In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Ghost.
The Parable in today’s Gospel Reading is further proof that good works do not save us. If good works saved, then roles would have been reversed. The Pharisee would have gone down to his house justified, while the tax collector went home condemned. The Pharisee wasn’t an extortioner, blackmailing money out of scared old widows. He wasn’t unjust, he never cheated on his wife, and as the cherry on the sundae, he wasn’t a thieving, sell-out-to-the-Romans tax collector. On top of all the unlawful things he avoided, he went over and above the demands of the Law! He fasted twice a week, and gave 10% of all he had, not just of income and agriculture as the Law demanded. Compare him to the stereotypical tax collector and he should have eternal life in the bag, earned years and years ago.
But we’ve been trained by years of hearing this Parable in Sunday School as a morality lesson to know that it’s not the Pharisee who was good, but the tax collector. The tax collector was humble, he didn’t brag about himself. Be humble, don’t be proud, and you’ll get to heaven. The problem is that this thinking gets us right back into the same position as the Pharisee! It puts the spotlight on another good work, tries to earn heaven another way. Putting our trust in humility makes it a false veneer that covers greedy works! Teaching ourselves to trust in humility makes us do things that put us in the spotlight, just so we can show how humble we are, which is no humility at all! Just because, when the crowds come to congratulate you just like you wanted, you look at the ground and say, “Aww…shucks!” doesn’t mean you go down to your house justified.
St. Augustine said, “While all vices manifest themselves in wrongdoing, pride lurks also in our good works, seeking to destroy even them.” Pride affects so much of what we do, and leads us into sin every time, just as it led Satan and his evil angels into their rebellion and fall. The old saying really is true, pride is the root of all evil. Pride leads us to confidence in ourselves, convincing us that we really are righteous. Pride convinces us that our sins may be present, but they aren’t as bad as our neighbor’s. Pride convinces us that we don’t need to repent of our sin because overall we aren’t that bad. And at its worst, at its goal, pride convinces us we don’t need a Savior from sin, death, or the devil because we can do it ourselves. That’s why Jesus tells us a Parable about pride. Not to convince us to be humble, but to show us our total depravity and need for a Savior.
But the worst part of pride is that, even when we try to be a better person, to attempt to live a God-pleasing life, pride fights even harder to gain the upper hand. Another Church Father, a contemporary of Augustine, channeled St. Paul’s attitude in Romans 7—the good I want to do I do not do and the evil I do not want to do I do all the more. He said, “If I abstain from indulging in my foolish desires, I praise myself [excessively. If I succeed in vigilance, I fall into the snares of conceit and contradiction. If I refrain from eating, I drown in pride and arrogance. If I am wakeful in prayer, I am vanquished by irritability and wrath. If I see virtue in someone, I studiously ignore him. To all appearances I am wise in humility, but in my soul I am haughty.”
The holy Law of God tells us not to have any other Gods before Him, not to trust in ourselves that we are righteous. But once we hear that Law our sin is revealed and we see just how all-encompassing it is. We see that we truly are the Pharisee, trusting in ourselves, boasting all the good we think we have done when in reality there is nothing we can do to escape the Law’s condemnation, nothing we can do to escape our sin.
The only course of action is to pray the prayer of the tax collector: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” That word “be merciful” carries so much more meaning than what we hear. We hear “mercy” and connect it to the “Lord, have mercy” we sing in the Kyrie, a withholding of deserved punishment. Yes, there is that meaning attached, but it’s not the same Greek word. The tax collector’s word for mercy, i9la&skomai, is connected to the word i9lasth&rion, “mercy seat.” The mercy seat was the place between the cherubim on the Old Testament’s Ark of the Covenant, the place where God dwelt. It’s where the priests sprinkled the blood of the sacrifice. The Pharisee and the tax collector prayed their prayers at the time of the sacrifice, when the blood of the sacrifice was being sprinkled on the Mercy Seat to forgive the sins of the people. What the tax collector is begging God is “let that blood, shed on the altar and sprinkled before You, O God, forgive my sin. Let that animal’s death count as my own.” The tax collector knew he could never appease God’s wrath on his own, no matter how many good works he did. He knew that the only way he could be pleasing before God was if sacrifice was made for him to pay the price his sin demanded.
Of course, the blood which he pleaded was only a type and looked ahead to the greater shedding of Blood. If the blood of bulls and goats and the ashes of a heifer purified the flesh and sent the tax collector to his house justified, how much more shall the Blood of Christ cleanse you from sin (Heb. 9:13-14)? The One who told this Parable is the fulfillment of it! Jesus is God’s mercy in Flesh and Blood. Though He alone could pray the Pharisee’s prayer, “I thank You, God, that I am not as other men,” He did not, and His attitude was the exact opposite of pride. From His birth in the filth of a barn to His sacrifice on the cross of shame where your pride nailed Him to the tree, His humility accepted it all to overcome and destroy your sinful pride, and every other sin you commit, and to forgive the sin of the world. Jesus’ sacrifice of Himself covers all your sin by your Baptism into His death, and His death, the shedding of innocent Blood in your place, is counted just as if you had died for yourself.
And knowing that pride lurks in our flesh as part of the inherited sin of our first parents, Christ established His Church as the place where He continually doles out His mercy without measure. There is mercy in the Font, where sin is washed away. Mercy in the Word of Absolution that declares all your sin forgiven for Jesus’ sake. Mercy in the Gospel proclaimed to comfort the hearts of a sin-weary people with the promise of the resurrection and the hope of eternal life. Mercy at the Altar where Christ feeds you with Himself, giving you His divine life and the forgiveness of all your sin, especially pride.
A recipient of that inexpressible, inexhaustible Divine Mercy, Jesus sends you down to your house justified, a child of the true Israel. And as you go through this life He keeps you by His Word and Spirit until He draws you up to your true house prepared in heaven, the home of all the justified who trusted not in themselves that they were righteous, but that Christ was righteous in their place and gave that righteousness to them freely. There you will dwell, a redeemed chief of sinners, a recipient of mercy more than you could ever desire or deserve, but mercy God loves to give to you freely, for the merits and mediation of His Son, Jesus Christ your Lord.
The peace of God which passeth all understanding keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.
Sermons from Mount Olive
Mount Olive follows the historic one-year lectionary (series of readings).