This Man Went Home Justified
A sermon based on Luke 18:9-14
Wednesday, March 1, 2017 – Ash Wednesday
"Isn't it ironic?" Irony is that shocking, sometimes humorous, result when you see the opposite of what you would naturally expect. Apologetics is a defense of the Christian faith. But ironically "apologize" means to say you're sorry for something and not defend your actions.
Likewise, the word "justify" usually means to make your actions seem right. And that usually involves giving excuses. "It wasn't my fault. He started it. Shouldn't I have behaved that way under those circumstances?" But ironically, the Biblical concept of justification is the opposite: Making no excuses at all and owning up to your sin. Then God justifies and declares one to be right.
Tonight we hear the ironic story of two men: One was morally upright, a good, honest citizen, but who, ironically, was not justified or right in his actions. The other, was a cheater, a liar, a traitor, and a thief. And ironically, he was the one who went home justified or right in his actions.
This familiar parable is found in Luke 18:9-14…
9 To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable: 10 "Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: 'God, I thank you that I am not like other men—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.'
13 "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.'
14 "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."
This is really a tale of two men. The first was a man who sincerely tried to follow God's laws. Ironically the word "Pharisee" is almost synonymous with "hypocrite." But that's not what it meant back then. When you heard "Pharisee" you thought "good guy." In fact, the apostle Paul was a Pharisee at one point and was very proud of that label.
You see, the Pharisees (unlike the Sadducees) believed that the Word of God was just that. It was divine. It was true. And it was meant to be taken seriously. And a Pharisee did all that he could to keep it, even going above and beyond to make sure he kept the rules. If 800 steps were too many to take on the Sabbath, he would be sure to take no more than 700—just in case.
Maybe in today's terms Jesus would have used "pastor" or "church elder" instead of "Pharisee." The point is, these were people that most looked up to and admired as truly good people.
And this particular Pharisee went to the temple to pray. He addressed God to let him know all his good deeds (in case God missed any). And wanted it known that he wasn't a cheat or a liar. He didn't sleep around or ever have sex outside of marriage. He gave his offerings generously above and beyond the tithe, giving not just his money, but what he grew in the garden.
"God, I thank you that I am not like other men—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get."
In today's terms we might say, he was a good church-goer, regular in attendance, a key giver, who didn't even have a traffic ticket on his record. This is a guy we'd want to have in our church, wouldn't we?
Well… ironically, he was the one who went home without being justified. Oh, he was justified before people all right. They thought he was just great! They aspired to be him. But… he wasn't justified before God.
Why not? Because he wasn't perfect. Sure, he was a great guy if he compared his behavior to others. But… if he compared himself to God and the holy standard he set forth in his law, he didn't measure up.
You see, God doesn't just ask for regular church attendance, generous offerings, and an outwardly moral and upright life to be right with him. No. God demands absolute perfection. So, ironically, those who want to earn God's love by what they do, must get rid of a whole lot of God's law. They pretend to be morally pure while ignoring the fact that lust is a sin as bad as adultery in God's sight. They pretend to be generous; ignoring the fact that greed is just as bad as theft. They pretend they're good and ignore the most dangerous sin of all… pride.
I say that pride is the most dangerous sin of all not because it's a worse sin than any other, but because it leads people to think that they don't really need Jesus; not that much. Pride was this man's downfall. Luther once asked, "How can God fill a cup that is already full?" What a sad and ironic end to this fictional Pharisee.
Now, I have a question for you and don't answer out loud, but do answer it to yourself and answer honestly: When you heard me read this parable tonight, did you think to yourself, "Thank you, God, that I'm not like that Pharisee."? Did you think, "Thank you, God, that I'm not that proud!"? How, ironic, isn't it, that we can be proud of how humble and repentant we are? How subtle this self-righteous attitude can be!
We're like the man who was given the award for being the most humble man on earth. But as soon as he received it, it was immediately taken away because he proudly accepted it. That's how subtle and sneaky pride is. It creeps in when we're not even aware. And it's that same subtle pride that has led millions to hell while they thanked God that they were so good.
But Jesus talked about a second man, who couldn't have been more different than the Pharisee. The tax collector wasn't nearly as good as the Pharisee. He didn't keep the law. He didn't even try. He was a liar, a cheater, and a traitor.
The way tax collection worked in that culture was that the Roman government (the enemy that was occupying their land!) took bids to see who could collect how much. They took the highest bid and that's what they would collect. Anything above that was "salary" for the collector. So the collectors would greatly inflate the figures. And if citizens wished to dispute the amount that they owed they would soon find themselves talking to the pointy end of a Roman sword or spear.
Even though IRS auditors may still not be popular today, maybe in today's terms "tax collector" would really be "drug lord" or "mafia boss"—someone who's getting rich by a trade that mercilessly hurts and kills others.
Of course, we'd expect Jesus to say, "Don't worry. He'll get his. He deserves the hell that's coming to him." But ironically, that's not what we hear in Jesus' parable. Ironically, the tax collector was much closer to God than the Pharisee because he recognized—and was ashamed of—his sin.
"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.'"
Luther once said, "How can God fill a cup that is full?" But he went on to say, "But the cup that's been emptied by God's law, God can and will fill up."
This tax collector knew that he deserved nothing good from God. He knew he was a terrible sinner and that he sinned not just against his nation as a traitor or his neighbors as a thief, but against God as a rebel against his holy law. He knew that there was no way that he could ever justify his actions. But he trusted that God could. And he trusted that would justify him, not with excuses, but with a sacrifice made in his place.
Friends, how ironic that, "this man, rather than the [Pharisee], went home justified before God," not because of his behavior, not because of how good he had been or promised to be moving forward, and not even because of his repentance. He went home justified because of God's grace given to him—the same grace that God has given to you and to me through his Son, Jesus.
So don't be like the proud Pharisee, friends, who thought he had little need for forgiveness. But follow this fictional tax collector's good example. Humble yourself before God. Admit that you deserve nothing good from him, even for all your attendance, offerings, and morals. All you deserve is hell.
But rejoice that he sent Jesus to pay for your sin—for your theft, for your evil, for your adultery… for your lust, and your greed, and your pride—yes even your pride, your self-righteousness, and your hypocrisy. You're forgiven of it all because Jesus humbled himself before God and before men. He took on flesh to be under his own law to keep it perfectly in your place. He took on flesh to suffer and die and endure hell in your place. And through him and through faith in him, you, sinner that you are, are justified before God—declared to be right in all that you've ever thought, said, or done.
Sir Isaac Newton, the great mathematician and physicist, invented the telescope, made huge advances in optics, mechanics, and the study of gravity, and is generally considered the most influential scientist of all times. You'd think he might be susceptible to pride. But when he was once asked what his greatest discovery was, he humbly answered, "I have made only two really important discoveries in my life: the one, I know that I am a very great sinner; the other, I know that Jesus is an even greater Savior."
Dear friends, those are the only two discoveries that really count in the end. May you learn from the ironic parable of Jesus both lessons. You are not pretty good. You are not better than most. You're not better than the drug lord or mafia boss. But you, like the Pharisee, like the tax collector, like Isaac Netwon, like all the rest of us are a very great sinner. So empty yourself of your pride. Then trust that Jesus is an even greater Savior, that he has taken all your sin away, and let him fill your empty cup wit his grace. In his name, dear friends, amen.