As a young man, Martin Luther struggled with how to put himself right with God. The church provided many hoops to jump through and Luther anxiously jumped through them right into becoming an ordained priest. But, even becoming a priest wasn't enough. Luther still struggled with his own sin, his own inability to put himself right with God.
Martin Luther began reading the Bible from a new perspective. He began to realize from his reading of Scripture that there was absolutely nothing he could do to put himself right with God. In Paul's letters, he read we are justified by grace through faith. He began to realize God had acted in Jesus Christ to put us right with himself. Through God's grace, we are put right with God through our faith in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Then Martin Luther began to read the Gospels in that same light, that there was nothing he could do to put himself right with God but that God had already done it in the cross and empty tomb of Jesus Christ.
This parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector was one of many of Jesus' parables that reinforced Luther's Reformation theology that there is nothing we can do to put ourselves right with God, but that God puts us right with himself through our faith in the teacher from Galilee who raises the dead.
This parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector comes immediately after last Sunday's parable of the widow who keeps bothering the judge until he rules in her favor. The parable that reminded us that all we have to be is lost and God will find us. Whether we be the lost sheep,
the coin, the widow, or the Prodigal son, Jesus draws all of us lost sinners to himself, raising us from the dead and giving us new life in him.
Jesus ended last Sunday's parable with the question, "When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?" Will it be faith in a God that is angry, mean, and nasty that makes up jump through hoops to make us right with him? Or, will it be the Lutheran Reformation faith in a God that accepts us, forgives us, and loves us enough to come and find us in all our lostness, sin, and- guilt? When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith in a God that justifies us by his grace through our faith?
Just in case we didn't quite "get it" with last Sunday's parable in Luke 18:1-8, Jesus drives the point home in this Sunday's parable in Luke 18:9-14. Consider the characters in this parable. Forget the prejudice that Jesus' frequently stinging remarks about Pharisees have formed in your mind. Give this particular Pharisee all the credit you can. He's a good man. He's not a crook or a womanizer. He takes nothing he hasn't honestly earned, he's faithful to his wife, patient with his children, and dependable for his friends.
The Pharisee is not at all like this tax collector who is the worst kind of crook: a legal one, a big operator, a Mafia-style enforcer working for the Roman government on a nifty franchise that lets him collect - from his fellow Jews, mind you, from the people whom the Romans might have trouble finding, but whose whereabouts he knows and whose language he speaks - all the money he can bleed out of them, provided only he pays the authorities a flat fee. He has been living for years on the cream he has skimmed off their milk money. Today he is a fat cat who rides in a stretch limo and never shows up at a party without at least two $500-a-night call girls in tow.
The Pharisee, however, is not only good; he is religious. His outward uprightness is matched by an inward discipline. He fasts twice a week and he puts his money where his mouth is: 10% off the top for God. If you know where to find a dozen or two such upstanding citizens, please invite them to Divinity, no questions asked.
But best of all, this Pharisee in verse 11 thanks God that he is "not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector." Jesus shows us the Pharisee in the very act of giving God the glory. But we remember in verse 9 that Jesus is telling this parable "to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt."
So what does Jesus tell us about this good man - about this entirely acceptable candidate for the pulpit of our parish? He tells us, not only is he in bad shape, but that he is in worse shape than a tax collector who is as rotten as they come and who just waltzes into the temple and confesses his rottenness in verse 13.
But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, "God, be merciful to me, a sinner!"
Then Jesus tells us in verse 14 that the tax collector goes home justified. In short, Jesus tells us an unacceptable parable.
We would gladly accept the Pharisee's pledge card today and welcome him into our midst with open arms. But, would you accept me for long if I had my hand in the church till to the tune of a new Cadillac and a couple of flashy prostitutes?
Would you, or the Bishop's office, think it would be enough for me to come into the church on Sunday morning, stare at the floor and say, "God, be merciful to me, a sinner?"
Would Bishop Allende write me a letter commending my imitation of the parable and praising me for preaching not only in word but also in deed? Jesus says that God would commend me and any other sinner who truly repents. But I have some doubts about you and the Bishop. You might find it a bit too . . . vivid. There seems to be just no way of dramatizing this parable from our point of view. That being the case turn it around and look at it from God's point of view.
God is sitting there in his temple watching people, who are dead in their sins, come in. The Pharisee comes in and thanks him for not being like other people. He brags about fasting twice a week and tithing. There is no repentance.
"But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, "God, be merciful to me, a sinner.
Do you now see what Jesus is saying in this parable and why Scripture moved Martin Luther to reform the church? Jesus is saying that, as far as the Pharisee's ability to win a game of justification with God is concerned, he is no better off than the tax collector. As a matter of fact, the Pharisee is worse off, because while they're both sinners, the tax collector at least has the sense to recognize his sinfulness and trust God's offer of forgiveness. The point of the parable is that they are both dead, and their only hope is to have faith in someone who can raise the dead. Who will have faith in Jesus Christ?
"Ah, but," you say, "Is there no distinction to be made? Isn't the Pharisee somehow less further along in death than the tax collector? Isn't there a way we can give him a closer place to God for the real goodness he has?"
To which I answer, you are making the same miscalculation as the Pharisee. Sin is sin. Death is death. We are all sinful and we are all going to die, Pharisee and tax collector alike. The difference is that the tax collector knows he's dead and only God can raise him from the dead. The Pharisee, on the other hand, clutching all of his good deeds figured they were more than enough to give him life: what Martin Luther called "works righteousness".
What Jesus is saying in this parable is that no human goodness is good enough. He will not take our cluttered and sinful life into eternity. He will take only the clean emptiness of our death in the power of Jesus' resurrection. He condemns the Pharisee because he takes his stand on a life God cannot use; he commends the tax collector because he rests his case on a death God can use. Because the Pharisee does not confess his sin and death, he cannot receive the gift of resurrection.
If you see my point, you no doubt conclude that the Pharisee is a fool. You are right. But, at this point, we run into another danger. We conclude he must be a rare breed of fool, unwilling to confess his sin and busy doing the bookkeeping of his good deeds. Wrong. We all have that tendency to run from God’s grace straight back to the familiar darkness of the law and works righteousness. We all have some Pharisee in us that wants us to justify ourselves through our own “goodness”. We all have the tendency to deny our own “lostness” and “deadness”.
But then the preacher says, “Jesus came to raise the dead”. Only when we are finally able, with the tax collector, to admit we are dead will we be able to stop balking at God’s grace. The cornerstone of the Lutheran Reformation was, is, and will be – “we are saved by grace through faith”.
Death is absolutely all of the resurrection we can know now. The rest is faith.