Text: Luke 18: 9-14
Dearly Beloved By Christ:
“It’s not my fault!” How many times have you heard that or said it? Teachers hear it all the time from students. Supervisors hear it from employees. It’s an attempt to shirk responsibility and to justify one’s actions, isn’t it? Shifting blame is as old as Adam and Eve.
It’s ironic that we use that word “justify” this way. Actually, the word justify is one of the most important in the whole Bible. God uses it to declare us totally forgiven, not guilty in His eternal courtroom. He never uses it to make excuses for us. The word “ironic” is defined this way: “a combination of circumstances or a result that is opposite of what might be expected.” Tonight, and this Lenten season, we’re going to put “justify” and “irony” together as we consider Christ’s passion. And the unexpected result of Christ’s parable was:
THIS MAN WENT HOME JUSTIFIED
Does this parable seem ironic to you? It should. In fact all the Gospel promises are ironic to the natural human mind. The result is always the opposite of what anyone could have expected. So it is here. This man went home justified, not the man who tried to follow God’s Law.
Tonight we have 2 men as diverse and different as night from day. One is a Pharisee and the other is a tax collector. Listen to how the Pharisee prays: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.” We cringe at that prayer. But how did Jesus’ audience react? Was this caricature of holiness correct or a fraud?
One of the ironies of Scripture is how we react to that term: Pharisee. To us it epitomizes pride, arrogance, and self-righteousness. We cannot imagine a Pharisee being anything other than a hypocrite. But, the Jews of Christ’s time reacted a bit differently. Paul was a model Pharisee before his conversion. He was proud of it, too. Pharisees were people who defended a strict interpretation of the Old Testament. They held that all of God’s Word was true, unlike their liberal counterparts, the Sadducees. So when this man says that he’s not a robber, an evildoer or an adulterer, it was true. He didn’t break into houses and steal. He didn’t shoplift. He had never been thrown in jail. He didn’t sleep around. Put in modern terms, he never even got a traffic ticket. To the 1st century Jew, there was a world of difference between him and the tax collector.
Tax collectors were notorious. They worked for and with the Romans. They could freely collect more money from the people than Rome demanded and keep the difference—legally! Throughout the Gospels we find them in the company of prostitutes and sinners. You know people by the company they keep. And that company always influences you. The Pharisee avoided all that. He didn’t keep extra money for himself, he gave 10% of his income to the Lord—the Old Testament tithe. God’s Law commanded fasting once per year, but this man did it twice a week! Wouldn’t you identify yourself with the Pharisee instead of the tax collector?
So what’s the problem? It was pride. It was his heart. One of the great ironies of the Bible is that although we might be doing the right thing, if it’s for the wrong reason, it’s still a sin. This man was confident of his own goodness before God. He thought he was earning points with God for his good deeds. So, why wasn’t he? Because he ignored everything in the Bible about humility, sorrow over sin, and the necessity of a new heart. He failed to approach God in genuine humbleness and plead God’s mercy and not his own goodness.
My friends, have you ever prayed like this Pharisee? Have you ever thought of yourself in the same vein? “I thank you, God, that we in our church and synod are not like other churches! We guard our purity of doctrine; we discipline those who don’t conform to your Word. We’re not like the Methodists, Catholics, or Congregationalists down the street!” Or maybe your prayer is a bit more personal? “I thank you, Lord, that I’m not like those enslaved by materialism. I avoid those disgusting internet sites. I don’t beat my wife or children. I don’t use drugs. I stay out of trouble. I’ve been the congregational president or headed up the Ladies group. I always give the tithe to you. I never miss a Lenten service. I work in the local food pantry.”
If you prayed like that, what would be wrong with it? It’s all true, isn’t it? Doesn’t God expect such things from His faithful? Doesn’t He expect us to be model citizens and give freely of our time, talent and treasure to Him? Of course! So, what’s the problem? It’s the same one the Pharisee had. It’s pride. If we do all this thinking that it’s the reason were righteous before God, we literally break our arms patting ourselves on the back. But, where is contrition? Where is repentance? Where is sorrow over our sins? Where is appreciation for salvation, our salvation in and through Jesus Christ?
Jesus is the only reason God accepts our efforts. He died for our contaminated hearts. He died for the pride that cuts us off from God’s goodness. His sacrifice on the cross erases forever God’s record of our wrongs. And His resurrection makes us perfect, holy, spotless and clean in God’s sight. Yes, in Christ God justified us. He declared us “not guilty” and forgiven. That model Pharisee didn’t have time for all this because He was too busy looking at himself instead of looking to Jesus Christ.
The great irony here is that the dedicated church-goer failed to grasp the meaning of repentance for a new life. But the outwardly horrible tax collector did! And “this man who humbled himself before God went home justified.”
We find him standing at a distance so as not to draw attention to himself. His prayer is simple: “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” He understood that we humans have no defense in God’s courtroom. In America everyone can hire a lawyer or have one appointed to plead their cause. They can try to sway the jury. They can sing, dance, argue and plead technicalities “It’s not my fault!”; and sometimes they even get off! But not with God. “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.”
This tax collector didn’t lie to himself or to God. He knew he was guilty. So, he simply pled for God’s mercy—and received it! Mercy is the desire to help someone in trouble. He was in eternal trouble with God. But he trusted in a merciful Savior and that was enough. It’s always enough.
When you receive God’s mercy amazing things occur, too. You’re free! Free to be honest with yourself. Free to be honest and open with others. Free to live without self-delusions of personal grandeur. For if God justifies you and declares you “not guilty” fear vanishes and joy and appreciation comes in its place. Now you actually want to avoid sin and live differently—not for yourself but for your forgiving Savior.
Irony is etched all over this Gospel lesson. This season we’ll explore many other ironies of Christ’s passion. And as we do so, one thing will stand out—Jesus cares about your heart above and beyond anything else! Amen