In the Church there is a Latin phrase often used when discussing the Divine Service and its conduct. That phrase is Lex orandi, lex credendi, lex vivendi; loosely translated and applied, the way you worship reflects what you believe, and what you believe shows itself in how you live. Though this phrase finds its natural home in the things of the Church, it applies well to all other areas of our life as well. If you believe it’s important to drive safely, you will teach others to drive safely and you naturally do so yourself. But the problem arises when you say it’s important to drive safely, tell others to be safe on the road, and yet drive like you’re in a demolition derby—your phone in one hand, coffee in the other, and your knees steering the car. Obviously what you say you believe you don’t believe because your life reflects something different.
This is the same principle at work in today’s Gospel. The Pharisee and Tax Collector are going to the Temple for the evening sacrifice. They are devout Jews who make the services of the Temple an important part of their daily life. During this sacrifice and its burning, it was customary for people to offer out loud their individual prayers to God. This was much like our time of silence before we make our confession at the beginning of the Service. It was a time to remember why these sacrifices were being made, a time to reflect on one’s life and conduct and how they were not in line with what God commands, a time to implore God’s aid in leading a life that pleases Him.
With that context in mind, we see where the actions of the Pharisee and Tax Collector reveal what they truly believe. The Pharisee begins by standing by himself, removed from the rest of the worshippers. He does this because he believes himself to be ceremonially pure, while everyone else was unclean. If he accidentally brushed up against another member of the congregation, he would become unclean, something he couldn’t risk. Standing aloof from the others, he begins to speak. Typically, Jewish prayers began with an acknowledgement of God’s goodness followed by requests, a model we still follow today. In the case of the Pharisee, he takes on his own model of prayer, which wasn’t prayer at all, but merely self-advertisement. He neither thanks God nor makes a request. He boasts all the good that he has done—that he isn’t unclean like the rest of the people there, that he fasts more than required, gives ten percent of everything, not just agricultural income like the Law required, and shunned outward sexual immorality.
On the other hand we have the tax collector. Tax collectors were the most reviled of all people. Though Jews, they were seen as traitors, sellouts to the Romans. They abused their own people, stole from them, and got rich off them. We have a higher regard for IRS auditors than first century Jews did for tax collectors. The tax collector also stands by himself, but not in a self-protecting manner like the Pharisee. He knows he is hated; he feels the icy and scornful stares of the rest of the congregation. Remorseful, he beats his breast. He closes his hands into fists and beats on his chest above his heart quickly and forcefully. This is a gesture of extreme sorrow and anguish, something only done by Middle Eastern men in the most dire of circumstances. Beating the heart also acknowledges what Jesus says in another place: “Out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, [and] blasphemies” (Mt. 15:19). And then he speaks. What our English versions all record falls incredibly short. He does more than plead for God’s mercy. The word we here translated as “mercy” is not the same word we sing in the Kyrie, “Lord have mercy upon us…” That’s the Greek word e)lee/w. The word in this Parable is i(la&skomai, closely related to the word for a sacrifice which covered sins and restored the relationship between God and man. The tax collector isn’t just asking for the withholding of a punishment that is deserved, but pleads that it would be withheld and that the benefit of the atoning sacrifice being offered would be his. After the evening sacrifice was made, the tax collector beat his breast in extreme sorrow for his sin, and pleaded with the Lord that the sacrifice just made would cover his sin. It as if he said, “O God, let it be for me! Make an atonement for me, a sinner!” There in the temple this man, aware of his own sin and unworthiness, with no merit of his own to commend him, longs that the great atonement sacrifice might apply to him. And we learn from Jesus’ Words that it does.
In this Parable Our Lord teaches us that righteousness is a gift of God made possible by means of His atoning sacrifice, which is received by those who, in humility, approach as sinners trusting in God’s grace and not their own righteousness. It is as St. Paul said to the Corinthians: We can only stand and be saved by the Gospel, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day. Our own righteousness, as good or abundant as we think it may be, like Cain in the Old Testament Reading, it does us no good, it does not make God look at us favorably. It is only when we despise ourselves, confess our complete sinfulness, and come to God as sinners in need of Christ’s atoning sacrifice that we can go down to our house justified.
That’s why our Divine Service takes the shape it does. We don’t begin by giving worship to God because we know we aren’t worthy to do so. We begin with a confession, that we are poor, miserable sinners, and we implore God that, for the sake of the sacrificial death of His Son, Jesus Christ, we would be forgiven. Only after our sins are forgiven do we give worship to God. And we follow that pattern from Invocation to Benediction—God gives and we respond in thanksgiving.
What we take away from this Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector is that trusting in ourselves gets us nowhere. It is only when you throw yourself upon God’s mercy and implore Him that His Son’s sacrificial death would be your covering that you have any hope. And because you are Baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection, you go down to our house justified. Those waters are the pledge and seal, the assurance that Christ’s sacrifice was for you, that it is yours. And in just a few minutes you will come to this Altar, and in kneeling make your request again for the benefits of Christ’s sacrifice, and He will give it to you, the Body broken and the Blood shed for you on Calvary. Then He sends you out into the world forgiven, at peace with God, awaiting the ultimate exaltation on your last day.