Sunday, October 24, 2010
Sermon for the 22nd Sunday after Pentecost (October 24, 2010)
“Look at Me!” (Luke 18:9-17)
“Daddy! Daddy! Look at me! Watch what I can do!”
You turn and see your child doing something absolutely “spectacular.” Swinging on the monkey bars. Standing on their head. Jumping on one leg. Diving into the deep end of the pool for the first time. And they want you to witness it and give your approval.
Look at me…and see how good I am! That was apparently what was going through the Pharisee’s mind in the parable that Jesus told. “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.” (Luke 18:11-12) He was a very religious man, that’s for sure. He gave regular contributions to the offering plate. He fasted, and far more often than the Law of Moses required. Clearly, he made time in his busy schedule to go to the temple to pray. That’s always a good thing, right? The Pharisees, remember, were the most religious people of Jesus’ day. They were very diligent in reading their Bible and trying to keep the Ten Commandments as strictly as possible. Tax collectors, on the other hand, were the extortioners and the unjust ones, dishonestly overcharging people. And they may have been viewed as adulterers, spiritually speaking. Tax collectors worked for the Romans, and therefore were associated with their idolatrous worship, often compared to adultery in the Old Testament.
The Pharisee, however, was making a show out of his religiosity. He stood out in a very public place in the temple courts to make sure everyone could see him … and probably hear him, too. But listen to how our Lord told us how to pray: “…when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” (Matt. 6:5-6)
This Pharisee “went to church.” But there was no true faith in his heart. He had no clue about his true sinful nature nor about God’s mercy. He was simply trusting in his own goodness and assumed he could somehow manipulate God to approve of him by his actions. “God simply has to love me because I’m such a good guy,” you can imagine him thinking.
St. Luke tells us that Jesus told this parable to those who “trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt.” (Luke 18:9) It’s clear that this Pharisee fits that description. His level of self-esteem was through the roof. When he compared himself to others, he despised them. He considered them to be nothing, unworthy of any care or attention.
In the case of Cain in our Old Testament lesson, this led to murder. Cain held his brother in contempt. He was jealous that Abel’s offering was accepted by God, but not his own. It wasn’t the type of offering that was brought, but the attitude of the heart. Abel had faith in God’s mercy, Cain did not. Abel was “commended as righteous,” not Cain. (Heb. 11:4) So Cain – resentful, despising his brother – lured Abel into the field, and killed him. I’ve always found it interesting that the first sin recorded after mankind’s fall into sin is neither a lie nor a child’s disobedience … although I’m sure there was plenty of that in the newly fallen world. No, the first recorded sin after the Fall is murder. And not just any murder. Fratricide. A brother kills his own brother. And Cain asks God, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” The implied answer is, “Yes, indeed you are. Why have you not cared for his needs but rather held him in contempt?”
“God, I thank you that I’m not like other men.” We’re all guilty of thinking this. I’m glad I’m not like that person … or that person … I’ve never committed THAT particular sin … or THAT one. Considering the story of Cain and Abel, we could add, “I’ve never murdered anyone!” But when explaining the Fifth Commandment – “You shall not murder” – Jesus said that if even if you say “You fool!” of someone you are in danger of going to hell. (Matt. 5:21-22) The Small Catechism explains that part of keeping the Fifth Commandment is to “help and support [our neighbor] in every physical need.” If we hold others in contempt and are unwilling to reach out in love and concern to them, then we are guilty of murder as much as Cain was.
And that brings separation from God. Cain was sent away from the presence of the Lord. The Pharisee went home unjustified. Guilty. Unforgiven. How ironic considering that he was doing his boastful praying in the temple, in the very place where God had promised his gracious presence would dwell. But he went to his home apart from God’s grace and mercy because he said, “Look at me, God … and see how good I am!”
The despised tax collector on the other hand stood at a distance. He did not even lift his eyes up to heaven. He couldn’t bear the thought of God looking at him. He beat his chest in sorrow and said, “Look at me, a sinner, O Lord, and be merciful to me!”
Public prayer was permitted in the temple courts in the morning and the evening at the same time as the daily sacrifices. And so, at the same time a lamb was being offered, this tax collector humbled himself before God and acknowledged his need for his sins to be covered over by the blood of the lamb. He went home justified. Declared not guilty. Exalted in the sight of God …not because of the tax collector’s goodness, but because of God’s mercy. Jesus said, “Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”
Those sacrifices in the temple pointed toward the One who told this parable. Jesus was the Lamb of God who humbled himself when he “made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.” (Phil. 2:7) He became one who was held in contempt. He suffered the contempt of his own people. He suffered the contempt that you and I deserve because of our sins. With our sins laid upon Jesus as the atoning sacrifice for the sins of the world, God the Father acted as though he despised his Son, abandoning him to the pains of hell at the cross. And the blood of this innocent, holy, righteous Lamb covers our sin.
Jesus humbled himself. God the Father exalted him, raised him up to life again on Easter, lifted him up to his right hand at his Ascension. Now, those who humble themselves are those who cry out for God’s mercy in Christ and do not trust in their own merits. And Jesus says they will be exalted. They will go down to their house justified … declared not guilty … forgiven. They will be raised up to new and eternal life in Christ. In death, they will be lifted up to heaven and will be raised up again on the Last Day because they have been joined to Christ’s death and resurrection in Holy Baptism.
St. Luke adds an incident which further illustrates this for us. He tells us how people were bringing infants to Jesus to have him touch them. They wanted Jesus to bless them, to show them his favor and love. The disciples tried to shoo the people and their babies away. But Jesus said, “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God. Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” (Luke 18:16-17) These infants were carried to Jesus, and Jesus touched them. They didn't ask for it. They had no choice in the matter. They simply passively received the blessing of Jesus.
So how does a baby receive the kingdom of God? They don’t have any ability to choose to believe or confess faith. They are helpless and must be brought to Jesus. They don’t have any ability to walk to the font. They must be carried there (in fact, older children often are brought kicking and screaming … how’s that for a picture of the old sinful nature not able nor wanting to be saved?). Faith is something that is given and received. Jesus lays his hands on babies and children in water and the Word and he blesses them. He makes them a part of his kingdom, the Church. His Almighty Word creates faith and trust in their hearts towards him as their Savior. And Jesus says that this is the way we all enter the kingdom of God.
You have been touched by Jesus. You received his touch as the Gospel was preached to you. You received his touch in the waters of Baptism. You received his touch in the words of Absolution. You will receive his touch in a few moments as you eat and drink his body and blood. Having received his touch, you can stand as the tax collector did and pray, “Look at me. See what a sinner I am. Have mercy on me. Apply the atoning sacrifice of Jesus to me. Forgive me for thinking I can somehow earn your approval by the things I do, my pious actions, my religious rituals. Forgive me for holding others in contempt, both those I encounter outside your church and those with whom I sit and worship in this 'temple.' It’s only because of Jesus’ obedience in my place and his death for my sins that I can go to my house justified. In the power of your Holy Spirit, help me to go from this place and be my brother’s keeper, serving them with the same mercy and grace you have shown to me.”