The Eleventh Sunday after Holy Trinity – Luke 18:9-14
We see three believers in our Gospel reading today. Jesus isn’t talking to or about unbelievers, but He’s talking about those inside the household of faith! These three men teach us about repentance and the forgiveness of sins. Let’s look at them in turn.
First, we see the Pharisee. I think we’re too conditioned to see them as “bad” guys. The hearers listening to Jesus would have been shocked to hear Jesus speaking this way. This is how Dr. Luther described a Pharisee when preaching on this same text almost 500 years ago:
“The name ‘Pharisee’ indicates the most excellent, honorable, righteous people, who with all seriousness have devoted themselves to serving God and keeping the Law. St. Paul even boasts that before his conversion he was one of them.”
I don’t know how you judge someone’s Christianity or character. Maybe it’s that they know a lot of Scripture? Maybe it’s that they’re nice and polite. Maybe it’s that they do what they say they’re going to do? Whatever ruler you use to measure someone’s character or Christianity, the Pharisee would be impressive to you. They were the guys that lived piously. They served on the board of elders or board of trustees. Or they led the choir. Colloquially, you’d call them a mensch. Or a stand-up guy.
Sometimes we think that the Pharisees didn’t care about the Law because Jesus keeps calling them out. But they actually did care about the law a lot! They created laws that they believed were more severe than the Ten Commandments so that they could keep them. And here we see the start of the problem. If you think you can keep the commandments, even as a believer, you’re sorely mistaken!
We can see from the Pharisee’s prayer that he thinks he keeps the law: “I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all I get.” (v. 12) I’m sure he could’ve listed a bunch of other good things that he has done. He totally misses the point that he’s broken the fifth commandment by despising others in the first part of his prayer. St. James is quite clear:
“For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it.” (James 2:10)
In other words, there’s no such thing as “trivial” sins. Every sin, no matter how trivial it is in our eyes, is damnable. St. Paul says,
“For the wages of sin is death.” (Romans 6:23a)
This includes all manner of sin, from the biggest to the most trivial. It’s obvious that big sins are worthy of damnation. Is there anyone anywhere who thinks Hitler doesn’t deserve eternal damnation? Even unbelievers can concede that someone like Hitler deserves punishment for their sin. But we’re not always convinced that even the tiniest sin deserves punishment.
Satan will tempt you that your sin doesn’t really matter because it’s so trivial.
He will try to convince you that your little, trivial sin doesn’t really matter. After all, you meant well. Your intentions were right. Or worse, God possible couldn’t care about such little, trivial things. Did God really say?
Do you remember Uzzah in the Old Testament?
King David was bringing the Ark of the Covenant into Jerusalem after David was anointed king and had defeated the Philistines. Four guys would use big wooden staffs to loop through the rings of the ark so that they could carry it without touching the ark. Over long distances, it would be carried on a cart pulled by oxen. As they were carrying the ark on a cart, the oxen stumbled and Uzzah reached out his hand to touch the ark to make sure it was safe. He obviously had good intentions. And did God really say that NO ONE was to touch the ark? Yet we read, “And the anger of the LORD was kindled against Uzzah, and God struck him down there because of his error, and he died there beside the ark of God.” (2 Samuel 6:7) David was so fearful of God’s justice, that he delayed three months in bringing the ark into Jerusalem.
We also see something similar in the New Testament. Many in the early church sold all they had and gave it to the church to be used for the common good. This was a voluntary thing. God doesn’t command that you sell your goods and give the money to church so that we can have a commune. Ananias and Sapphira followed the example of their fellow believers and sold their property. They lied to St. Peter and the Holy Spirit that they gave all the proceeds to the church, even though there was nothing wrong with holding back some for themselves. They could’ve kept some back and reported that they gave 75% to the church. But they lied. Both were struck dead by God the Holy Spirit! We read that “Great fear came upon the whole church and upon all who heard these things.” (Acts 5:11)
The anger of God against sin is a terrifying thing!
Even for the believer!
To remedy this, we need to immerse ourselves in the Law of God. And I mean full-force, unflinching Law. Full-force law makes even mature Christians shudder with fear! This is how the preacher in Hebrews describes the Law of God:
“The Word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And no creature is hidden from His sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of Him to whom we must give an account.” (Hebrews 4:12-13)
The preacher of Hebrews says, “the Word of God” and he means the Word of God in its Law function. This includes all the commands of God and all the examples we have of foolish sinners in the Bible including Uzzah and Ananias and Saphira.
What does that mean for us?
First, we pray to God to send us His Holy Spirit to illuminate God’s Word. You can find this petition over and over again in Psalm 119.
Second, we regularly, even daily, examine ourselves against the Ten Commandments. And I mean the full meaning of the commandments. There are many great tools out there you can use to assist you with this.
Third, we regularly read the Bible and see how the Ten Commandments work themselves out in the lives of believers and unbelievers. Then our understanding of the Ten Commandments becomes much larger and clearer with the result that we see how big a sinner we really are.
The only thing that leads to repentance is an unflinching, honest look at God’s Law. And then we are in the position of the tax collector.
