“God, Be Merciful to Me, a Sinner!” (Luke 18:9-17)

Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost
October 23, 2022

“God, Be Merciful to Me, a Sinner!” (Luke 18:9-17)

“So this Pharisee and a tax collector walk into a temple. . . .” No, this isn’t the start of some kind of a joke. Rather, it’s the start of a parable that Jesus tells. And this story makes a very important point. So we will be wise to listen up and take it to heart.

Our text is the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector, from Luke 18. And we’re told why Jesus proceeds to tell this story. It’s because there were people “who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt.” Now I don’t suppose there are any people today who have that kind of attitude, are there? Oh, you and I both know there are. And in fact, sometimes we ourselves–that could describe you and me, that we think we’re pretty good in ourselves, and we look down upon others. So the parable that Jesus is about to tell is very relevant to our day and to our own lives.

Jesus starts out: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.” Now if you didn’t know any better, and you were listening to Jesus tell this story at the time, you might think it’s pretty easy to identify the good guy and the bad guy. The good guy must be the Pharisee, and the bad guy obviously is the tax collector. But Jesus has a habit of turning things upside-down. For instance, in the story of the Good Samaritan, the priest and the Levite–both of them, expected good guys–they both pass by the injured man and don’t do anything to help him. Or in the parable of the Prodigal Son, the older brother, the one who hadn’t run away–he’s the one who defies his father in the end. So here. Jesus will put a twist on our expectations.

The Pharisee would be the one you’d expect to be the good guy. The Pharisees as a group were known to be the most zealously religious people in the land. They were very attentive–very attentive!–to the teachings of the Law. They even went over and above the requirements of God’s Law, to make sure they weren’t breaking any commandments.

And this Pharisee, the one in this story, sounds like the paragon of virtue. He’s in the temple, standing by himself, and he prays like this: “God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.”

My, that’s a pretty impressive prayer, isn’t it? I mean, he thanks God for what a fine religious fellow he is. The Pharisee is better than other men, and he knows it. He’s no lousy sinner. Other men may be extortioners, getting money by crooked means, but he isn’t. Other men may be unjust, but he is righteous. Other men may be adulterers, but if he wants to dump his wife, he’ll be sure to give her a certificate of divorce, to make it look legitimate. And now the Pharisee looks around and sees the tax collector standing in the back, so he adds, “I thank you, God, that I’m not like that lousy tax collector back there!”

The Pharisee thanks God for what he is not, and then he wants God to know what a good man he is. He says: “I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.” Impressive! This Pharisee would put most of us to shame. He fasts twice a week. How many of you fast even twice a year? Have you even fasted twice in your life? Fasting can be a good religious exercise. And this guy does it twice a week! Then there’s his giving. He gives tithes of all that he gets. In other words, he gives 10% of all his income. How many of you do that? Do you put at least 10% of your annual income into the offering plate? That would be a good practice. Do you do it? This guy does.

So the Pharisee in this story is the one you would expect to be the good guy. And then contrast him to the tax collector. The tax collectors as a group had a very bad reputation, and deservedly so. First, they were collecting taxes for the Romans, which made them hated by their fellow Jews. And second, the tax collectors had a reputation for being corrupt, for overcharging, collecting more than they should have, in order to line their own pockets. So when a tax collector is introduced as one of the characters in the story, the audience most likely would boo and hiss.

