Date: 7 August 2016
Text: Luke 18:9–14
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Those of us who are familiar with the teachings of Jesus, and have been steeped in the Christian doctrine, know exactly what to think of this very familiar parable of Jesus. Our sympathy is with the tax collector, and we shake our heads in disbelief at the blind arrogance of the Pharisee. How can he be so blind to his own faults, and so oblivious to the mercy of God towards all sinners? How can he boast so blatantly of his spiritual achievements, and have so little concern for the salvation of his humble and penitent fellow-creature in the corner?
But before we settle down too comfortably, it might be worth asking how Jesus would tell the parable were he the one preaching this morning. Who is the Pharisee today, and who the tax collector? Is this a story told to comfort us, or to shake us out of our comfort zone?
So let’s remind ourselves who the Pharisees were. Far from the pantomime villains that we tend to think of, the Pharisees were the good people of their time. They were devout Jews who had dedicated their lives to the study of God’s word, and of applying God’s word to their lives. In the words of the New Testament letter of James, they strove to be more than just hearers of the word, and to be doers of the word as well.
Moreover, we shouldn’t think of the Pharisees as self-righteous strivers who aimed to build a ladder to heaven by their own moral efforts. They were very aware of God’s grace and their dependence on God’s grace for their godly lives. What does that Pharisee in the parable say? “I thank you that I am not such and such but that I do such and such.” He attributes his own godliness not to his own fantastic efforts, but rather thanks God for them. Isn’t this precisely what every true child of God should do? To recognise that everything we have is by God’s grace, a gift, and that we should therefore thank God for it – including our faith and obedience to God’s commands.
In other words, whatever Jesus’ criticism of the Pharisee here is, it’s not that the Pharisees were trying to build up a case for their own holiness with which to do bargains at heaven’s gates or at the Last Judgement. The Pharisee kept God’s law, and thanked God for it. And let’s be really clear: that is exactly what God expects of us. He wants us to keep the Law, and He wants us to attribute everything we have, including our obedience, to Him. Without His power, we can do no good thing, so whatever good we do do, it’s by His grace.
Or to put it another way, the Pharisee’s problem wasn’t that he was keeping God’s law too much. As we heard in the Gospel a few weeks ago, Jesus tells us that unless our righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees, we will never enter the kingdom of God. Obeying God’s will is never optional for the Christian.
Moreover, there is something to be said for thankfulness for not being an open sinner. We all know what happens to people who live in deliberate, unrepentant sin: however happy or successful their life looks now, we know that sooner or later, their sin will catch up with them and they will have to give an account of their sins to God. To know that one will not have to stand in the place of the condemned sinner is indeed something to thank God for!
Which takes us back to the earlier question: who looks like the Pharisee of the parable today? It is the Christian. Pharisees strove to live according to God’s will – so do Christians. Pharisees attributed their godly life to God – so do Christians. Pharisees gave thanks to God for their confidence that they would be spared God’s condemnation at the last judgement – as do Christians.
Whereas the tax collector was an equally obvious target: as a group, they were despised as collaborators, who had reputation for enriching themselves at the expense of their countrymen by serving the occupying enemy force. We find them lumped together with other shady characters who were not part of the religious community of Israel as “tax collectors and sinners”, not only by the Pharisees but also the gospel writers. They were despised because they were frequently despicable. And the tax collector of the parable offers no defence: there is no suggestion that he was any better than the rest.
Who are the tax collectors of our time: people who keep bad company, who enrich themselves at the expense of their fellows, act greedily and are rightly despised by upright people? I’m sure you can think of some examples.
Now, tell the parable again: “A devout Christian and a debt collector walked into a church …”
Who are you in this story?
And more importantly, what is the point that Jesus is making? What’s so terrible about the Pharisee, and why is the tax collector commended? And what does Jesus want from us?
