In the name of the Father, and of the ☩ Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
Dearly beloved, there are only two ways that a man may approach God. He may either approach God on the basis of his merits, works, and good deeds; or, he may approach God on the basis of his abundant mercy. For this reason, there are only two ways to worship and pray to God. The one approaches God trying to appease God and offering to God something in hope that God might repay, as if God owed something to man. The other approaches God in humility, praying that God would cover sin, be gracious. One of them is a delusion.
Between these two approaches, there is no middle ground. For if someone argues that there is some sort of middle ground, then he either believes that God does not give enough grace to cover all sin, or he believes that the debt which is owed to God is not great, but rather something small. Both beliefs are fraught with error. The first devalues and belittles the mercy and loving-kindness of God. The other underestimates the weight of sin. That we might not fall into this trap and error, Jesus teaches us how to approach God through the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector (Luke 18:9–14).
However, before we begin we must note that this parable is not directed towards unbelievers. It is not concerned with those people who would identify themselves as atheists or as “spiritual but not religious,” people who would not even consider praying to God or even coming to the temple, coming to the Christian Church. Rather, this parable is directed towards those who would like to call themselves Christians. It is directed toward us, who are gathered together before this altar. For that reason, we ought to pay even more attention to this parable, as it concerns our very salvation, our justification before God.
In the Gospel accounts, Jesus clearly states that the Church is not pure and spotless as God has called her to be. Throughout all time, and in every place, the Church has always been a mixed congregation (AC/Ap VIII; see below). There have always been those who want to appease God on the basis of their merit, even despite their Church teaching them that “they cannot be justified before God by their own strength, merit, or works.” Even where the Gospel is preached, there are always those who are not satisfied with it or who think they have no need of forgiveness.
Here, we might consider the example of the Pharisee. He is in temple, perhaps praying during the morning or evening sacrifice. At both these times, a lamb was to be offered up as a sacrifice to God (Numbers 28). These bloody sacrifices were to remind Israel that payment for sin (death) was necessary. They were “visible sermons” of how God’s wrath was to be satisfied, with the shedding of blood. As the writer of Hebrews writes, “Under the law, everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” (Hebrews 9:22).
Yet, this Pharisee stands in the temple and has the audacity to proclaim, “I thank you God that I am not like the rest of men” (Luke 18:11). Despite the “visual sermon” of the sacrifice of lambs, the man does not recognize his sin. In fact, he believes that he is without sin, so much so, that he believes he is “unlike others.” He considers the gross public sins of others such as those who steal and oppress the poor, such as those who commit sexual immorality. He even thanks God that he is not like the poor tax collector who is there with him at the hour of prayer.
On the other hand, the tax collector thinks that he is “the sinner” (Luke 18:13). Not just “a sinner,” as some translations render it (ESV/KJV/NIV), but “the sinner” (NASB). His words echo what St. Paul himself says his first letter to young Timothy, “The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost” (1 Timothy 1:15). So also, many Christians who grieve their sins think the same, “I am the worst of all sinners. I am the sinner.” However, such Christians who cry out, “Lord have mercy on me, the sinner,” they are those who shall go home justified.
But on the other hand, Christians who think that they are worthy of God’s love and grace because of their good works and who think that God owes it to them to be good to them, they are like the Pharisee who says, “I am not like other men” (Luke 18:11). For anyone who prays in this way does not rely upon God’s mercy, and as result disdains and mocks the blood that was shed for sin (Ap V.211–212; see below). Just like the Pharisee has no regard for the sacrifice of the lamb, so also any Christian who claims that they are not like the rest of men has no regard for Christ, our Passover lamb, who was sacrificed for the sins of the world.
The difference between the two lies not in their knowledge of the Law. The Pharisee was right that the Law condemns the extortioner, the unjust, the adulterer, and even the tax collector. The tax collector even agreed with the Pharisees pronouncement! He acknowledged he was condemned by the Law. However, the Pharisee’s mistake was his belief that he had “no need of repentance” (see Luke 15:1–7), that he was “unlike the rest of men.” The difference between the two was that the tax collector was repentant, but that the Pharisee was unrepentant. The tax collector saw his need for forgiveness, but the Pharisee thought the blood that was shed was unnecessary, for he had no sin.
Here, we should listen to the Psalmist (Psalm 130:3), “If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities” (that is, “If You, O Lord, should count sins”), “O Lord, who could stand?” (The answer is of course, “No one.”). Neither the Pharisee nor the Tax Collector have any right to stand before God and be in his presence. Neither the Pharisee nor the Tax Collector have any right to ask anything of God. Both are under God’s wrath, so long as the debt incurred for their sin remains unpaid.
