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‘Holier Than Thou’ or ‘A Tale of Two Men’
Luke 18:9-14


Pastor Kevin Vogts
Holy Cross Lutheran Church
Dakota Dunes, South Dakota
Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost—October 24, 2020

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen.

In this Peanuts comic strip, Linus asks Lucy, “Why are you always so anxious to criticize me?”  Lucy replies, “I just think I have a knack for seeing other people’s faults.”  “What about your own faults?” Linus says.  Lucy replies, “I have a knack for overlooking them.”

Many of the Peanuts comic strips by cartoonist Charles Schulz were inspired by the Bible, and there was actually a book written called The Gospel According to Peanuts.  Perhaps when he created this comic strip he was thinking of today’s Gospel Reading.

For, it is that knack we humans have, of seeing other people’s faults while overlooking our own, Jesus is talking about in this parable.  “A Tale of Two Men,” one who has Lucy’s “Holier Than Thou” attitude, of seeing other people’s faults while overlooking his own.

Two men go up to the Temple to pray, a Pharisee and a tax collector.  In those days there was no one more despised than tax collectors.  Not just because they performed an unpopular duty, but because of who they worked for.  The Romans conquered Palestine a century before.  With bloody vengeance and military might, the Romans kept the country under their thumb, a military dictatorship, harshly imposed upon a rebellious people.

The job of collecting taxes was given out as a reward to local citizens who cooperated with the Romans.  In the eyes of the people, these tax collectors were collaborators with the enemy, traitors, to their country, their people, and their God.

Making matters worse was the unusual, unjust system the Romans used for collecting taxes.  Tax collectors where actually called “tax farmers.”  Like tenant farmers, they were assigned a certain minimum revenue they had to turn in from their territory.  Whatever else they could coerce and bully out of people above that was theirs to keep.  Most of these “tax farmers” the Romans employed would charge many times the legitimate tax, threatening the poor taxpayers with bankruptcy and seizure if they didn’t pay up.

As a result, tax collectors were the most wealthy, but also the most hated people.  No one was considered more wicked and evil than these traitors.  No one was more hated than these collaborators with the enemy.  No one was more despised in the eyes of the Hebrew people than the tax collectors.

In complete contrast, no one was more esteemed in the eyes of the Hebrew people than the Pharisees.   Unlike the hated tax collectors, the Pharisees were revered and respected.  The name Pharisee means “the separate ones.”  As their name implies, they strived to separate themselves from the world and its evils.  To live what they considered a holy, pure, sinless life. 

Just as there was no one more despised than the tax collectors, there was no one more admired than the Pharisees.  But, that admiration led the Pharisees to a conceited attitude, like the Pharisee in the parable, who stands in the Temple proudly praying about himself, “God, I thank you that I am not like other men.”  A self-righteous, holier-than-thou attitude, considering themselves better than all others.

There’s a Missouri Synod pastor in Denver who goes out on the street with a video camera and interviews people, and uses these clips as illustrations in Bible class.  One time he asked non-church-goers, “What do you think happens in a church?”  One man replied, “That’s where they get together to talk about how good they are, and how bad everyone else is.”

How easy it is for us to be like the Pharisee in the parable, to have a holier-than-thou, self-righteous attitude.  To look down our noses at everyone else and say, “God, I thank you that I am not like other men; I thank you that I am not like him or her.”

But, Jesus shatters our self-righteousness: “You justify yourselves in the eyes of men,” he says, “but God knows your hearts. . .  Do not be deceived, God cannot be fooled.”  God is not fooled by your veneer of outward righteousness, just as Jesus was not fooled by the outward show of the Pharisees.  For, God sees into your heart!  What does he find there?  Jesus said, “The evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. . .  For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander.”

We must all confess that Jesus’ condemnation of the Pharisees often also applies to us: “Woe to you . . . you hypocrites!  You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside, but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean.  In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous, but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.”

Like the Pharisee in the parable, or Lucy in Peanuts, we have a knack for pointing out the faults of others while overlooking our own.  But, in God’s sight you and I are no better, no different.  As the Apostle Paul says in Romans, “What shall we conclude then? Are we any better? Not at all! . . . all alike are under sin.”

The Pharisee in the parable bragged about what he didn’t do:  “God, I thank you that I am not like other men—robbers, evildoers, adulterers.”  And, he bragged about what he did do: “I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.”  But, Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount that’s not good enough: “For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.”