In the first place, the Pharisee, for all his godliness and his eagerness to attribute his spiritual growth to God, had a fatal flaw. He did thank God for the gift of obedience to the law, his righteousness. But the kind of righteousness that he sought from God and thanked God for was one that ultimately resided in him alone. He thanked God that he had become a better person. This is what theologians call effective righteousness: the righteous behaviour of God’s people that comes as a result of God’s gracious working in us.
This effective righteousness is very important indeed. It’s so important that we begin every service with a confession of sin, because insofar as our life has not been righteous, we need forgiveness. God will not shrug indifferently if we fail to live righteous lives – we need His gracious forgiveness if we are to remain reconciled to Him.
But this outward righteousness is not going to be our salvation at the last judgement – because even with God’s grace, our righteousness will never measure up to the demands of the Law: to love God with all our being and our neighbour as ourselves. With the help of God’s Holy Spirit, our lives are being brought into greater conformity with the will of God, but unless we have a righteousness greater than what can be achieved in a human lifetime, we have no hope. What we need is something that is compatible with God’s holiness: what we need is freedom from sin. And since the only way to remove sin is to kill it, there is no hope of that ever happening in this lifetime.
Which is why the tax collector went home more righteous than the Pharisee. He was not parading his achievement – and who knows, he may well have had some that would impress us – but was only conscious of his sin. But more crucially, he knew that he depended on God for more than help to live a godly life: he pleaded for mercy on account of his sins. He did not imagine that he could ever achieve the kind of effective righteousness that would be sufficient to offset his many sins. Hence his cry for mercy.
And so he was more righteous than the Pharisee. The Pharisee was impressively devout by God’s help; the tax collector was sinless by God’s mercy.
This why Jesus came into the world: not to help us to be better people, but to take away the sins of the world. He came so that we might not be made less unrighteous in ourselves, but to become entirely righteous in him. This the theologians call imputed righteousness: the righteousness of Christ given to us as a gift in Holy Baptism, and credited to our account through faith. This righteousness is not built up through effort, or worked at, but received entire and perfect through faith only on account of what Jesus has already done perfectly. Whoever repents of their sin and turns to God for mercy through Jesus Christ, will be justified – be entirely righteous – regardless of what their life looks like.
This is what is meant by justification through faith, and it is our only hope at the last judgement. All other kinds of righteousness will leave us without hope, because they will leave us to give an account for all our sins.
In other words, our salvation is always outside us. Being saved changes us—how could the work of the Holy Spirit be without effect in us?—but that change is not our salvation. We are saved when God has mercy on us through Jesus Christ, our Saviour, forgives us our sins and welcomes us into His kingdom.
And this realisation also explains the second problem with the attitude of the Pharisee. He was full of gratitude for all that God had done to enable him to pray, fast, tithe, and carry out other forms of self-discipline that were intended to help him in his relationship with God. But he was only concerned with that discipline, with the accessories of a life lived with God. He had little regard for the greatest commandments of the Law: to love God with your whole being and to love your neighbour as yourself. Instead of leading him to the fulfilling of the law in loving God and neighbour, God’s gift led him to a greater love of himself and a despising of his neighbour.
In an exchange with real-life Pharisees, Jesus quoted the prophet Hosea: “For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.” The Pharisee was concerned only with His own outward performance, while His heart remained closed both to God and to his neighbour.
God desires steadfast love and mercy, because He is a God of steadfast love and mercy. To think that you have done your duty to God, when you have neither received His mercy nor shown mercy to others, is the greatest of all lies. It closes your heart to both God and neighbour and shuts you outside God’s kingdom.
But to be a sinner begging for God’s mercy is to be the richest person in the world, because all the riches of God’s grace—the very holiness and righteousness of Christ—then become God’s gift to you. And having thus become rich beyond measure, we are freed to become just as profligate in showing mercy as He has been towards us. So long as we stare at ourselves, all we see and receive are what we find in ourselves. But when we look to Christ, the author and perfecter of our faith, we receive Him and are given the gift of serving Him in our neighbours.
May God the Holy Spirit fill you with true repentance, a true and living faith, and an ardent love for God and for your neighbour.
In the name of Jesus. Amen.