However, the Psalmist continues, “But with you there is forgiveness, that you may be feared” (Psalm 130:4). This is exactly the kind of fear that the tax collector had. It is the fear that belongs to a man of faith, who humbles himself before the Lord and acknowledges his sin, for he knows that if he confesses his sin, “God is faithful and just to forgive [his] sin and to cleanse [him] from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). And so God has done for us.
God has given his only Son, Christ Jesus, into death so that his blood might cleanse us from all sin (1 John 1:7). Christ died for the sins of the tax collector. He died for the sins of the extortioner. He died for the sins of the murderer. He died for the sins of the adulterer. He died for the sins of the self-righteous Pharisees. He died for the sins of pastors, both good and bad. And he also died for you, dear Sinner. Or perhaps I should say he died for you, “the sinner.” God made Christ “to be sin” even though he “knew no sin, so that in Christ Jesus we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21).
So, dear Christian, why are you here? Why are you in the temple of God? Why do you come before this altar? You come to receive that which you need: forgiveness. If you feel you need no forgiveness, repent, for you sin daily and surely deserve nothing but God’s wrath, as do all of us (Remember your Small Catechism? Fifth Petition of the Lord’s Prayer?). But if you dear Christian are “the sinner,” then know that the Lamb has been slaughtered, “your guilt is taken away, and your sin is atoned for” (Isaiah 6:7).
There is no need to offer God anything. There is no need to meet him halfway. There is no need to “make a deal” with God. In fact, you can’t do any of these things. There is nothing that you or I can offer God. We could live our whole lives dedicated to being the best people we could be, and we could never live up to God’s perfection. In the end, “all fall short of the glory of God” and “there is none righteous, not even one” (Romans 3:10, 23). So you have fallen short, whether you are the tax collector or the Pharisee. You have fallen short whether your sins are public and everyone knows them, or if they are private and known only to you and God alone.
Yet, the mystery of faith is this, “all are justified freely by his grace, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” because God has put him forth “as a propitiation,” that is, as a bloody sacrifice for us (Romans 3:24–25). So although you have sinned, although you might even feel at times you are “the sinner,” you have peace with God. Christ has paid for it on the cross. It is finished.
And now, risen from the dead, Christ is your high priest. He is your intercessor. He is your confessor. He brings your cries for mercy to the Father. When you pray and call out for forgiveness, God hears you for the sake of His Son. Your prayers do not fall on deaf ears. They are readily received. God delights in the sinner coming home, and He has made the way of your repentance through his Son’s blood.
“Let us then draw near to the throne of grace,” let us then draw near to this altar where the body is given and the blood is shed, “that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in every time of need.” (Hebrews 4:16) For God has heard our cry for mercy, and He has answered.
In the name of Jesus. Amen.
References to the Lutheran Confessions
“Our churches teach that one Holy church is to remain forever. The Church is the congregation of saints in which the Gospel is purely taught and the Sacraments are correctly administered.” (Augsburg Confession VII.1)
“Strictly speaking, the Church is the congregation of saints and true believers. However, because many hypocrites and evil persons are mingled within them in this life, it is lawful to use Sacraments administered by evil men, according to the saying of Christ, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’s seat” (Matthew 23:2). Both the Sacraments and Word are effective because of Christ’s institution and command, even if they are administered by evil men.” (Augsburg Confession VIII.1–2)
“If ungodly people declare that they are worthy because they have love and good works and ask for grace as a debt [i.e., something owed to them], they pray precisely like the Pharisee who says, “I am not like other men” (Luke 18:11). he who prays for grace in this way does not rely upon God’s mercy and treats Christ with disrespect. After all, He is our High Priest, who intercedes for us. So prayer relies upon God’s mercy when we believe that we are heard for Christ’s sake. He is our High Priest as He Himself says, “Whatever you ask in My name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask Me anything in My name, I will do it” (John 14:13–14). Without this High Priest, we cannot approach the Father.” (Apology of the Augsburg Confession V.211–212)
Fifth Petition of the Lord’s Prayer: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” What does this mean? We pray in this petition that our Father in heaven would not look at our sins, or deny our prayer because of them. We are neither worthy of the things for which we pray, nor have we deserved them, but we ask that He would give them all to us by grace, for we daily sin much and surely deserve nothing but punishment. So we too will sincerely forgive and gladly do good to those who sin against us.” (Small Catechism III.15–16)