In quality control there is what is called the “Acceptable Quality Level,” that is, the percentage of defects allowed, while still considered “good enough” to be classified as perfect.  But, “good enough” isn’t good enough for God.  For, God’s Acceptable Quality Level is nothing less than 100%, true perfection, completely sinless, absolute holiness.  But, Paul says in Romans, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”  That is why we cannot earn God’s favor, or purchase our pardon, or make up for our sins.  For, our works fall short of the perfection God requires.

“If we say we have no sin,” the Apostle John writes, “we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. But, if we confess our sins, God, who is faithful and just, will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”

“But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’”

The tax collector had the humble, repentant attitude of Psalm 51: “For I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me. Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight.” That is why he stood at a distance in the Temple, feeling unworthy to come close, perhaps hiding in the shadows.  For, he knew his transgressions, and his sin was always before him.  He knew he had only one hope: the mercy of God.  Repentant of his sin, beating his breast in sorrow and shame, daring not even to lift his eyes to heaven.  No bragging about his goodness, no relying on his self-righteousness, not pleading his own merits.  Throwing himself completely on the mercy of God.  Paul describes such a humble and repentant attitude in 1st Timothy: “Here is a faithful saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst.”

“But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’  I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God.  For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

Actually, that last sentence of the parable beautifully describes what Christ did for you, humbling himself, in his suffering and death upon the cross, so that you will be exalted to eternal life.  Paul puts it this way Philippians: “Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient unto death, even death on a cross.  Therefore God highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

“But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’”  The Greek word translated “have mercy” is used in the Bible to mean “pour out blood upon.”  It harkens back to the sacrifices of the Old Testament, to the sacrifices still being conducted in the Temple at the time Jesus told this parable. 

The book of Hebrews says, “Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness,” and in the Old Testament sacrificial system purification was received through the blood of slaughtered animals.  Those sacrifices all pointed forward symbolically to the ultimate sacrifice which was to come, God’s own Son, the promised Messiah.  As John the Baptist declared, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” 

Paul says in 1st Corinthians, “Christ, our passover Lamb, has been sacrificed for us.” And in Romans, “God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood.”  And in Ephesians, “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins.”  Peter says, “You were redeemed . . . with the precious blood of Christ, a Lamb without blemish or defect.”  And Revelation says, “With your blood you have purchased men for God from every tribe, language, people, and nation.”

When the tax collector prays, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner,” he is literally pleading, “Pour out the blood, the forgiving blood, on me, a sinner.”  Jesus still pours out his forgiving blood.  He poured out his forgiving blood upon you in the waters of Holy Baptism.  As Paul says in Romans, “All of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death.”  He pours out his forgiving blood for you in Holy Communion.  As Paul asks in 1st Corinthians, “The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ?”  “This cup is the new testament in my blood,” Jesus says, “which is shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.”

Jesus is also pouring out his forgiving blood upon you in Holy Absolution, when “as a called and ordained servant of the Word . . . in the stead and by the command of my Lord Jesus Christ I forgive you all your sins.”  And Jesus is pouring out his forgiving blood upon you whenever, as an old prayer says, you “read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest” his Word.

“God, have mercy—pour out the blood, the forgiving blood—on me, a sinner.” “I tell you that this man . . . went home justified before God.”

The key to understanding both this parable and today’s Old Testament Reading can be summed up in one word: faith.  Why was the sacrifice of Cain not accepted?  Not because it was inferior in itself, but because he did not believe in the Messiah, promised to his parents after the fall into sin.  And the Pharisee?  He didn’t think he needed a Savior, because he didn’t consider himself a sinner. 

Isaiah says that without faith, “All our righteous acts are like filthy rags.” The sacrifice of Cain and the good works of the Pharisee were like filthy rags in God’s sight, because they did not have faith in God’s promised Messiah.  But, the sacrifice of Abel, and the humble, contrite confession of the tax collector, were accepted by God because they were offered in faith, in God’s promised Messiah.

Today you go home from this temple justified before God.  Not because, as the Pharisee says, you are “not like other men,” somehow superior.  But, today, you go home from this temple justified before God because like the tax collector you trust in God’s Messiah, and you humbly confess, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

Amen.

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