Only one kind of sinner will be justified

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Sermon for the Eleventh Sunday after Trinity

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

There are two kinds of sinners portrayed for us in today’s Gospel, and also in the Epistle: those who are not easily identified as sinners and thus deny that they are sinners, and those who are easily identified as sinners and who confess their sinfulness with humility and seek help and mercy from the Lord God alone. In the Epistle, the same man—the Apostle Paul—was each kind of sinner at different points in his life. He started out a Pharisee, denying his sinfulness, claiming to be righteous before God, looking down on other people as the real sinners. But then God, in His mercy, showed Paul (or Saul) how great a sinner he actually was. God took pity on him, humbled him, brought him to repentance and faith in Christ Jesus, who died for our sins according to the Scriptures, was buried, and rose again the third day according to the Scriptures. And so Paul went from being a Pharisee-kind-of sinner who stood condemned before God to being the other kind of sinner, a penitent, humbled sinner who was justified by faith in Christ.

Now, you know and agree with the Holy Scriptures when they make the sweeping claim that all men are sinners. That all have sinned, including you. That all have earned and now deserve nothing but temporal and eternal punishment from God. If we could just start with that premise, then we could move on to talk about the solution. But we can’t start there. The Pharisees of the world—the Pharisees who dwell in our own flesh—have to be addressed first, as Jesus so directly addresses them in today’s Gospel, comparing them with the tax collectors of the world.

The Pharisee and the tax collector each go to the temple in Jerusalem to pray. The Pharisee looks up to heaven and praises…himself. He thanks God, but actually credits himself with being a fine, upstanding person—a far better person than the tax collector who entered the temple with him. He lists the fine things he has done and holds himself up before God as a model citizen and church member, fully expecting God to smile down at him, and to look down with His divine gaze on the sinful tax collector with contempt.

The tax collector knows he isn’t good enough even to lift up his face to heaven. Remember, the tax collectors of Jesus’ day were known for being cheaters, extortionists, and thieves. He knows he has sinned against God and man. He doesn’t list anything good in himself, but beats his breast and prays for mercy—mercy that he knows he doesn’t deserve, but God has revealed Himself as a God of mercy, as a God who set up His temple and His altar in the temple for the very purpose of accepting the death of innocent animals as sacrifices in the place of guilty sinners, so that He might show mercy to the sinners, all of which pointed ahead to the great sacrifice of Christ for the sins of the world.

The tax collector was right to seek mercy from God, who proclaims Himself to be a God who delights in mercy, the God who proclaimed long ago through the prophet Isaiah: On this one will I look: On him who is poor and of a contrite spirit, And who trembles at My word. True to His Word, Jesus reveals to His hearers how God viewed the self-righteous Pharisee and how He viewed the penitent tax collector. Only one of those two men went down to his house justified, forgiven, and it wasn’t the Pharisee.

The Pharisees, as a Jewish sect, no longer exist. But the Pharisaical attitude lives on. The Pharisees of today are those who, like the Pharisee in Jesus’ parable, appear to be godly people on the outside. Compared to other men, they are relatively innocent, good, righteous. They work hard. They pray. They go to church. They give generous offerings. That’s all well and good. But here’s the other quality of the Pharisees that makes them Pharisees: they actually believe that they are good people. They actually believe themselves to be righteous people, better than other men, deserving of God’s favor and blessings.

The world tends to view all Christians as Pharisees, as pompous, self-righteous hypocrites who love to talk about how good and moral they are, showing off their good works, who walk around comparing themselves to others and looking down on others and putting others down, even mistreating their neighbors and then patting themselves on the back for being fine “church people.” That’s not fair, of course, to brand all Christians that way. It’s a stereotype that the world has created to hide its own guilt and shame, to make excuses for its unbelief in the true God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

But the stereotype has had more than a few representatives over the ages, and there is certainly a warning for Christians in this Gospel. Self-righteousness is a powerful temptation that afflicts Christians, and all the more as the world around us becomes more openly godless, as sin is celebrated and truth is mocked. The contrast between a life lived according to the Ten Commandments and the way the world around us lives is becoming greater and greater. How easy it is to compare yourself to the immoral people of this world—you could even begin comparing yourself to your fellow Christians! —and conclude, “I am definitely living a better life than they are. Thank God I’m not like them.”

Watch out! Those who exalt themselves will be humbled. There’s no room for pride or self-congratulation in the kingdom of God. There’s only room for God’s mercy in Christ. If you wish to bring in your goodness, your decency, your works, your ego and hold them up before God as reasons for Him to accept you, then you will be on your own, and Jesus tells you in the Gospel how it will go for you. You will not go down to your home justified.

Instead, Jesus holds up for us the example of the tax collector as the one who went down to his home justified.

Now, there’s more than one kind of tax collector. There are at least five kinds of tax collectors, of people who are easily identifiable as sinners. First, there are the ones who recognize their sin and gladly flaunt it for all the world to see. They are just as condemned as the Pharisee. Then there are those who recognize their sin and fool themselves into thinking they can fix the problem themselves, work harder, do better, make themselves righteous. They are just as condemned as the Pharisee. There are others who recognize their sin and seek help from a false god who cannot save—the Mormon god, the Jewish god, the Muslim god, the Jehovah’s Witness god, or any of the pagan gods men have created from their own imaginations. They are just as condemned as the Pharisee. And then there are those who recognize their sin and despair of all help and mercy. Some commit suicide. Others live in deep sadness, bitterness, anger, or fear. They, too, are just as condemned as the Pharisee. And then, finally, there are the ones like the Apostle Paul, like the tax collector in today’s parable, who recognize their sin with sorrow, but who also recognize in Jesus a kind and merciful Savior who is mighty enough and worthy enough to save even the worst of sinners, and so they seek mercy from the only true source of mercy, from the Lord God, for the sake of His Son Jesus Christ.

“Be like that!”, Jesus pleads with us. Be like the tax collector. Yes, he’s done terrible things. But so has the Pharisee—his sins are just less obvious to those around him. The real difference between the two lies in repentance and faith in God’s mercy for the sake of Christ. Be like that and humble yourself before God. Acknowledge the deep corruption of your heart and the crimes, both small and great, that you have committed against your neighbor, and against God. Be like that tax collector in the temple. Confess your sins to God, trusting in His mercy for the sake of Christ Jesus who loved us and gave Himself for us. Find your righteousness, not in yourself, but in Him. And then know for certain—you have God’s word for it—that you will always go down to your house justified. If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

It’s true that you’re always a sinner, so you always have sins to confess. But it’s also true that God forgives sins, and because He does, it means that you don’t need to live with guilt or shame laid upon your back, but, by faith in Christ Jesus, you are free, free to live in joy and thankfulness to God for showing mercy to you, a sinner, and then to show the same mercy in humble service to your neighbor. Amen.

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