However, in this story, the tax collector is the picture of humility and repentance. He’s standing far off. He doesn’t feel worthy to put himself forward before God. He doesn’t even lift up his eyes toward heaven. Instead, he beats his breast in penitential sorrow. This tax collector doesn’t make a big long speech congratulating himself over what a great guy he is and how God should be impressed by him. No, his prayer is sincere and to the point. He simply says, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”

And now here’s the surprising thing: Jesus points to this man, the lousy tax collector, as having prayed the right prayer with which to come before God. Not the Pharisee, with his long list of proud accomplishments. But the tax collector, who prays, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” Jesus says of him, “I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

The Pharisee? Oh, it’s good that he wasn’t an extortioner or an adulterer. Fasting and tithing? Those are good, commendable practices. Those things in themselves were not the problem. The problem with the Pharisee was, as Jesus said, he trusted in himself that he was righteous. He thought God should be impressed with his life of religious devotion. Plus, the Pharisee treated others, like the tax collector, with contempt. He thought he was better than other people. The Pharisee looked down upon the tax collector as a bad guy, but he didn’t realize that he too was a bad guy in his own way.

For all of us, our sin will pop up in our lives in one way or another. For some, it shows up in very visible ways, like criminal behavior or drug abuse or sexual immorality. For others, it shows up in ways that are not so visible: in our pride, in our hypocrisy, in our haughty superiority. But one way or another, we all end up in the same place. We are sinners, with nothing to wave before God, as though he should be impressed with us.

“God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” That’s the prayer that Jesus commends. And that’s the prayer we started out this service with, isn’t it? “I, a poor, miserable sinner, confess unto You all my sins and iniquities,” etc. Good prayer, right? Just like the tax collector’s. But believe it or not, there are some people who don’t think they are poor miserable sinners. One of them is a woman by the name of Joyce Meyer. Maybe you’ve heard of her. She’s on TV a lot, claiming to be a teacher of biblical truth. Did you know that Joyce Meyer used to be an LCMS Lutheran here in the St. Louis area? So she had prayed that “poor miserable sinner” prayer many times. But at some point, she decided that wasn’t for her.

Joyce Meyer looks back on her days in the Missouri Synod and says: “All I was ever taught to say was ‘I a poor miserable sinner.’ I am not poor, I am not miserable, and I am not a sinner. That is a lie from the pit of hell. That is what I were, and if I still was, then Jesus died in vain. I am going to tell you something, folks: I didn’t stop sinning until I finally got it through my thick head, I wasn’t a sinner anymore. And the religious world thinks that is heresy, and they want to hang you for it. But the Bible says that I am righteous, and I can’t be righteous and be a sinner at the same time.”

So Joyce Meyer claims she has stopped sinning, that she’s not a sinner anymore. Well, I think Joyce needs to read her Bible a little more. For example, in 1 John chapter 1, it says, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” Guess what, Joyce? It is possible to be righteous and a sinner at the same time. “Simul iustus et peccator,” as the saying goes. “At the same time righteous and a sinner.”

That is the reality, and that is the struggle, that each of us Christians deals with on a daily basis. On the one hand, we are righteous, accounted righteous, justified, right before God, solely because of the mercy manifested in Christ our Savior. And, by the power of the Holy Spirit, we do begin to live righteous lives. But on the other hand, we still are sinners. We still break God’s commandments in thought, word, and deed–in the wrong things we think, say, and do, and in the right things we ought to think, say, and do, but don’t. That equals sin, and we all are guilty, every one of us, Pharisee and tax collector alike.

The thing to do then? Throw yourself on the mercy of God. That’s what he delights to give you: his mercy, for the sake of Christ. Like the Old Testament priest sprinkling blood on the mercy seat of the ark of the covenant on the Day of Atonement, Christ Jesus poured out his own holy blood on the mercy seat of the cross to atone for all our sins. Jesus is God in the flesh, so his blood is mighty enough to cover all the sinners in the world! His blood avails for you! You are forgiven! You are justified, declared righteous for Christ’s sake, because all his righteousness is credited to your account. You are baptized into Christ. Your destiny is tied to his. Because Jesus is risen from the dead and lives forever, so you too will rise from death and live with your Lord and all his saints in eternal life and joy! How merciful God is to us for the sake of Christ!

“God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” And the good news is, he is! Merciful. To you.

Published in: on October 22, 2022 at 8:45 am  Leave a Comment  
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