Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost (C—Proper 25)
October 23, 2016
Text: Luke 18:9-17
The Pharisee is full of himself. We recognize right away that this is the problem. He’s arrogant and self-righteous. He trusts in himself and treats others with contempt. He thanks God that he is not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even his fellow-worshiper, this tax collector. Like Cain, the Pharisee brings an offering to the Lord. He brings himself and his good works, his fasting and tithes, his meticulous keeping of the Law, his better-than-the-rest-ness. And the Lord has no regard for such an offering. For here is the problem: The Pharisee comes full of himself. He is already full. And so there is no more room to be filled by the Lord, filled with the Lord Himself. Because the Pharisee comes full, there is no room for divine mercy, no room for Christ.
The tax collector, on the other hand, comes empty. He brings only his sin and emptiness before God. He beats his breast and prays, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” (Luke 18:13; ESV). The tax collector is empty in himself. He trusts not himself, but God, who alone is merciful. The tax collector knows that he is just like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, the worst of sinners. Like Abel, the tax collector brings an offering to the Lord. He brings himself and his emptiness, his greed and covetousness, his lust and contempt, and he lays them at the Lord’s feet. And the Lord has regard for his offering. Because the tax collector presents himself as an empty vessel to be filled by the mercy of the Lord, with the Lord Himself. The tax collector comes trusting the Word of the Lord, the promise of mercy, knowing that “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise” (Ps. 51:17). Indeed, “a bruised reed he will not break, and a faintly burning wick he will not quench” (Is. 42:3; Matt. 12:20).
Our Lord declares, “I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other” (Luke 18:14). The verdict doesn’t surprise us, but only because we know the story so well. It surprised the Pharisees. You see, when they heard Jesus speak this parable for the first time, they were rooting for the Pharisee. They saw nothing wrong with the Pharisee’s behavior. They had prayed this prayer themselves, many times, “God, I thank you that I am not like other men” (v. 11). They had bragged to God of their good works and expected God to reward them for these. And the tax collectors and sinners? They agreed with the Pharisees! They admired the Pharisees! They wished they could be like the Pharisees! We lose some of the shock value of the surprise ending of this parable because we are so familiar with the story. It is shocking when Jesus declares the tax collector justified, righteous, and the Pharisee unjustified, unrighteous.
But consider this: Two people come to church on Sunday morning. One of them never misses a Sunday. He always gives generously to the offering. He serves on boards and tithes his time, talent, and treasure. He is noted for his great piety, his fervent prayers, his spiritual maturity. But if we could see into his heart, hear his inner-thoughts, we would be horrified. For in himself, he thanks God that he is not like the others in the congregation, those who don’t come faithfully, those who don’t give generously, those who never volunteer their time and leave him with all the work. But that’s okay. He knows deep down that God will reward him for his holy life and good works. He knows he will be saved, because, well, just look at his life! Everyone admires him. Everyone wishes they could be like him. He’s a great guy, a good Christian, and he knows it! And God should know it! God should admire him! Sure, he has a few bad habits—nobody’s perfect!—but he does his best, and overall, he’s basically a good person.
On the other hand, there is this other person who sneaks into church five minutes late so she won’t be seen. She hasn’t been here for awhile. She sits in the back. She has made many mistakes in her life. She has sinned, and everyone knows it. For she is pregnant, and she is not married. She’s almost ashamed to be here. She feels the piercing judgmental stares. She knows the inaudible whispers of those around her are about her. And she knows she deserves it. She has sinned. She is a sinner. But she comes, because she is empty. And she knows only Jesus can fill her. She needs help. She needs a Savior. And she has come to the right place. She has no money to put into the offering plate. She can only offer up her sin and her shame. She comes praying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” And the Lord has regard for her offering. He takes her offering into Himself and nails it in His body upon the cross. And He fills her with Himself. He has mercy. He answers her prayer, “Yes, dear child, though your sins be like scarlet, they shall be white as snow. Though they are like crimson, they shall become like wool (Is. 1:18). I have taken your scarlet letter away and marked you with another symbol, the blood-red sign of the holy cross. You are engraved on the palms of my pierced hands (Is. 49:16). I have redeemed you and placed my Name upon you. You are mine! (Is. 43:1).”
I tell you, this unwed mother came to the Lord’s Supper worthily, and the man who trusted his own righteousness communed to his judgment. For the unwed mother came in repentance, broken by sin, clinging to the forgiving Word of Christ. The self-righteous man came because this was another good work he could do for Jesus. The unwed mother came empty, and was filled with the mercy and righteousness of Christ. The self-righteous man came full of himself, and there was no room for Christ’s mercy. We always identify ourselves with the tax collector in Jesus’ parable, because we don’t want to be arrogant like the Pharisee. But when the mirror of the perfect and holy Law of God is held before us, we see how full of ourselves we are. Our eyes have stared at the sinner in condemnation. Our mouths have whispered gossip about our neighbor. We have not done our duty to love our neighbor as ourselves. And if the others in the congregation could see the secrets of our black hearts… God help us! In the mirror of God’s Law we see the poverty of our fullness. Being full of ourselves, we are really empty. Repent, beloved. For you are right to see yourself as the tax collector. Only you must realize this and know how empty you are. You must not be a Pharisee piously pretending to be a tax collector. You are the tax collector. You are the extortioner, the unjust, the adulterer. You are the unwed mother. The Law must have its way with you. It must empty you of yourself. It must break you, condemn you, kill you, if you are to be filled with Christ and raised to new life. “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 18:14). The self-righteous are smashed to pieces by the hammer of the Law (Jer. 23:29). But the repentant sinners are raised to new life by the Lord of life, and exalted to be called children of God.
The Lord Jesus desires to fill you with Himself, with His mercy, with His forgiveness. If you are already full of yourself, He will not force Himself upon you. But when you come to Him empty, when you confess your emptiness, confess your sins, such confession itself being an act of His Spirit in you, He fills you. He forgives you. He justifies you, declares you righteous on the basis of His own righteousness, death on the cross, and resurrection. We must be empty to be filled. The Lord empties us by His Word of Law. And He fills us with Himself in His Word of Gospel.
An infant is the perfect picture of how the Lord works. For infants always come empty. They have nothing to offer. They cannot give anything, but always need to be given to. They cannot fill themselves. They must be filled by someone else. And what is true of them physically is also true of them spiritually. They cannot fill themselves with Jesus and His mercy. They cannot decide to believe. This is why decision theologians oppose infant Baptism. The infant must be brought to Baptism by someone else. There is no cooperation of the infant’s will in the act. The infant is saved by grace alone! But this is how God works, not only on infants, but on all of us. Without any merit, worthiness, or decision on our part, He washes away our sins and places His Name upon us. He fills us, who are empty, with Himself. It is all by grace! This is why Jesus says the Kingdom of God belongs to little children (Luke 18:16). We must all be little children before God, empty, receiving, helpless, but helped by Him in His mercy.
And it is with this posture that we come to the Lord’s altar this morning to receive the body and blood of Christ. We come as tax collectors, extortioners, unjust, adulterers. We come as sinners. For in the words of the Catechism, “he is truly worthy and well prepared [for the Supper] who has faith in these words: ‘Given and shed for you, for the forgiveness of sins.’” Come, O sinner, and be forgiven. Come, you who hunger and thirst after righteousness, and be satisfied with the body and blood of Jesus. Come, you who are empty, and be filled by Your Lord. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.