Today Our Lord tells us a Parable about righteousness and how it is achieved. There are two ways, one of life and one of death. If your righteousness is internal, if it is self-focused, it is not true righteousness. On the other hand, if your righteousness comes from outside of you, if it is counted to you apart from your deeds, then it is true righteousness. Jesus tells us that the tax collector, though perceived as unrighteous, went to his house justified, while the Pharisee, regarded as extremely righteous, goes home condemned. True righteousness only comes when one is covered by the greatest Sacrifice, Christ Jesus.
At the very center of Jesus’ Parable is the Pharisee’s statement of why he is righteous and no one else is, especially not the tax collector. He says, “I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess.” This statement is damning for so many reasons. First, it locates his righteousness in his actions, especially his over-and-above keeping of the Law. Tithing was, of course, commanded of the Israelites. However, certain crops and other things were exempt from the tithe. This Pharisee was part of a microscopic minority that gave a tenth of everything. Moreover, he fasted twice a week, even though it was only a requirement for the annual day of atonement. He is putting himself on par with Moses and the Prophets, the height of righteousness in Jewish thought.
The second reason this self-made righteousness is so damning is that he is boasting his own righteousness while the daily sacrifice for sin is being made. The context of this Parable is a corporate worship setting. Jewish custom was to gather at the Temple for the morning and afternoon sacrifices, and to offer prayers while the sacrifice was burning. The underlying idea is that the community was only able to lay their petitions before God because the sacrifice was made on their behalf and made them acceptable to go to God. Because of that, their prayers always addressed God first, thanking Him for His mercy and goodness before any requests would be made. The Pharisee doesn’t follow the typical model for prayer and instead touts his own goodness. Jewish custom was to pray out loud. So what’s really happening is that this Pharisee is standing far removed from everyone else, thinking he is giving the unrighteous crowd the opportunity to see what a real righteous person looks like. In his mind, he is graciously instructing them in their own unrighteousness by telling them how much better he is. Let’s put this in a setting we can understand. The Altar is prepared and we are about to receive the Lord’s Supper. We’re singing the Agnus Dei when suddenly someone begins to improvise: “O Christ, Thou Lamb of God, that takest away the sin of the world…but not as many sins of mine because I’m not as sinful as everyone else…have mercy upon us…but especially on all these people around me because they have nothing but sin and I’m so much better than them.” If someone started doing that, we would need to have a long talk with the Pastor before they could come to the Lord’s Supper, because they’re not repenting of their own sins, but highlighting the sins of everyone else.
But isn’t that what we all do? We eagerly point out the sins of others to make ourselves look good. We may not be so bold as to do it out loud and in public, but we certainly do it internally or in small groups or in conversation with our closest friend. This Parable strikes a nerve because Jesus isn’t telling us about a hypothetical situation, He’s telling us about ourselves. How many times have we all thought that, “I thank You, God, that I’m not like him…I’m not like her…I’m not like that group over there.” What good does that do? What good does it do to put others down to lift yourself up? The search for the faults and failures of others does the greatest harm to the critic himself. Why? It destroys community. If all you do is see yourself as righteous and everyone else as a sinner under God’s condemnation, you isolate yourself, and pretty soon the only person worthy enough to enjoy your company is yourself! It speaks to the Eighth Commandment. How does exalting yourself at your neighbor’s expense explain things in the kindest way? How does it strengthen their reputation? It doesn’t! And we’re all guilty. We have all been that Pharisee more often than we’d like to admit. Repent. Change your prayer.
Pray that prayer of the tax collector: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” That word “merciful” needs to be retranslated. “Make atonement” would be far more accurate. The tax collector, painfully aware of his sin, his unworthiness, and the sacrifice being offered, pleads to God: “Cover me with the blood of the sacrifice. Take away my sin and my shame. In Your great mercy give me what I could never earn or deserve.” And Jesus tells us that he goes to his house justified. His prayer is answered. The sacrifice is for him, its blood stands as a covering, its smoke rises as a pleasing aroma. His hope is in the Lord’s Word, that He is merciful and will help His children.
You can pray that same prayer, “Make atonement for me, O God a sinner. I have trusted in my own works. I have vilified others and exalted myself. Take away my sin, for it is great!” And that prayer is always answered in the affirmative, just like it was for the tax collector. You pray that prayer at the start of every Divine Service, confessing your sin and pleading God’s absolution. He speaks His word of forgiveness to you, because of the Blood of Jesus Christ, shed for you. You come to this Altar and receive that same Body broken and Blood shed, and your sin is taken away from you.
We do these things together—confess our sin, hear the absolution, come to the Lord’s Supper—to remind us that we are in community. Just like the thief said on the cross: we are all under the same condemnation. But as much as we are under condemnation, we are absolved, we are under God’s grace. 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 according to the Scriptures”—takes away our divisions. It reminds us that, as much as the Law condemns us all equally, the Gospel saves us all equally, makes us one in God’s eyes, one family for whom Our Lord Jesus Christ was willing to die. True unity, true community comes from gathering around the sacrificed Lamb, remembering that His Blood covers us, that we are recipients of a righteousness that does not come from our works or our goodness, but from the God who loves us and forgives us. We leave here, we go to our homes justified, a gift given to us by the abundance of God’s mercy. But we don’t go only to earthly homes. Because of we have been covered by the Sacrifice of Jesus Christ and have received the sacrificed Body and Blood we are promised an eternal home. God has given that to us by His mercy and grace, a gift greater than we could desire or deserve, but one He gives because He loves to give it.
Why does the Pastor preach? Scripture explains that the role of preaching the Word of God is how saving faith is created: “How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in Him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!’ … So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the Word of Christ” (Romans 10:14-17). The Augsburg Confession, seeing this connection between the Preaching Office and saving faith, summarizes Scripture on the Office of the Holy Ministry in this way: “To obtain [saving, justifying] faith, God instituted the Office of Preaching, giving the Gospel and the Sacraments. Through these, as through means, He gives the Holy Spirit who produces faith, where and when He wills, in those who hear the Gospel. It teaches that we have a gracious God, not through our merit but through Christ’s merit, when we so believe” (AC V 1-3). The whole reason the Pastor preaches is so saving faith can be created, so we know that “we have a gracious God” who loves us and has saved us from our sin by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.