Luke 18:9-14 When John the Baptist began his preaching ministry, the first word out of his mouth was: Repent! For the kingdom of heaven is at hand. When Jesus began his public ministry the first word out of his mouth was: Repent! For the kingdom of heaven is at hand. When Luther posted his 95 Theses on the church door at Wittenberg he wrote these words: When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ``Repent'' (Mt 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.
In the Old Testament and the New Testament; in the words of the prophets and apostles and reformers; throughout the history of the church, there is but one message for all of God’s people in every place and time—including us here tonight as we begin this this Lenten season-- and that message is this: Repent!
To repent means to have a change of heart and mind and direction in life. It means to stop going the sinful, self-directed, self-indulgent, self-centered way that we often go and go in a new direction towards a merciful Savior who stands ready to forgive us. To repent means to turn to Jesus and not to yourself and in our lesson tonight we see just exactly what God wants from us this Lenten season and throughout our life. The Bible says that:
Jesus told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt:
The very setting of the telling of this parable may be the first hurdle we have to overcome if we are to really hear what our Savior has to say to us today and amend our lives accordingly.
We hear that Jesus spoke these words to those who trusted in themselves and thought themselves righteous and we say to ourselves: “Well, Jesus is certainly not talking to me! I know that I am not righteous and I am certainly not trusting in myself! If being a Lutheran means anything, it means that”!
And yet, our flesh is no different than anyone else in believing that our choices and our piety and our lifestyle must surely count for something when it comes to having a life with God.
Even our membership in the Lutheran Church—a church that teaches that we are saved by God’s grace, through faith, apart from deeds of the Law—becomes a sort of “hall pass” to get out of hearing what our Lord has to say about self-righteousness and self-trust.
And then to hear that Jesus addressed these words to people who were not only self-righteous but looked with contempt upon others, our flesh really does have all the excuses it needs to turn a deaf ear to our Lord because we would never look down on anyone!
But of course we do! We think we are better parents than others. We think we are harder workers than others. We think we are more faithful church members than others just like the Pharisee that day. The Bible says that: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.
When we picture this scene in our mind’s eye, we think we know just exactly how it is going to play out because we know these two broad classes of people. On one side we have a guy who looks a lot like us: he knows his Bible, he is regular in worship, he is a good neighbor, he has a good reputation in his community.
On the other side is just the opposite. He is not a good neighbor—in fact, he oppresses his neighbors. The way he makes his living is questionable at best. Everywhere he goes, even to church, he carries with him the stigma of a bad reputation.
“Surely”, we say to ourselves, “our judgment about these two men and the judgment of God must coincide: one of them is good guy and one of them is a bad guy and that ought to be self-evident for anyone with the eyes to see and ears to hear the truth!” The Bible says that:
The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’
For the Pharisee that day, who he was and what he had done and what he had refrained from was perfectly clear in his own mind and so it ought to be clear to God as well. His judgment about himself ought to correspond to the judgment of God.
He was an upright, moral, decent person whose commitment to his church was serious. When he looked at his life and looked at his own piety, it all bore sufficient testimony that he was on the right track spiritually and surely God must agree.
And then, when he looked at those around him, his judgment about himself was confirmed. Sure enough, he was better than others! He wasn’t a criminal or lawbreaker. He was more pious than those around him—not just among the pagans—but even those in the temple that day. Surely the God who heard his prayer must agree!
As we picture this scene in our mind’s eye—as we hear his judgment about himself—we tend to agree with him! He is decent and pious and upright, and so are we! He was better than those around him, and so are we! That is our judgment about him and that is our judgment about ourselves.
But that’s not really what counts is it? This decent, upright, moral Pharisee stood there in the temple—in the very presence of the living God—and there in that place—in God’s sight—there is only one judgment that matters and that is not the judgment of our fellow church members or the judgment of our neighbors and it is certainly not the judgment we render about ourselves that matters.
The only judgment that matters is the judgment of God. The Bible says that: The Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” And what the Lord saw about the Pharisee was something very different than what the man saw about himself.
The Lord saw a man turned in on himself—a man who was self-righteous, and man who trusted in himself, and a man who looked with contempt upon others.
And the Lord saw the truth about another man who stood in his presence there that day—because the Lord sees the heart. The Bible says that:
The tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’
If we were looking on and listening in the temple that day we might say to ourselves: “That’s right buddy! You ought to be standing as far away from the decent folks as possible! You’re lucky to have a place here anyway? You’re right to keep your eyes on the ground—you ought to be shame-faced given who you are and what you’ve done! And you’re right, you are a sinner!”
We’ve got this perfect, terrible ability to see these things so clearly about others. But this man had something we often lack—the Spirit-given ability to see the truth about himself.
Standing there in the presence of living, holy God of the universe this sinner knew that there was nothing in him—no good deed ever done—no evil refrained from—no act of piety ever performed-- that could ever justify him in the sight of a holy God.
He possessed a clarity about himself—that he was a sinner-- and a clarity about God—that he was loving-- that brought him to only one possible place spiritually and that was to confess his sins and throw himself on the mercy of God and beg for God’s forgiveness—and he did and he was.
There were three judgments rendered there in the temple that day. The Pharisee judged himself righteous. The tax collector judged himself a sinner. And the judgment of God about each of them, beginning with the tax collector.
Jesus says: I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. The judgment of God was rendered that day and that really is the only judgement that matters and that verdict is read to us sitting here today so that we can know it and understand it and amend our lives according to God’s judgment and not our own.
It was the man who made no mention of his righteousness, made no claims of his piety, issued no demands to God for services rendered who went home justified in God’s sight. It was the sinner who repented who was forgiven-- and not the Pharisee who got so much right.
It is important that we understand why this is so. The problem was not that the Pharisee was a kind, pious, decent, upright, moral man. God grant that the same thing is said of us! It was not because the tax collector learned the right formula—like some magical, formulaic “sinner’s prayer”-- that gets God’s attention and guarantees our entrance into heaven.
But the second man went to his house that day forgiven of his sin and right in God’s sight because of the mercy of God that forgives those repent of their sins.
His sorrow and broken-heartedness over his sin was genuine. He knew about himself that he deserved no good thing from God and that he had no claim upon God because of who he was and what he had done but could only believe and trust that he had in the Lord a God who loved him and was ready to forgive him and he threw himself on the mercy of God.
That mercy is found in only one place: the foot of the cross where our Lord Jesus Christ laid down his life for our sins and an empty tomb that proclaims salvation is accomplished.
John the Baptist said: Repent! For the kingdom of heaven is at hand. Jesus said: Repent! For the kingdom of heaven is at hand. Luther said that our lives as Christian consist only of this: that we repent.
You see dear friends in Christ, that is the way that the kingdom of heaven works: Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”
Standing in the presence of the living, holy righteous God of the universe, there is simply no place for exalting ourselves, lifting ourselves up, or comparing ourselves to others. The only comparison that matters is our comparison to God and that cannot help but humble us and make us confess that we are indeed poor, miserable sinners.
But the Good News of us is there in that place, beating our breast because of our sins, refusing to even lift our eyes to heaven much less talk about who wonderful we are and how better we are than others, there in that place of humility-- is nothing but the mercy of God that calls us to come to him and receive the free and full forgiveness Christ won for us on the cross. Amen.