The tax collector is the second guy we meet in our Gospel reading. I don’t think I can overstate how despicable the tax collector was. First, he collected taxes for Rome. The Jews hated that they were occupied by a foreign power. Imagine if the Chinese or the Russians invaded our country and we had to pay them taxes. And abide by their laws and not our own! Second, the tax collector was seen as a traitor to his own kind. Imagine if one of your closest family or friends was the one collecting the taxes! Third, the tax collectors fleeced the people. They made their money by collecting more than was required to cover the taxes to make themselves quite wealthy. The only thing I can think of that compares to this in our day is a state lottery. They call it a “poor person” tax for a reason. The state fleeces the poor for its own benefit! And studies have shown that lottery proceeds don’t go primarily to where they say they’re going to go; in case you raise the objection in your mind that it goes for a good cause like education!
The tax collector’s sins include idolatry and extortion and the love of money among many others. But he knows this. He cannot even lift his eyes toward heaven. He can only beat his breast and mutter, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” (v. 13) He is obviously showing contrition. This is the first part of repentance driven by the Holy Spirit and the Law of God.
But Satan will tempt you to believe that your sin is too big to be covered by the blood of Christ. I imagine something like that is going through the mind of the repentant tax collector. I imagine it plagues some of you.
You may have sexual promiscuity or a kid out of wedlock or adultery or abortion in your past. You may have alcoholism or a gambling addiction or theft or physical abuse in your past. You may have even broken many or all of the seven deadly sins; lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, or pride. Whatever the case, Satan will tempt you to believe that your sin is too great to be forgiven.
You know John 3:16 by heart, I’m sure.
“For God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.”
The “so” doesn’t mean that God loved the world with extra emotion like we typically use it today. But it means He loved it in this manner: “He gave His only Son.”
“The world” doesn’t mean the physical world, but all the people who have ever lived, are living now, or will live in the future until Jesus’ second coming. So this includes all people including you and me.
“Gave His Son” means the crucifixion. God gave His Son over to a horrible death on behalf of the world. And the crucifixion doesn’t even come close to describing the torment of Jesus on behalf of your sin and the sin of all people!
“Believes in Him” means that salvation comes through faith and no other way. You certainly cannot bear the weight of God’s judgment against your own sin. You also certainly cannot do any works that make you righteous before God. Maybe before men, but most certainly NOT before God. This gift of forgiveness of sins comes only through faith in Jesus.
“Have eternal life” means nothing else than the forgiveness of sins. Adam and Eve were created to live for eternity. When they sinned, they were sentenced to both physical and spiritual death. The spiritual death happened immediately, and the physical death came later. The forgiveness of sin restores your righteousness before God so that you have both eternal physical life and eternal spiritual life. We don’t see it yet with our eyes, but it is a certainty based on the promise of Jesus. And it doesn’t matter how big your sin is! The work of Jesus on the cross is bigger!
What does that mean for us today?
When you are bogged down by Satan, the world, and your flesh reminding you what a horrible sinner you are, look at the Gospel. The Gospel is the Good News that Jesus has paid for your sin and given you His righteousness in your baptism. Just like the Law, the Gospel is all throughout Scripture. If you like to underline in your Bible, focus on the Gospel. Far too often, we focus on the law, or what we’re expected to do, and totally miss what God has done for us. Worse, you may read your Bible and totally miss Jesus. First and foremost, the Bible is all about Jesus and what He has done!
And Jesus is the third believer in our Gospel today. It may sound strange to say that Jesus is a “believer.” But He trusted completely in God His Father even when His Father abandoned Him on the cross for your sake. Being a believer is nothing other than trusting in the promises of God!
Jesus is fully Man. This is the only way that He could suffer and die in our place. He was truly tempted by the devil in the wilderness. He truly became tired. He truly became hungry. He truly bled and died on the cross.
Jesus is fully God. This is the only way that His atoning sacrifice atones for the sin of all people of all time. Since Jesus is fully God, His blood covers all your sin, no matter how trivial or how major. All your sin is covered by Jesus.
And Jesus is the reason you can have confidence that your sin is forgiven and that you “go down to your house justified.” (v. 14a) And this is where the sacraments come in.
In Holy Baptism, it is God Himself who comes to you and places His name on you and says, “You are my beloved Son [or daughter]; with you I am well pleased.” (Mark 1:11)
In Holy Absolution, Jesus Himself comes to you and says, “Peace be with you.” (John 20:19)
In the preaching, Jesus Himself proclaims repentance and the gospel through fallible men. (Mark 1:15, Luke 9:1-2)
In the Holy Supper, Jesus Himself forgives your sins and strengthens your faith with His very own body and blood “in, with, and under” bread and wine. (1 Corinthians 10:16; 11:23-26)
These are physical, concrete ways that you can know that Jesus has forgiven your sins and is with you in all your trials and temptations. We know this is true because Jesus is risen from the dead!
Alleluia! Christ is risen. He is risen indeed. Alleluia!
 AE79:pg. 4