O Lord God, heavenly Father, we beseech You so to rule and govern us by Your Holy Spirit that we may not forget our sins nor grow complacent, but live in continual repentance and take comfort only in this, that for the sake of Your Son, Jesus Christ, You will be gracious to us, forgive all sins, and give us salvation. Amen. [LPC #109]
God’s grace, mercy, and peace are yours from God our Father, through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
In the name of Jesus, Amen.
Many of you have been Christians for years, possibly even trained in the faith by your parents. Some of our neighbors are like that. Some are not. There is a word for those who don’t care about Christianity and don’t know why they should. It’s the word, “heathen.” It’s not meant to be an insult, but a description.
Numerically, I’m told that the number of heathens in the Pacific Northwest is high. So when I explain things that you may know very well, it’s not always for your own understanding, but sometimes to help you in living and explaining your faith among heathen neighbors. One of the things they need to learn on the narrow path of salvation are the basic Bible stories: histories provided by God that teach us what is true about ourselves, about God, and about the world.
One such story is in Genesis 4: Cain and Abel, the first two brothers. Many people know that Cain murdered Abel, but not why. It was based on the sacrifices they each offered to God from their occupations. We could talk about what they offered, but the more important question is why they each made this offering. It is explained in Hebrews 11:4. “By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain, through which he was commended as righteous, God commending him by accepting his gifts.” Abel presented his offering by faith. Two verses later, it says that without faith it is impossible to please God. That was Cain’s problem. His offering was some of the fruits of his labor as a farmer. God created the ground, the plants, and caused them to bear fruit. There was nothing wrong with what Cain offered. The problem was his reason for doing so.
After killing his brother, Cain was confronted by God, who mercifully applied a mark to Cain so that his life would be spared, even though he was a murderer. But Cain did not repent or learn from this. Instead, he fathered an entire family tree that lived impressive but faithless lives. Some were artisans and inventors. Some were founders of cities. Some finally intermarried with the other branch of the human family tree, so that almost the whole population of the world became basically heathen. There are many lessons in this for those who care about the reality of Creation. But the dramatic contrast between the two branches of the family tree was the same as the contrast between Cain’s sacrifice and Abel’s. Abel’s was accepted on account of faith.
In a similar way, Jesus says at the end of the parable in today’s gospel that one of the two men “went down to his house justified, rather than the other.”
The word justified means the same thing as “righteous.” The lesson here is that the other man thought he was righteous, just as Cain considered himself righteous on account of his fine sacrifice. But they were both mistaken.
It’s the same mistake made by many heathen people who live fine, admirable lives. They may not care whether God exists precisely because they think He would have no complaint against them. By their own standards, they are just fine. Do they suffer sometimes? Yes, but not because of anything like sin. In fact, some people have even said that suffering would not exist in the world if God were truly good and all-powerful. So our heathen friends are much like the proud man in our gospel: confident in themselves.
That man was a Pharisee, the conservative religious party among the Jews. St. Paul had been a Pharisee in his youth. They cared deeply about God and what He said. So we should wonder: how did such a group end up producing a proud man like the Pharisee in Jesus’ parable? Shouldn’t their attention to God’s Word have prevented that? This man boasted as proudly as any heathen! It’s a caution for everyone who cares about God.
To understand better this difference between the Pharisee and his neighbor in the Temple that day, we have to consider where they put their focus, their attention. The Pharisee couldn’t stop talking about himself. “God, I thank you that I am not like other men … I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.” Sometimes I’m that way too. (It’s always embarrassing to realize it later.) But this Pharisee has no self-awareness of his pride. He’s only aware of his great spiritual accomplishments. That was his focus.
The other man was a tax collector. Considered a traitor to his own people and faith, he had nothing to be proud of. “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” For those who remember your grammar, there’s a clear difference between these two prayers. The Pharisee’s subject was always the word “I.” The tax collector’s subject was the one to whom he prayed, “God.” Instead of dwelling on his own deeds, he was asking a deed from God: mercy. That was his focus.
In this parable, Jesus is training Christians especially about where our focus ought to be: not on our deeds, but on God’s mercy. That means our self-awareness of our deeds must be an awareness of how they fail to meet God’s standards. We should recognize sinful pride, but also what Isaiah writes (64:6), “We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.”
Think of the aspects of your outward life that separate you from your heathen neighbors. Maybe you don’t fast twice a week, but you do go to church on Sunday. Is that something to be proud of before God? Well, you’d have to do it every time, and when you’re here, you’d have to be here, even mentally. That’s not working so well, is it? Maybe you don’t give tithes of all you get, but you do present offerings to God of your time, talent, and treasure. Is this doing God any favors? Not when you consider that everything you have came from Him. Maybe you have a cleaner life or speech than certain heathen neighbors. Can that impress God when there are other heathen neighbors whose lives may be outwardly even better than yours?
The lesson here is not that living an outwardly good life is pointless or the effort has no benefit. The lesson is that it doesn’t stand up before God as anything good enough to earn His favor. There is sin in all that we do, because we belong to the family tree of fallen humanity. Presenting our little merit badges before God and expecting to impress him only makes it worse.
Let us focus instead on God’s mercy, which He abundantly provides through the blood of His only-begotten Son, Jesus Christ. Won on the cross for all, our salvation comes to us through God’s Word and Sacraments when we approach Him in humility, trusting His Word. You are justified in Him. You will return home at peace with God.
Soli Deo Gloria