Text: Luke 18:9-17
Twentieth Sunday After Pentecost, Series C.
Grace to you and peace from God our Father
and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Pharisees are the worst, aren’t they? They are judgmental. They are arrogant. They think they are better than everybody else. They are so proud of doing the right thing all the time. Pharisees are the worst! Yet, we cannot understand this parable correctly if we think of the Pharisee as a terrible person. When we hear the word “Pharisees”, we think of hypocrites, religious show-offs who lived to get praise and honour from people instead of God. We think of people who made detailed rules for others to live by but did not live by those same rules themselves. When Jesus first told the parable, people saw the Pharisees differently. What Jesus said about the Pharisee was designed to shock us so we would look at our own lives. The shocking part is that the tax collector “went home justified before God” and not the Pharisee. What were the Pharisees doing, and what were they not doing? What was wrong with their hearts? If we are to go home justified this morning, we need to see what Jesus is warning against.
Do Not Look at Yourself
Two men went to the temple to pray. Both were Jews and worshipped the same God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. First up was a Pharisee. They were earnest about serving God. They valued God’s Word and will and took great pains to observe all the Lord had commanded faithfully! They were an unofficial group filled with laymen and priests who really tried to practice their religion. This man’s community respected him and admired his good works and piety. No one would think of accusing him of immorality or dishonesty.
The Pharisee prays, standing off by himself, and at first glance, it may sound right. Who does he thank? The man gives thanks to God for all that he has accomplished. We could even say he gives all the glory to God for the good works that he has done. The Pharisee’s prayer shows that he believed this righteousness came from God. “God, I thank you that I’m a morally upright and religiously devout.” In other words, this man is not someone who thinks he can make himself righteous without God’s help. He believed he was marvellous because God made him that way. It doesn’t matter whether the man produced the righteousness by himself or whether God created it. That’s not the real problem.
Look at how he talks about his righteousness. The Pharisee was an example of moral living. He lived a clean life, and his marriage was solid. In his religious obligations, he went the extra mile. His offerings to the church were exemplary. He was not linked to scandals and did not associate with low-life’s. The people would have praised him for being a model citizen and an example of decency. The man was sure that he was doing more than God required. You would not find fault with the Pharisee’s morals. And for all this, he gives thanks to God.
Was this man trusting in the right thing? He was looking to his own righteousness. It’s his righteousness, not because he created it, but because he did it. How is he evaluating his righteousness? He’s not looking at God’s law, but at others. He didn’t think of himself as a sinner. He believed God made him superior to all those “sinners” who were not as good and virtuous as he was. He was happy to pat himself on the back. That is what he was trusting in. The problem is: he trusts in his own righteousness. It doesn’t matter where our righteousness comes from; the problem is trusting it. The Pharisee says: “The righteousness that I will present in God’s law court as the basis of my acquittal is my own God-given righteousness.” That is what he is counting on. And he was dead wrong (see FC SD III.32).
Many professing Christians today make the same error as the self-righteous Pharisee. Like the Pharisee, many think they have a place in the Kingdom because God is at work in their lives. We see the fruit of sanctification. We give offerings. We go to church twice a week in Lent. We have not ruined our lives with sinful behaviour, and we try not to associate with anyone who has. That should earn God’s praise, should it not? Do we secretly congratulate ourselves because we do our devotions and try to live morally decent lives? Do we think of ourselves as special because we haven’t fallen away from grace? Is that what you’re trusting in? Will you go home justified?
Look to the Mercy of God
The other man in the parable was a tax collector. Most people considered tax collectors to be traitors, sellouts, and collaborators. They betrayed their brothers for a buck and often skimmed a little off the top to line their pockets. It’s easy to see why the tax collectors were hated in Jesus’ day the same way we hate Pharisees today.
I want you to see the contrast between the Pharisee and the Tax collector. Whereas the Pharisee stood in prominence, the tax collector stood “far off,” probably just a step within the temple. He knows he’s not worthy of being in God’s presence. Whereas the Pharisee stood upright with eyes to Heaven, the tax collector could not bring himself to lift his head. The Pharisee was confident and proud. The Tax collector was ashamed and sorrowful over what he was and what he had done. The Pharisee thinks that God has made him worthy. On the other hand, the tax collector knows that he is entirely unworthy. He feels so unworthy and full of shame that he beats his chest with grief. His prayer is nothing more than “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” He looked away from himself; he trusted nothing in himself. He trusted in God. And Jesus said, “I tell you, this man, the one who could not lift his eyes to Heaven, the one who prayed for mercy, the tax collector, this man went home justified—declared righteous. Not the religious Pharisee but the sinful tax collector. He went home justified by God.”
Jesus wants us to see that nothing in you can acquit you before God’s judgement. Not your good works, not your religious devotion, and not even your sanctification will justify you. That is not how you are accepted and declared righteous in God’s law court. To be justified is to be acquitted. In God’s heavenly courtroom, when the charges are read against you, you want to hear “Verdict in favour of the defendant. All charges dropped. Case dismissed.” That’s justification. It means to be acquitted of your sins.
God justifies the ungodly, not the already godly. He forgives sinners, not saints, and acquits the guilty, not the innocent. Don’t hide your sins. Don’t compare yourself favourably to others. Compare yourself to the perfect standard of God’s Law. Don’t boast before God about what you’ve done for Him lately. And by all means, don’t attempt to justify yourself by your sanctification. Confess your sins. Own them; they’re yours. When it’s your turn to appear in the heavenly court before the Creator God, what will you look to and trust?
Where are we to look if we shouldn’t look to ourselves? Come to God, not with an armload of good works over which to brag. Look away from yourself with empty open arms, like a beggar eager to receive. The tax collector does not emphasize what he has done for God but casts himself upon God’s mercy, asking the Lord to provide atonement for him. Such atonement is supplied in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ. God provides righteousness for sinners who are not righteous. I am pleading with you on behalf of Jesus this morning that you look at and trust in Christ alone. Jesus was perfectly righteous, and by his bloody death, he has made atonement for all your sins and offered his perfect life in exchange for yours.
While life remains in you, place your whole trust in Christ’s death alone. Do not put your confidence in anything else. Commit yourself entirely to his death and cover yourself with it alone. If the Lord your God is going judge you, say, “Lord, between your judgment and me, I present the death of our Lord Jesus Christ. I can stand before you in no other way.” And if God responds that you are a sinner, say to Him: “Lord, I interpose the death of our Lord Jesus Christ between my sins and you.” And if He says that you deserve condemnation, say: “Lord, I set the death of our Lord Jesus Christ between my what I deserve and you, and His merits I offer for those which I should have yet do not.” If He says His wrath toward you is great, say: “Lord, I place the death of our Lord Jesus Christ between Your wrath and me. “And when you have finished saying this, say again: “Lord, I set the death of our Lord Jesus Christ between You and me” (Chemnitz, Examen, 1:511).
So, what’s the lesson of this parable? Here is what you do not want to do — trust in yourself that you are righteous. Suppose you put your confidence in your good works, religious devotion, or sanctification to save you. In that case, Jesus says you will not be justified. The good news of the gospel and this parable is that God is merciful to those who admit they are sinners. We do not have to pretend we are righteous; we can acknowledge that we have struggles and sin. We are not justified by our own righteousness, nor by what God works in us, but by the righteousness that Christ won for us by his bloody death upon the cross. Do not look at yourself. Look to Christ alone. Trust in Christ alone. That is the way to forgiveness and righteousness. That is the way to go home justified this morning.
May, the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.