No forgiveness for the self-righteous Pharisee

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Sermon for Trinity 11

1 Corinthians 15:1-10  +  Luke 18:9-14

The parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector—one of my favorite parables. Short, sweet, easy to understand, and it gets right at the heart of Christianity: what makes a person acceptable before God. As it turns out, the Pharisee was not acceptable to God, not justified, while the tax collector was. That’s not to say that all people fit neatly into the categories of Pharisee or tax collector. They don’t. But all people do fit into one of the two categories of justified or not justified, acceptable to God or unaccepted, headed for heaven or headed for hell, and the Pharisee and the tax collector illustrate the difference for us.

So let’s begin. First, notice to whom Jesus told this parable and why: He spoke this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others. That’s the definition of “self-righteous,” isn’t it? Self-righteous people trust in themselves that they are righteous and they despise others whom they see as not living up to their standards of piety.

Take the Pharisee. He goes to the temple in Jerusalem to pray. So does the tax collector. And right there, you see that most of the people of the world are already dismissed. Salvation, justification, forgiveness, acceptance by the one and only true God is found only in the temple of the true God. Not everyone who enters God’s temple leaves forgiven—the tax collector did, the Pharisee didn’t. But all who are to be forgiven must seek forgiveness in God’s temple, and most of the people of the world don’t do that.

Now, the temple of the true God used to be in Jerusalem. That’s where God commanded that it be built, until the coming of His Son, who took over as the true Temple of God, foreshadowed by the old temple. And He is now building His holy Christian Church into that temple, into Himself. Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.

So already most of the world is excluded from God’s acceptance, as long as they remain outside of Christ and outside of His Church, His temple, the assembly of the baptized. Yes, God wants them to come in and find forgiveness. He wants them all to come in! He invites them! He calls out to them! But as long as they remain outside the temple, they will not be acceptable to God, no matter how righteous they think they are.

But of those who do enter His temple, there are still two kinds, as we get back to the parable.

The Pharisee stood in the temple and prayed (and you may want to remember this parable when some non-church-going friend tells you he doesn’t need to go to church, because he prays to God every day. Well, the Pharisee prayed to God, and it got him nowhere.) This is what he prayed: God, I thank you that I’m not like other men. Extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess. So not only does the Pharisee go to “church,” to the temple, but he lives a decent and upright life, too. He’s no criminal. He’s an honest man. And he gives offerings, tithes, “ten-percents” that go above and beyond what God requires in His law. As you can see, he trusted in himself that he was righteous, and he despised others.

Not unlike the Apostle Paul before his conversion. Remember Paul, whose Jewish name was Saul? He once wrote this about himself. I was circumcised on the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of the Hebrews; concerning the law, a Pharisee; concerning zeal, persecuting the church; concerning the righteousness which is in the law, blameless.

But, like the Pharisee in the Gospel, he worshiped God without knowledge. How can that be?

Because he knew God wrongly. Understand what that means. He knew the Scriptures well enough, better than most. He knew the history of the Old Testament, and he believed it all. He knew the Law of Moses, too. But he knew God wrongly, because he missed the point of the Law, and he also missed the promise of the Gospel.

Saul, like all the Pharisees, knew the Law of God and tried to keep the Law of God and even observed many extra laws to try to go above and beyond what God required. But he missed the point of the Law, which is to shut every mouth before God and convict everyone of sin. As he would later write, by the law is the knowledge of sin. As a Pharisee, he was using the law to try to become acceptable to God. But that’s the very definition of “self-righteous.” It’s a misuse of the law. Because the law is holy. You can’t do your best to keep it and think you’ve actually kept it. It doesn’t say, do your best. It doesn’t say, try to obey, or try not to disobey. And it certainly doesn’t say, add extra works of your own making to earn extra credit. The law accuses everyone of imperfection, of sin. The law condemns every sinner to death. Cursed is everyone who does not continue in all things which are written in the book of the law, to do them. Saul the Pharisee, like the Pharisee in the parable, missed that point.

So they also missed the promise of the Gospel: that from the beginning, from the Garden of Eden, God promised to send a Savior—a Savior who would be both God and Man, a Savior who would keep the Law, a Savior who would be the atoning sacrifice for the sins of mankind. As Saul the Pharisee finally learned and then preached: I declare to you the gospel which I preached to you, which also you received and in which you stand, by which also you are saved, if you hold fast that word which I preached to you…: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures. That is the Gospel, and the promise of the Gospel, as Paul wrote, is that you are saved by it, if you hold fast to it. That is, if you believe it. As Jesus promises, He who believes and is baptized will be saved.

The tax collector in Jesus’ parable understood both the point of the Law and the promise of the Gospel. He was a tax collector, which was a profession that wasn’t inherently evil, but very often it was practiced in an evil way, and tax collectors were thought of as a bunch of thieves. This tax collector doesn’t make a list to God of how hard he’s trying to keep the commandments. He doesn’t tell God about all his good works or try to excuse the bad ones. His confession before God is short and sweet. I am a sinner. Literally, I am the sinner. Have mercy on me!

His plea for God’s mercy was a plea for God’s favor, not because he was a sinner, but because God had promised to be merciful to sinners in His temple. He had promised to forgive sins by means of the sacrifices offered right there on God’s altar, which were always pointing ahead to the great sacrifice of the Christ. The tax collector understood and believed what the Psalmist wrote: If You, LORD, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand? But there is forgiveness with You, that You may be feared. And as Jesus declared, I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.

You see how beautifully our Epistle and Gospel work together today? The Epistle spells out the basis of the sinner’s justification: the death of Christ Jesus for our sins, and His resurrection for our justification. The Gospel illustrates the manner of the sinner’s justification: by faith in God’s promise of mercy and forgiveness, paid for by Christ alone and offered for the sake of Christ alone.

So there is no forgiveness for the self-righteous Pharisee, not because there was no sacrifice for his sins, but because he claimed a righteousness of his own, a righteousness that is by the law. But there was forgiveness for the tax collector and there is forgiveness for all who believe, for all who claim the righteousness and the sacrifice of Christ, the only Mediator between God and Man, as the once pharisaical Apostle Paul eventually learned and confessed: I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having my own righteousness, which is from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith. Be the tax collector. Be the sinner who humbles himself before God and seeks forgiveness from the God of forgiveness. And you, to, will go down to your house justified, for the sake of Christ Jesus, our Lord. Amen.


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