"The Pharisee and the Tax Collector"
Pastor Aaron A. Koch
Mt. Zion Lutheran Church
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit
Let me ask you a question: When we talk about sin, are we referring primarily to the problem of how we need to get our outward actions under control, or are we referring to a deadly inward spiritual condition? Are we simply dealing with the need for a change in behavior, or are we really dealing with a fallen human nature that is corrupted to the core?
The way you answer those questions is very important. For it will define the way you approach God and worship Him. If you think that religion is primarily about keeping your behavior in line, then you will become like the Pharisee. Now to us the Pharisee sounds awfully arrogant and self-absorbed-and he is. But I'm sure he thinks that he is pleasing God. "Look God, I've gotten my actions under control just like you want. I fast and pray, I give money to the church, I don't engage in the sins that exist all around me in the world. I thank You that I am a good person and not like that thieving, unclean tax collector over there." The Pharisee doesn't need a God to save him, just a god to give him a little boost here and there and point him in the right direction so that he can make his own way in life and work his way to heaven through his own doing.
People today still think of religion in the same way, as a sort of spiritual self-help program, a way of getting yourself right with God. You must admit that you have a bit of the Pharisee in you, too. You may say the words, "I, a poor, miserable sinner . . ." but often you don't really think you're all that bad; you've just made a few mistakes and have a few flaws that need correcting, that's all. In fact, I bet there have been times during the general confession here when you couldn't think of a single sin you've committed recently. Or the ones you are aware of have long since been rationalized away as no big deal. And have you ever found yourself comparing yourself to others and priding yourself that you're not like them? The Pharisee's worship still exists today even among us and in our hearts.
And the Pharisee's worship also shows itself today in much of what is going on in so-called contemporary worship. Like the Pharisee, much of contemporary worship fails to see the gravity and the seriousness of the sinful condition, and so it tends to focus more on behaviors and feelings. Instead of centering primarily on Christ and His works, sermons will focus more on your life and your works. Principles for living will be the theme of the preaching. How to improve your relationships or be more successful or live the victorious Christian life will be the focus. People today are clamoring for worship that is more relevant and practical-in other words, worship that's all about them. Of course, the Pharisee's worship was also all about him. Remember his so-called prayer? "God, I thank you that I am not like other men. . . I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess."
And because much of contemporary worship also fails to recognize
the holiness and majesty of God, it ditches the historic liturgy in favor
of something a little more casual and entertaining and comfortable, as
if being casual was fitting in the presence of the King of kings.
It uses styles of music which tend to appeal more to emotion and personal
taste rather than to meditation on the words of God. And it's always
coming up with new and different orders of service, betraying more of an
emphasis on the moment rather than on what abides forever. We think
the Pharisee is arrogant. It's time we start recognizing the arrogance
of those pastors and laypeople who think that they can take the church's
liturgy and cut and paste it and do whatever they please with it as if
it were their own. It's one thing to have new hymns and new settings
of music which are theologically sound and appropriate for divine service.
It's quite another thing to take the time-tested treasures of the church
and cavalierly cast them aside in favor of shallow songs and chancel dramas
and musical performances which are more fitting for a theater than for
a holy house of God.
You also must learn to humble yourself before God in this way, to recognize the absolute seriousness of the situation and your desperate need for help and mercy. Don't fool yourself into thinking that it's just a matter of getting your act together. For the Epistle says that we all are "by nature children of wrath." St. Paul says in Romans 7 that nothing good dwells in us in our fallen state, nothing that could even begin to put us right with God. There is a spiritual cancer eating away at you. That's why the wrong things you don't want to do, you end up doing. And the good things you do want to do, you don't. That's why idle hands are the devil's workshop. That's why you fall so easily into temptation when you know you can get away with it. And so we must finally cry out with St. Paul, "Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God, (He will deliver me) through Jesus Christ our Lord."
This is what the Scriptures mean when they say that we are saved by grace. It's entirely God's doing in Christ. We were dead in trespasses and sins. And dead people can't save themselves. But God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive again through Christ's resurrection from the dead. He takes people like us, who are no better than the miserable tax collector, and through the shed blood of Christ, He cleanses us of our sin and declares us to be righteous in His sight. "For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast."
The Pharisee trusted in himself that he was righteous. He foolishly relied on his own good works, and in the end he was damned. But we do not believe in ourselves as the world would have us do. We believe in Christ and His good works. We are saved through faith in Him alone. That is what saves the tax collector, not simply his humble plea, but his believing in Christ. For when the tax collector prays for mercy, he uses a word that has to do with the sacrifices there in the temple, which foreshadowed Good Friday. The tax collector desires the atonement for sin that only God can provide through the shedding of blood. Remember, it was precisely at these times of public prayer in the temple when an animal would be offered up on the altar according to God's command to cover the sins of the people. Therefore, at the very moment in which the tax collector prays, "God be merciful to me a sinner!" his prayer was being answered there in the sacrifice which the Lord provided. The tax collector trusted in this mercy of the Lord, and he yearned for the day when the Messiah would come and fulfill all these things.
So it is that the tax collector goes down to his house justified, declared righteous in God's sight. And so it is for each of you who pray in humility and penitent faith, "God be merciful to me a sinner!" For the sacrifice has been made also for you, not on the altar of the temple, but on the altar of the cross. There Christ, the Lamb of God was offered up once and for all. By His shed blood your sin has been fully atoned for. As it is written, "You who once were far off (as the tax collector stood far off) have been brought near by the blood of Christ."
You will go down to your house justified today not because of what you have done for God, but because of what He has done for you. He humbled Himself even to the point of death, so that you might be exalted with Him to His life. He baptized you and turned you from a child of wrath to a child of grace. He comforts you now with His words of mercy and feeds you His own true body and blood, like a holy medicine, like a powerful chemotherapy, to cure your sin-disease and to prepare your bodies for the resurrection to life everlasting on the Last Day.
Brothers and sisters of Christ, let us ever come before God as the tax collector did, humbling ourselves before Him, trusting in His mercy, that He may lift us up in due time. Let us say in the words of the hymn writer,
"Nothing in my hands I bring,
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit
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