9 He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: 10 “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ 13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ 14 I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”
15 Now they were bringing even infants to him that he might touch them. And when the disciples saw it, they rebuked them. 16 But Jesus called them to him, saying, “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God. 17 Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.”
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Jesus told this parable to those who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt. In other words, Jesus tells this parable to us. We are the ones who trust in ourselves. We trust our righteousness, or – maybe to put it better – our righteousness in comparison to others’ unrighteousness.
We have to understand that, in Jesus’ day, tax collectors weren’t just your regular, run of the mill IRS agents. The tax collector in the Temple was a truly evil man. You could compare the tax collector to an abortionist going into the poorest neighborhood and becoming fabulously rich by killing the unborn. The tax collector had done some truly vile things, and he had earned the disgust he received from the Pharisee.
But the Pharisee had equally earned God’s anger and disgust. The problem is that Pharisee looked into the mirror God’s perfect Law to see how he looked in comparison to others, “Mirror, mirror on the wall who is the sinlessist one of all?”
When the Pharisee prayed, “God I thank You that I am not like other men. I am not like those extortioners, unjust men, and adulterers.” Imagine if God responded, “I didn’t ask you to be like other men. I commanded you to be holy as I am holy.”
But the Pharisee responds, “Look at all these swindlers and cheats. Why are You going to be mad at me? Don’t You have more important sins to worry about?” The answer is, “No.”
When you are confronted with your own sin, don’t point to the sins of others and try to convince yourself and God that you are not that bad. It won’t work.
Imagine that you joined a rebellion against a king and killed his advisors and judges. When you stand on trial before the king, are you going to say, “I know I did some pretty bad things, but I didn’t kill as many as the other rebels. And I killed my victims quickly. I made sure they were dead before attacking the next guy. Those other guys left your friends to suffer and die slowly”? That isn’t repentance. It is pride cloaked in humility, and it isn’t going to fly.
The Pharisee’s problem was twofold. First, He was looking at himself in comparison to other sinners. And second, the Pharisee looked at the tax collector and saw him according to his sin and not according to his need.
The Pharisee forgot that the purpose of the Temple was to make sinners, all sinners, clean and restore them to God’s mercy. God desires all people to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth. The truth that, in Christ, God has won and purchased salvation for all sinners. Because of this, because he had forgotten that God desires mercy and not sacrifice, the Pharisee went home damned.
Now, here’s the rub: When Jesus told this parable, it would have been unthinkable that the tax collector goes home justified rather than the Pharisee. The mindset of Jesus’ day was that tax collectors were bad news. Today, we flip it. In our minds, a Pharisee equals bad news. And you are just as quick to judge the Pharisee as he was to judge the tax collector. Your prayer goes something like this, “God I thank you that I am not like other men, self-righteous jerks, elitist, holier-than-thou pigs, or even this Pharisee.” Repent.
We should be sympathetic to the Pharisee. Imagine if you came into church and had to be in the same sanctuary and pews as the one who had robbed you and humiliated you.
The Pharisee was hurt. The Pharisee had been betrayed. He had been slandered. For all his self-righteous, pompous, holier-than-thou attitude, we know that the Pharisee had felt shame, guilt, and regret. No temptation – even the temptation to view yourself as holier than others – no temptation has overtaken you except what is common to man (1 Cor. 5:13).
We are all too easily offended. We know what is and isn’t acceptable behavior. But we quickly excuse our lack of charity and love toward others and hold everyone else accountable when they look crossly at us. All of us will admit that we behave badly, and we would all like a little understanding and sympathy. But the sympathy you want from others is the same sympathy you should show to them.
Instead of being annoyed or angry when someone is rude to us, cuts us off in traffic, or even spreads a nasty rumor about us, we should have pity for and be kind to them. Of course, pain and bitterness doesn’t excuse bad behavior. But wouldn’t life be better if we did unto others as we would have them do unto us? I think Jesus said something about that.
Anyway, the Pharisee went home damned. He didn’t ask God for mercy because, in his mind, he didn’t need God’s mercy. The Pharisee looked into the mirror of the Law to see how good he was. And since he saw the tax collector in the corner of the reflection, he figured he was just fine. But mirrors aren’t for looking at others. The mirror of God’s holy and perfect Law is meant to show you how sinful and disgusting you are. The mirror of God’s holy and perfect Law shows that even all your righteous deeds are like filthy rags (Is. 64:6) – like the stuff you see through the hole of an outhouse.
The tax collector was sorry for his sins. He was humble before God as he beat his chest and cried for mercy, and he was humble before man as he stood far off. The tax collector confessed (out translation misses it), “God be merciful to me (lit.) the sinner.” The sinner. He didn’t know about anyone else’s sin, just his own. He begged for mercy and went home justified.
The tax collector threw himself to the mercy of God, and it was a good bet. Jesus came not for the righteous, but sinners. Sinners know that all thing they bring to God is sin and resistance. “Here God. All I have to give You is my sin.”
Brothers and sisters, you don’t have to be a big sinner to need forgiveness. You can be a little sinner. Your God loves both sinners with public shame and Pharisees with secret pride. You have a God who is always more ready to hear than you are to pray and who gives more than you desire or deserve.
Jesus died for you and rose again for your justification. Jesus absolves you today. He restores you and sends you home justified, declared righteous for His sake. Amen.
The peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.