gifts.
In the end, of course, Cain’s unbelief was betrayed by his actions. But the unbelief was there first, the unbelief that made Cain unacceptable to God. But didn’t Cain believe in God, too? No, and that’s where we get confused today about what faith is. Faith is not knowing that God exists—something that Cain certainly knew. Faith is trust in God, reliance on God for mercy, for forgiveness. Abel offered his sacrifices in that trust. Cain offered his sacrifices without it. And even though Cain lived many more years, he was already dead due to unbelief. And even though Abel’s life was cut short, he is still alive and in glory with God today. As Hebrews says, And through his faith, though he died, he still speaks.
In our Gospel today, Jesus saw the true groups before Him—those who were confident in their own righteousness, and those who trusted in Jesus for mercy. In fact, he directed His parable primarily toward those who didn’t believe in Him and so were not justified, toward the “Cain group” who hated the “Abel group” and showed contempt toward them, just as Cain once hated his brother.
We see the two groups represented in Jesus’ parable by a Pharisee and by a tax collector. Both of them go to the temple in Jerusalem to pray. Now, this wasn’t a church service, like a synagogue service would have been. You didn’t go to the temple for a structured service. You either went to offer a sacrifice on the big altar, or you went to an open area to sit at the feet of a Rabbi like Jesus and listen, or you went to find a quiet place to pray.
The Pharisee and the tax collector went to pray. Now, to the naked eye, it was easy to see which one must be in the justified group and which one in the not justified group. The Pharisee must be justified, righteous before God! At least, he certainly thinks so. He’s the respected member of Jewish society, the good guy, the decent guy. He’s the law-abiding citizen who loves his country. He’s the one who gives the big offerings at church. And if he has any minor flaws—and everyone has some flaws—he is sure that God will overlook them because, all in all, he’s a good person.
He’s so convinced of his own goodness that he feels justified in looking down on those who don’t measure up to his standards. He’s so convinced of his own goodness that he boldly prays to God in order to thank God that he is so much better than the sinful tax collector over there in the corner.
The tax collector, even if he’s an honest one—and there weren’t many honest ones. Most were thieves. But even if he’s an honest one, everyone assumes he’s dishonest. He’s considered a traitor to his country by his fellow countrymen because he works with the Roman government to tax his own people and collect the taxes, with a certain commission that goes into his own pocket. To the naked eye, it’s clear that this tax collector is the one who belongs to the group of the unrighteous, the not forgiven, the not justified.
His prayer there in temple is so unlike the Pharisee’s prayer. He doesn’t see anything good in himself at all, only sin and neediness. He doesn’t hold anything up to God for God to see and smile. He can only look down and beat his breast and whisper the words, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”
And then Jesus reveals what the naked eye can’t see. Jesus reveals God’s verdict on each of these two men, and it’s just the opposite of what the crowd there before Him would have expected. I tell you, this man—the tax collector! — went down to his house justified, rather than the other.
Why? The Pharisee was a good person, and the tax collector was a sinner! No. God’s law accused them both of being sinners and equally deserving of condemnation. The Pharisee and the tax collector—both sinners by birth and sinners by thought, word and deed, even though the Pharisee was better at hiding it. In what they deserved, they were the same.
And, in what God had done for them and was doing for them, they were the same. Jesus would soon get up on that cross and have the sins of both men pressed down on His shoulders. Jesus would make atonement for the sins of both men. He would be the propitiation—the One who satisfies the demands of God’s law for both men, and for all men. And God wanted both men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.
The difference between the two men was this: faith. The Pharisee stood before God’s judgment seat and held up his works under the law, while the tax collector had faith in God’s mercy and appealed only to God’s mercy, there in the temple.
Why would God forgive sins in this temple? Because this is where atonement was made for sin in the sacrifices. This is where God had promised to be propitious—merciful, favorable— to all who call on Him here for mercy. Literally, the words of the tax collector in his prayer were, “God, be propitious to me, a sinner!”
The temple was a picture of Christ, whom the Apostle Paul calls the propitiation-place, the mercy seat, the throne of grace. The Apostle John says that Jesus Himself is the propitiation for the sins of the world. The temple in Jerusalem has been replaced with a man—the God-Man, Jesus Christ. He is where God promises to hear and to be propitious, to be merciful, to forgive sins and to justify sinners. Whoever looks to the Son of God has eternal life, receives forgiveness, is justified.
This is why we say in the Apostles’ Creed, I believe in the forgiveness of sins. Luther’s catechism explains that phrase rightly, “In this Christian Church the Holy Spirit daily and richly forgives all sins to me and all believers in Christ.” Not just this one Christian Church called Emmanuel, of course. Wherever Christ is preached as the way, the truth and the life. Wherever the Sacraments are rightly administered. Here is where God forgives sins. Why do we say that God forgives sins “in this Christian Church”? As the old WELS catechism explained, “We say this because Christ has given the Gospel to His Church on earth; in the Gospel we have the forgiveness of sins.”
But outside of this Christian Church, where Christ is not preached as the propitiation-place, where there is no faith, there is no forgiveness of sins. Whoever does not look to the Son for mercy stands condemned already, not justified, according to the words of Jesus—like the Pharisee who held up his own righteousness to God instead of trusting in the righteousness of Jesus that was being held out to him.
Is it possible to come to church and still not receive forgiveness? Yes, just like the Pharisee. If you come looking to offer God your good behavior in coming to church today, if you come looking to praise God for making you better than the rest, if you come just to socialize or be seen, then, even though you came to the right place today, you will not go home justified. If you come looking to Christ for mercy, you will find it. Here it is, Christ for you!
As I said at the beginning of the sermon, Jesus directed this parable primarily to those who were like the Pharisee. And his Word to them was that they were not justified. But why such a harsh Word? Just to tell them off for their arrogance and contempt? Not at all. But by telling them the truth, that they were not justified before God because of their unbelief, that is the very Word that cuts to the heart and convicts sinners before God so that, by the gracious working of the Holy Spirit, they may see their need for mercy and seek it in Christ where they are sure to find it. And so Jesus concludes His parable by calling out to all of them listening, “Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled. But whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” Jesus pleaded with them, just as He now pleads with you. Humble yourselves under God’s mighty hand that He may lift you up. Christ, with all His mercy and forgiveness, dwells not with the proud, but with the humble. Do not go to your house today like the Pharisee—confident in yourself and not justified. Instead, go to your house today like the tax collector, humble before God and man, and yet confident in the merit and the mercy of Christ, steadfast in the faith by which you, like the tax collector, have been justified. Amen.