I’m out of town this weekend, so an elder is reading my preaching. This is slightly revised from 2008.
In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit
Cain and Abel. Isaac and Ishmael. The Pharisee and the Tax Collector. All three are Biblical witnesses to the fact that there are two religions in the world. One religion is the Law. Do these things and you will be saved. The other religion, the only true religion, is the Gospel. You can do nothing to save yourself. You receive by faith the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the nations.
Cain gave an offering to God because he had to, not because he wanted to. He did not give the best of his flock as brother Abel did. When God was not pleased and warned Cain about sin lurking in his heart, Cain took the matter into his own hands and murdered his brother. Cain tried to silence the Gospel way in favor of the Law way.
Abraham took matters into his own hands concerning the promise of a son. He thought God wouldn’t follow through on His promise. So Abraham slept with Sarah’s maid and along comes Ishmael. Not long after comes Isaac through Sarah, just as God promised. The two children and their mothers contended. In the end only one could stay. Cast out the bondwoman and her son, for the son of the bondwoman shall not be heir with the son of the freewoman. Ishmael and his mother had to go.
We look at the Pharisee and see a champion of God’s Word. He should be an example in both life and doctrine. He goes to the temple to pray. He prays with the proper posture. Yet what comes out of his mouth tells a much different story.
God, I thank You that I am not like other men. The Pharisee’s first words are all too familiar to us. We’ve prayed or thought the same thing too many times. We look at our neighbor or a family member and think, “Thank God I’m not him or her.” When the intent is to show off before God and men that we are not as bad as we think we are, we fit comfortably into the shoes of Cain, Ishmael, and the Pharisee. We’re careful to mention what they are just as the Pharisee does: extortioners, unjust. We even add a heaping dollop of whipped cream on the matter when, like the Pharisee, we add a title that may or may not be true, like adulterer. We are not given to pry into the secret things of our neighbor, but we can’t help it when it makes us look good and our neighbor look bad. One should never let the truth get in the way of a self-righteous prayer.
How about some sprinkles on top of that whipped cream? I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess. It’s not enough to be pious. The Pharisee need only fast once weekly and give tithes of certain items. But he’s a super faster and tither.
Like the Pharisee we think we can make things right with God by what we say and do. Jesus is only for those who cannot help themselves. Sure, we say and do all the right things before God and others. But the intent of the heart does not match the words we speak. That’s Cain’s problem. That’s the Pharisee’s problem, especially when compared to that filthy, rotten tax collector.
Filthy and rotten are mild epithets compared to extortioner, unjust, and adulterer. How about traitor? A tax collector is most often a Jew who collects taxes for the Roman Empire, taxing more than what is owed and pocketing the extra as an unsolicited tip. Tax collectors are right up there with sinners at the bottom of the food chain in Bible times. They deserve nothing but scorn. They really don’t deserve to be in the temple praying. That’s what the Pharisee was driving at when he said the things he said in his prayer. The cheat should be outside with all the unworthy schmucks in the temple courtyard.
We could add our hearty “amen” to the Pharisee’s words. But take another look at the sleazy tax collector. He stands far off. He would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” Chances are the tax collector will walk out of the temple and sin again. The same can be said about you and me. Chances are he will walk into the temple the next day and pray the same prayer. We also will do the same next week as we do this week.
It’s not so much the tax collector’s humility we should admire. It’s what he says and the intent of his heart. The guy beats his breast. In the Middle East to this day men rarely beat their breast as a sign of contrition unless it’s a very serious matter. Men beat their breasts at Jesus’ crucifixion; that’s about the only other time in Scripture we see it.
What’s more remarkable is what the tax collector says: God, be merciful to me, a sinner! He gets it! He gets what temple worship, and Christian worship, is all about. When he cries for mercy, he literally means for our Father in heaven to apply His Promise of atonement to us. The tax collector, you, and me, begs for Jesus’ blood and righteousness to cover us. That’s what temple worship pointed toward: the pardon of sins through the death of the Lamb of God Who takes away the sin of the world. He begs Christ to put the world to rights.
You can almost hear those who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and despised others gasp with shock. Jesus says the tax collector went to his house justified rather than the Pharisee. That’s not right! That’s precisely the point. The attempt to keep the Law of God perfectly doesn’t earn the Father’s favor. No other religion alongside or in place of the religion of the Gospel won’t give the Father’s mercy either. Jesus alone delivers the Father’s mercy. Jesus alone suffers the punishment the Law demands for us. Jesus suffers that punishment willingly. Jesus sits on the mercy seat of God when he lies on the cross. Instead of hoarding the benefits of His death, the Father bestows His Son’s blood and righteousness to us. That’s what it means to have mercy.
Our Father’s mercy does not deal with us according to our sins. Our Father’s mercy deals with us according to His righteousness given to us through His Son Jesus. Forgiveness is not ours for the taking. Forgiveness is Jesus’ to give us though we neither earn nor deserve it. He gives forgiveness to us as a gift. That’s the Gospel way. That’s the tax collector’s way. That should be the Pharisee’s way but he can’t see the forest for the trees. Moses gets in the way, though Moses steps out of the way to receive the Promise of mercy too.
We pray for mercy every week in the Divine Service when we sing: Lord, have mercy upon us. Christ, have mercy upon us. Lord, have mercy upon us. That’s exactly what He does. He gives mercy when through His called servant He declares sins forgiven and forgotten because of Jesus. He gives mercy when through His called servant He puts His Son’s True Body and True Blood in our mouths. He gives mercy when through His called servant He proclaims repeatedly the favorable season of the Lord. Thanks be to God there is no other way to heaven than the way the tax collector walks; the way of Jesus, Who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.
In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit