Today the Son of Man comes to obtain faith in those who deserve nothing but punishment, who are unable to do anything for themselves. For the saving faith is not only persistent in prayer; it is also the better part of repentance, humble and childlike in a posture of utter dependancy and complete trust, relying not on personal merit but on the mercies of God in Christ Jesus.
Today He paints a picture of what it looks like to be a Christian, to live and to pray as a Christian, and to be justified by His grace through faith in the forgiveness of His Cross and the righteousness of His Resurrection. And all of this in direct opposition to the notions of self-righteousness that otherwise reside in the sinful hearts of all the sons and daughters of Adam.
When someone has died; when someone is sick or facing some other great distress; when someone is giving their excuses for not coming to Church; when someone is explaining what they suppose it’s really all about, it is astonishing how often would-be-Christians sound just like the Pharisee. So-n-so did his best, worked hard, took care of his family, and kept his nose clean. So-n-so was a Sunday School teacher for umpteen years, or so-no-so was a church officer for so many years. So-n-so wasn’t just a “Sunday morning Christian,” but a real worker and contributor.
In the face of sin, death, and hell, out come these pedigrees and resumés of good intentions and good works, of pious performances and dues paid. As if any of this could justify your life before God, who knows your heart, tries your mind, and tests your spirit in search of faith and love.
It’s not that piety, hard work, generosity and charity are any kind of problem in themselves. Far from it! Such things are fundamental to your Christian life in the body, in the world. But the problem lies within your selfish, sinful heart, which presumes upon God, as though your works and efforts and accomplishments were your justification and your righteousness. Ironically, it is that self-reliance and self-confidence that condemn both you and your works as a farce.
By contrast, the true Christian righteousness of faith is demonstrated in the example of the tax collector. He is humble to the point of being ashamed of himself. Yet, he comes in repentance, confessing his sins, and daring to live and to pray before God in the Temple, relying solely on the Lord’s grace, mercy, and forgiveness.
Jesus gives you this tax collector as an example, not because the man tried so hard, far less that he succeeded, but precisely as a sinner confessing his sins and seeking forgiveness. It is certainly not that you should emulate his sins! Nor that you should pursue or revel in sins of your own. God forbid! Rather, you are called to learn from this man’s repentance, that you should also confess your sins and seek forgiveness from the Lord in His Temple. Your sins will otherwise condemn you, but the forgiveness of the Lord will save your life, both body and soul, now and forever.
Regrettably, it is at those times when you are least aware of your sins, when you are feeling most safe and secure, and when you are at ease in your own righteousness and piety, that you are most deeply immersed in your sin, and so captured by the falleness of your flesh that you do not even realize the danger you are in. For the devil, the world, and your own sinful self are masters at making your sin seem like righteousness and life instead of the death and damnation that it is.
Therefore, you simply cannot rely upon yourself, your own thoughts and feelings, your own standards and expectations, or your own best efforts. None of these do-it-yourself strategies will justify your life or save your body and soul from sin, death, and hell. Neither your sins nor your good works will obtain the resurrection unto life everlasting with God.
The Way, the Truth, and the Life are found, not in yourself, but in the Word of the Lord, His Law and His Gospel. Only by His Word and Spirit do you know and believe what is the Will of God. Only by His Word and Spirit are you turned away from your sins, away from your pursuit of death, and turned toward Him in faith, to His mercy and forgiveness, and to the Life of God in Christ.
The Law of the Lord guides and directs your life by commanding what is good and right and true, and by forbidding and threatening to punish what is evil, wrong, and wicked. But the Law also reveals and makes clear that it cannot give you life, nor can it raise you from the dead; not because of anything lacking in the Law, but because you are not the Creator but His creature, and you are not created to live by your own works and efforts and accomplishments, but by faith in His Word and by His good works of grace. Not only that but, as a fallen creature, you are consumed by your own self-interest. Your self-righteousness is not the good you suppose it to be, but a contradiction of the whole Law, a damnable offense against both faith and love. Hence, although you are called to live according to the Law of the Lord, your life does not derive from the Law.
But the Law is not the last or final Word of God. For not only does He humble you and call you to repentance by His Word of the Law; He also forgives you and exalts you by His Word of the Gospel. That is to say, not that He contradicts or does away with His own holy and righteous Law, but that He has perfectly fulfilled the Law and brought it to completion in the Person of the incarnate Son, Christ Jesus. In holy faith and holy love, the Son of God humbled Himself unto the repentance of His Cross, in order to atone for your sins and reconcile you to the Father by His Blood. And so has the Father raised this same Lord Jesus from the dead for your justification. He has vindicated Him and exalted Him to His right hand, and in His crucified and risen Body He has brought life and immortality to light through the Gospel, so that His Righteousness is credited to you, not by works, but by faith in His Word of promise and forgiveness.
Repent, therefore, and rely upon the Lord’s own Word of the Gospel for the forgiveness of your sins and for righteousness. Do not persist in your sins, but fall upon the mercies of the Lord and lay hold of Him in His means of grace. Despair of yourself, to be sure, but do not despair of Him who loves you for His own Name’s sake. In calling you to repentance, He has called you to Himself, not to shame you, but to save you. In Holy Baptism, He has named you with His Name to be His own dear child, and so it is that even His discipline is an exercise of His love for you.
