Todd A. Peperkorn, STM
Holy Cross Lutheran Church
Trinity 11 (August 19, 2012)
Luke 18:9-14 The Pharisee and the Publican
TITLE: “The Mercy of God”
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen. Our text for this morning is from the Gospel lesson just read, with focus on these words, And the tax collector, standing afar off, would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’
I remember quite vividly about this time last year buying a car. Well, we actually did it twice, but that’s a different story. One thing that’s for sure if you are buying a car, or a house, or groceries, is that you get to learn all about the great American pastime of standing in line. We Americans have kind of developed standing in line to a fine art form. We approach it a little differently than many others. The English consider standing in line, or queing as they would call it, a moral obligation and their personal lot in life. If you’re English, then to stand quietly in line is what you do best. If you’re French, you generally don’t believe in lines at all. It’s probably the Germans who really excel at line standing more than anyone else. But we Americans work very hard to pretend that standing in line is anything but standing in line. We talk on the phone while standing in line. We read magazines. We shop even while we’re waiting to buy something else. I wrote part of this sermon while standing in line.
But the bottom line for us is that standing in line means that you are at someone else’s beck and call. It means you must wait. It means that someone else is in control of your time and that they’re probably going to take control of your money pretty soon. This is why one of the greatest social faux paus of all time is to cut in line. Starting at kindergarten and even earlier, we all learn that you never, never cut in line. And possibly the only thing more personally embarrassing than getting caught cutting in line is to learn that you are actually in the wrong line. An hour at the DMV, wasted because you were in the commercial line instead of the personal line. It can happen. Trust me.
We have in the story of the Pharisee and the Publican a story about queing, or waiting in line. The Pharisee, of course, is the line cutter. He moves right to the front of the line. He plops all of his credentials down on God’s desk. He looks around at all of the other sinners standing in line for God’s mercy, and he says, “I thank God that I am not like other line standers, — extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess.” It is as if he were to jump right to the front of the line and say look at me! I am worthy of everything that you have to give to me. I do not sin like these poor saps waiting in line for your mercy. In fact, I don’t need to be in line at all. I thank you, God, for me and for all of my great works that I do.
Not only was the Pharisee a line cutter, but he was in the wrong line entirely. He went to church. He was in the mercy and forgiveness line, but he wanted neither mercy nor forgiveness. In fact, he didn’t want or need God at all. He came to church without God and he left the same way he came.
But don’t be so quick to condemn this Pharisee, for we have all fallen into these same traps. How many of us give 10% of our earnings to the Lord? Now it is easy to point out now that they had good works which don’t matter. We have faith, that is what matters. This is the favorite way of speaking for lazy Lutherans like you and I. We can easily look at others in the community, even other churches that do more good, and response by saying, “Ah, that is true, but we have justification. We have the Gospel. We don’t need good works.” We thank God that we are not like Roman Catholics who pray to Mary, or like Episcopalians who muddle up the Gospel, or Methodists who give to some hopeless cause, or the Assemblies of God church, where you turn in your tax forms with your memberships. We rightly divide Law and Gospel, and therefore we are worthy to judge everyone else’s faith and righteousness.
Dear Christians, when we condemn the Pharisees, we must always begin with THIS Pharisee right here. This Pharisee is always the hardest one of all to recognize, for when you are so busy judging other people, making sure you are farther up in the line, you do not look at yourself, and judge yourself according to the Word of God.
But even that is not the worst kind of Phariseeism. The worst kind is taking the Law of God and using it to delude yourself into thinking that because you keep the external rules, now you are good and right, and God therefore must agree with your own good opinion of yourself. With such a mindset, you are far away from God, because you have used the Law of God, not to show you your sin, but to create a barrier, a wedge between you and God’s mercy. If God’s Law is used for self-justification, then we are missing God’s purpose entirely. Repent.
There was another sinner in line who recognized he was in the presence of the holy, personal, living God. He knew he was in God’s presence, and he was afraid. He didn’t know the right words. He barely made it into the line in church at all, he was so afraid. That line was for the people who had God under control, that line was for those who had tamed God into doing their bidding. But not for the sinner. He would not so much as lift up his eyes to heaven, but cried out simply, God, be merciful to me, a sinner. This man was in the right line. He came seeking mercy, because he knew he did not have it in himself. And you know what? God gave it to him.
Here is the point, dear friends in Christ. The true realization of sin does not come when you measure yourself against other people and their works. The true realization of sin comes when you recognize that you are in the presence of the holy God. When you stand before God with every secret laid bare, every sin open and known, then you are in the presence of God. Then you are no longer pretending of Pharisizing by using other people. When you are alone with your sin, and you stand before God with nothing in your hand, when you recognize that you have no rights, that God owes you nothing, then there is a place for mercy. You cannot work out a deal with God. There is no payment plan. There is no deceiving Him. You either enter his presence on the merits of your own so-called works, or you go there and plead for mercy.
The Pharisee claimed his rights. He didn’t need God. He spoke for God and he gave the verdict. He declared himself righteous. Therefore he went down to his own house without God, just as he went up to the Temple. But the Publican had not such pretenses. He knew all his rights were forfeited. He knew God could do anything He wanted. He was a sinner and needed God, and he could only stand on the mercy of God. He went to the temple for God’s mercy and he got it. He went home justified. He went home with God, for he had been in the right line, marked “For sinners only.”
You see dear friends, God did not condemn the Pharisee because of his good works, nor did he commend the Publican for his sin. The point is faith. The Pharisee did not need God and so thought to do everything himself. The Publican surrendered every claim. He knew that everything rested on the mercy of God. And mercy is only possible when you have given up every pretense of your own self-worth and self-righteousness. As one pastor from years ago put it, “Where there is not God’s mercy, there is only hell.”
God’s mercy, dear friends, goes deeper than you can possibly imagine. He showed this love to you by sending His Son to die on the cross, so that you would receive mercy. So repent of your self-righteousness and Phariseeism. Trust that the God of mercy loves you with an everlasting love, that He sent His Son Jesus to die for you. Come to His Altar of Mercy so that He may give you what you need more than anything in the world. Come to His altar so that you may go home justified. Get in line. “Remember that in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem the entrance door is small and low. It is only possible to get in on your knees.”
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in true faith, unto life everlasting. Amen.
With apologies to and in honor of Dr. Normal Nagel, Graduate Professor of Systematic Theology at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis.