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Video of the Divine Service here.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Where are you looking? Jesus tells a parable about two men looking in two different directions. Two men, both going up to the temple, both going to pray, both starting their prayers with “God.” But that’s where the similarities end. I’m not even sure if they’re praying in the same direction. It’s possible that Jesus says that the Pharisee was standing by himself, praying these things. But it’s also possible that He says the Pharisee was standing, praying these things toward himself. That fits the prayer pretty well. The Pharisee isn’t looking at God, so much as he’s looking at himself and others. He’s looking at all the things about himself that he considers good, and he’s looking at all the things about others that he considers bad. He’s praying to himself, justifying himself, telling himself how good he is compared to others.
And that’s what we have to do if we’re going to justify ourselves. Because if we hear God’s Word, God’s Law, God’s commandments, we will never be able to justify ourselves in view of what He says. Justification can’t come by the law, Paul says. So we have to look at other people. We have to compare ourselves: I’m not as bad as that person. I don’t do what they do. I’m not like that. We give ourselves credit that we would never give to other people! But God doesn’t grade on the curve. Even if you were the best in the world, He doesn’t round you up to 100%. It’s all or nothing.
The Pharisee is looking at his good and everyone else’s evil. But the tax collector is looking at his evil and God’s good. God, have mercy on me, a sinner! This isn’t the same word for mercy that we heard a few weeks ago from the lepers, who stood far off and said, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” This is a different word that means something like “mercy in view of a sacrifice that pleases God.” The tax collector is saying the opposite of the Pharisee. If he needs any mercy, the Pharisee wants God to give it to him because of his own good and lack of evil. Have mercy on me in view of me! The tax collector, though, asks God to have mercy on him in view of the sacrifice of another—the sacrifice, finally, of the one telling the parable.
God doesn’t have mercy on us because we’re so nice, because He likes us so much, because we’ve proven ourselves worthy of His mercy. He has mercy on us in view of something completely outside of us, the sacrifice of Jesus. He is the willing sacrifice from whom the mercy of God flows. And the tax collector pleads that sacrifice and Jesus says that he’s the one who’s justified. The Pharisee had convinced himself that he was justified, that he was righteous. But that sort of righteousness will never stand up before God. Our righteousness is the flimsiest kind of righteousness. But the tax collector finds righteousness because it’s not his own. He who has his own righteousness will die by that righteousness. He who has no righteousness of his own will be exalted, lifted up, by the righteousness of another.
At first, the second part, about bringing infants to Jesus, doesn’t really seem to have anything to do with the first part. But it is exactly the same thing from another angle. Jesus says that it is to such as children that the kingdom of God—justification—belongs. That if we don’t receive it as a little child, we will never enter into it at all. Why? Because children are so cute and nice and innocent? No, because they aren’t anything. They are so helpless, they have to be brought by others. They don’t have anything in their hands. They haven’t accomplished anything. They don’t have all sorts of things to prove themselves before God or before other people. They have nothing.
Nothing like the tax collector has nothing. He brings nothing in his hands except his sin. And Jesus takes that, and gives him mercy and righteousness instead. This is the opposite of how the world works. In the world, you get because you have. You have to justify yourself. You have to prove yourself, why you deserve this or that. And if you have what is wanted, then you get what is wanted. But before God, we show our weakness, and He is our strength. We show our sin, and He gives us righteousness. We show our helplessness, and He is our Help. We show our unworthiness, and He is our Worth.
These aren’t the assigned readings for Reformation. Those are on the back of the bulletin, and you may want to read them on Thursday. These aren’t the readings for Reformation, but this is the Reformation message. Luther’s last words before he died were, “Wir sind Bettler. Hoc est verum.” We are beggars. This is true. Beggars like a tax collector pleading the sacrifice of Jesus for mercy. Beggars like infants, to whom everything has to be given. Beggars like sinners who have nothing of their own to give in return for forgiveness. But beggars to whom Jesus gives His own kingly riches. Beggars who come in the rags of their unrighteousness, but to whom Jesus gives His shining, resurrection righteousness.
We are beggars, this is true. But Jesus the King welcomes beggars the way He welcomes little children: come to Me, and I will give you My kingdom. Come and beg at My table. You’ll get far more than crumbs; you’ll get eternal life in My own body and blood. Come with nothing and He’ll give you everything. This is the truth. He is the Truth. And this Truth sets you free indeed.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.
— Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 10/25/19