27 August 2017

Homily for Trinity 11 - 2017

"Lifetime Lesson for Living by Grace"
Luke 18:9-14

Listen here.

Two men walk into the temple to pray. No, it’s not the set up line for a joke. It’s Jesus’ way of teaching just how we live all of life as His justified and forgiven people.

First, let me give a rather literal rendition of today’s Gospel, and let’s see what pops out for us to behold:

“He [Jesus] spoke this parable to some who have convinced themselves that they are righteous and [thus] look down on the rest of people: ‘Two men went up into the temple to pray, the one a Pharisee and the other a tax-collector. Upon standing up the Pharisee prayed these things with reference to himself: “God, I thank You that I am not just like the rest of the human race—those who are greedy, those who do wrong, those who commit adultery, or even like this tax collector [here]. I fast the two required days of the week, I give the exact tithe of everything that I acquire.” But the tax collector, standing far off, was not even willing to lift up his eyes to heaven, but he kept beating his chest saying, “God, let Yourself bring about forgiveness for me, the sinner.” I tell you, this one went down to his house having been declared righteous [by God] and in an ongoing righteous state, rather than that one—because everyone who raises himself up will be humbled [by God], but the one who humbles himself will be raised up [by God].”

In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus has been sparring with the Pharisees quite a bit. First, they criticized Him for healing a man on the Sabbath Day. Then they grumbled about Him receiving sinners, and that led to the parables of the lost sheep, lost coin, and lost sons. Then Jesus had to confront them with their love of money, and He rebuffed their request for signs of the coming kingdom. After all, Jesus Himself is the kingdom and they should have recognized Him when He came. Now, in our Gospel, Jesus confronts the Pharisees with the very disease that infects us all: convincing ourselves that we—in our own efforts, in our own endeavors, in our own egos—are righteous and thus elevating ourselves above the rest of the hoi polloi around us.

It’s really a simple lesson to discern mentally from this parable, but it takes all of our lifetimes to learn it and live it in everyday experience. “Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” Easy to read; easy to say the words; but very difficult to live.

Notice how the Pharisee exalted himself above the rest of the human race—all other people. Notice how he proudly prayed to God, trying to offer his religious resumé. Notice how he looked down his nose at anyone and everyone who did not measure up to his high standards.

That same urge dwells within our breasts. We can see it on the small scale of the individual. We may not be as bold or brazen as that Pharisee; usually we try to be more subtle about it. We may simply be thankful that we do not suffer as much or as badly as others around us. We may try to comfort ourselves with how long we’ve been blessed to be in Jesus’ Church more than with Jesus’ cross-won grace and mercy in and of itself. We may cling to our own virtue, more than to Jesus, in the face of a world careening off the road of respect and morality. We may even hope that God smiles on us just a bit more for our faithful attendance at church or our faithful giving in the offering. Yes, the same urge of self-exaltation dwells within our individual breasts.

We can also see this on the larger scale of groups or even mobs. One group thinks it is superior to the other, and so the other must assert its own superiority in counter protest. One group with one color of skin views itself as supreme; the other group with a different skin color wants to assert its rights instead. Is not our ongoing problem of racism in our land a sore and sensitive symptom of what infected the Pharisee’s heart…and what infects our hearts? “God, I thank You that I am not like those other people.” That urge dwells within the breast of every human being descended from Adam.

But notice what the tax collector does and prays instead. Let him—yes, the conniving, despised tax collector—be your role model for Christian faith and life. He knows he does not deserve to come into God’s presence. So he stands far off. He knows the urges that dwell within his breast. So he can’t even dare look up to heaven, and he keeps beating his breast repeatedly. With these two actions of humility he recognizes his ego and his sin.

Even more striking is his prayer. He doesn’t just pray the “Kyrie eleison”—Lord, have mercy—as we do in the Divine Service. No, his prayer is much stronger, much more vivid. First of all, he does not merely call himself “a sinner”—as in one among many, in a misery-loves-company sort of way. No, he calls himself “the sinner.” When he compares himself to others, he realizes that he himself is “chief of sinners”; he is the guilty one; he is the worst of them all. And he is the one Jesus commends for telling the truth! May it be so for each of us as well.

The second more vivid thing of the tax collector’s prayer is this: he does not merely pray for a generic sort of mercy; he pleads for God Himself to make and to be the atoning sacrifice for him. “God, let Yourself bring about forgiveness for me, the sinner.” He prays for the very thing that Jesus came to be and to do on the cross. As Hebrews 2:17 says, “Therefore he [Jesus] had to be made like His brothers in every respect, so that He might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation—to be the sacrifice and means of forgiveness—for the sins of the people.” This Jesus “is the propitiation—the sacrifice and means of forgiveness—for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 Jn. 2:2). This is how Jesus Himself declares sinners righteous and keeps them in an ongoing state of being right and righteous before God. May it be so for each of us as well.

The two men in our Gospel teach us the lifetime lesson of living by God’s grace. One prays and lives in prideful non-repentance. That's not the way to live in Jesus’ kingdom. The other man prays and lives by telling the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth…and by throwing himself on the mercy of the heavenly court. These two men also show us the two people who live within each one of us—the “old Adam” and the “new man” of faith. One wants to exert his superiority; the other strives to confess the truth and receive the atoning sacrifice of Jesus.

And the Catechism reminds us how we get to spend our whole lifetimes learning to live on the receiving end of God’s grace in Jesus. Remember what your baptism with water indicates: “It indicates that the Old Adam in us should by daily contrition and repentance be drowned and die with all sins and evil desires, and that a new man should daily emerge and arise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever” (SC IV).

Because of Jesus, because of His atoning sacrifice, and in your Baptism, you get to go down to your house and live all of your life “having been declared righteous [by God] and in an ongoing righteous state.” Amen.

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