To clarify the point, the true righteousness of humility and faith, such as Jesus describes in the tax collector, is then also demonstrated in those little babies who are brought to Him. Of such are the Kingdom of God, because they are the epitome and best example of what it means to live entirely by grace alone, through faith alone, for the sake of Jesus Christ alone. They are justified with the righteousness of Christ, because He receives them to Himself and blesses them with His Word and the touch of His hand. They do nothing for themselves, nor can they do so. But they are brought to Jesus by others, and they receive what He freely bestows upon them in grace, mercy, and peace.
Now, then, as for the Parable, note that both the Pharisee and the tax collector are “in Church.” They have both “gone up to the Temple,” and rightly so, for the Lord’s House is where He causes His Name and His Glory to dwell with His people. In the same way, both Cain and Abel offered sacrifices to the Lord, no doubt according to the instruction and example of their father Adam.
The difference between these men is not in their outward actions but in their hearts, between faith and unbelief, between idolatry and the worship of the Lord in the Spirit and the Truth of His Word.
The same difference between faith and idolatry wars within your own heart and in your flesh. Which is to say, not that some of you are like the Pharisee and some of you like the tax collector, but that in each one of you there is that proud, self-righteous Pharisee; and yet, by God’s grace, you have been called to share the humble repentance and faith of the tax collector.
The Pharisee in you goes through all the outward motions of worship, just as you should, but in your heart he is thinking that you have a right to be here and to stand in God’s presence; that you deserve to be a member of this congregation; that you have been here longer than others, that you have worked harder than others, and that you have given more. So, you stand there praying to yourself, as Jesus says, reminding yourself and the Lord what a good person you have been.
But repentance and faith, like that of the tax collector, are a very different attitude and posture. When the Lord has humbled you with His Law, then you see and feel nothing in yourself but your sins and your sinfulness. You think not of your accomplishments, but of your failings; not how hard you have worked, but what you have neglected; not how much you have given, but how much you have taken and kept for yourself. You do not look down on others and despise them, but you bemoan how little you have done to help and be of service to them.
But in calling you to such repentance, the Lord has also called you by His Gospel to believe and trust in Him, in His mercy and His forgiveness of your sins. The Father calls you by His Word and Spirit to die with Christ in the humility of His Cross and Passion, and to rise with Him by faith in His forgiveness, to be vindicated in His Righteousness, and to be seated with Him in the heavenly places. Within the Body of Christ, His Church on earth, you are gathered into the true Temple of God, and into the Holy of Holies made without hands, eternal in the heavens. Thus, although you are sinful and unclean and surely deserve nothing but punishment for your sins, you stand in the presence of God and call upon His Name in peace. And you are heard and answered in His Love.
So, then, as the Law accuses and condemns you, as it exposes your sin and demonstrates your unrighteousness, do not get angry, and do not go away mad. Do not go away at all! But repent. Master your sin by naming it and looking to the Lord for mercy and forgiveness, especially by way of Confession and Absolution, and thereby return to the Lord your God in faith. Avail yourself of His Word and His good gifts of the Gospel, by which alone you are justified and saved.
Though both Cain and Abel offered sacrifice, and both the Pharisee and the tax collector were in the Temple to pray, it should not be thought that these activities were irrelevant or incidental even if they did not make the difference between these men. God’s Word and prayer, His Liturgy of preaching and the Sacrament are fundamental to the Christian faith and life. Indeed, there is no Christian faith or life apart from these means of grace. Going through the outward motions will not save you, but departing from the Temple of the Lord will cut you off from His Life altogether.
It is in the Temple that you receive the forgiveness of your sins and the righteousness of Christ through faith in His Gospel. And so it is, also, both here in the Temple of His Church and in your home and family, in all the occupations of your life, that you offer the sacrifice of thanksgiving. Not that you congratulate yourself and presume to give thanks for what a good boy or girl you have been, but that you acknowledge the mercy of God and give thanks to Him for the utter charity of His forgiveness and the goodness of His Righteousness in Christ Jesus.
As Abel offered to the Lord the fat portions of the firstlings of his flock — not in the false worship of self-righteousness, but in the righteousness of faith, for which he and his offering were received and regarded by the Lord — so are you and your whole body and life offered to God in faith as a sacrifice of praise to His Name. You pay your vows to the Lord within His House by confessing what you have heard, by praying and interceding for the Church and the world, and by returning to the Lord a significant portion of the time, treasures, and talents He has given you. That you are justified by His grace and not by your works does not mean that you should live unrighteously, but that you live righteously by faith in Christ Jesus, instead of living in your sins and for yourself.
It is when the Lord has called you away from yourself to fix your eyes on Him alone that you go home justified by His grace through faith in His mercy. And as your true home is now with the Lord Jesus Christ, you are able to be and live “at home” in peace and righteousness, no matter where you may be located in this old world. For you and your life are in His hands, and He has done all things well to the glory of His God and Father and to your eternal benefit and blessing.
He has been merciful toward you. He has sacrificed Himself upon the Cross for the propitiation of all your sins. He has forgiven you by His Word, and He continues to do so. He has dressed you in Holy Baptism with His own perfect Righteousness. And He feeds you here in His House with His own holy Body and His precious Blood. He loves you, and He will never leave you nor forsake you. He is your Righteousness and Holiness, your Life and your Salvation, and He goes with you all the way, to and from His House and yours, today and tomorrow, even forevermore.
In the Name + of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.