Standing And Status Before God   Luke 18:9-15 Top of FormBottom of Form

As we stand one week before the 505 Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation one writer noted that “In most big libraries, books by and about Martin Luther occupy more shelf room than those concerned with any other human being except Jesus of Nazareth.” In other words, next to Jesus Christ, Martin Luther is the next most written about person in history. As we prepare to celebrate the Reformation next week, we remember and give thanks for the man, but also for the moment, and the movement.

We remember and celebrate the Gospel truth that Martin Luther brought back to the forefront of the church and society. Our Gospel text for this morning captures one of the Reformation’s central questions and teachings: How do I approach God? What determines my standing and acceptance before Him?

Jesus gives us an answer. Luke tells us that Jesus tells this parable because some trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and that they treated others with contempt. In other words, they thought that they could approach God on their own, and that their lives were acceptable before Him. But Jesus says this is not the case, and it is the reason why He tells us this parable.

He begins, “Two men went up into the temple to pray”.  I once saw a video of a Prayer seminar where the instructor told those present all pray together, at the same time…out loud. It was a different and unique experience. Everyone could hear the other people pray.  It was very unique and different. 

But the point of this experience was this was how prayer in the temple would be. The time for prayer at the temple was at 9:00 a.m. and 3:00 p.m. when the sacrifices would done. People liked to pray there because it was the location of God’s presence.  Everyone prayed out loud, standing up. Everyone could hear the prayers of everyone else, and everyone was listening.

Jesus tells us the first prayer is Pharisee. The Pharisee stands by himself, away from everyone else. However, while he is separate from everyone else, he isn’t too far away, for he wants people to hear what he has to say.   He starts off his prayer with a word of thanks: “God, I thank you…” And what does he thank God for? He thanks God that he isn’t like others, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, and the worst of all, tax collectors. He thanks God that he is not like those bad people, those despicable, disgusting, degenerate sinners. The Pharisee tells God why he is so much better, he tells God his credentials.

He says, “I fast twice a week”. The Law commanded that people had to fast once a year, but he goes above and beyond that! He does it 104 times a year, or once every three and a half days! He boasts that he tithes, but in reality he tithes of all that he gets. He gives 10% of his garden herbs, grain, goods, you name it, he tithes it! The Pharisee goes above and beyond what the Law requires and demands. He thinks he is well with God by what he does, and approaches God on that basis. He gives thanks to God for himself and not for what He has given. He petitions God for nothing since he thinks he needs nothing. With a record and resume like his, you can see why he might think that.  But the Pharisee is not the only person praying in the temple, out loud.

Jesus turns our attention to a man in the back of the room, hunched over. He turns our attention to a tax collector. In Jesus’ day, tax collectors were a hated group of people, and honestly, for good reason. To be a tax collector, you had to bid for the right to collect taxes for Caesar. The higher the winning bid, the higher the amount of taxes one would need to collect to pay for the bid cost, taxes themselves, and to make a personal profit. These people then worked with the Romans and had their backing as they collected taxes and exploited their own countrymen for gain.  How would you feel knowing that the person is who collecting your taxes is also taking extra money from you for their own personal gain? It would be infuriating. No wonder they are a despised, disliked, and detested group of people.

Jesus tells us what this tax collector does. He stands far away (is this where Lutherans get the idea of sitting in the back?), keeps his head bowed, and eyes glued to the floor. He will not dare to lift his eyes up to God in heaven above, and he beats his breast as a sign of repentance. And like the Pharisee, he starts his prayer the same, “God,” but confesses, “be merciful to me, a sinner!”

The tax collector sees his insufficiency and inability to live according to God’s Law. He completely admits it. He sees His faults, failures, mistakes, and mess-ups, and he summarizes it all in one word: sinner! He won’t even pretend or imagine that he can please God or approach him. The tax collector sees his need for God’s mercy and forgiveness, and flings himself to it.

Which man who went up to pray went home right with God? Which man went home justified, declared righteous in his sight? Was it the seemingly pristine Pharisee, or the terrible tax collector. I think it is obvious, isn’t it?

It is…the tax collector, the one who threw himself on God’s mercy and clung to God’s grace. It was God’s mercy and grace that made him acceptable in his sight. God is the reason he went home justified.

But, what about us? How do we approach God? What affects our standing and status before him? We could try the Pharisee approach. We could try to show God all that we do, how we might be better than everyone else, or, at the very least, point out others we think we are better than everyone else. 

Luther tried this approach, too. When he became a monk, he thought that this would give him an easier path to heaven by all the good he was going to do. However, it only made things worse. Instead, it opened his eyes even more to how bad he really was, how he truly falls short of what God demands. If we are honest, we see that ourselves. We could never approach God on our own, or on our own merits and works. Luther realized this as he read Scripture, and it drove him to the other approach, that of the tax collector.

The tax collector was the one who went home justified. The word “to justify” means “to be declared righteous,” or “acceptable before God.” It can be helpful to picture a court room scene where a judge makes a verdict.  Jesus took our place under the Law and took on our sin. On the cross, He bore the responsibility and blame for all our sinful actions. When God looked at Jesus on the cross, He said, “Guilty!” When God looks at us, He says, “Not guilty!” because of Jesus.

We receive this verdict of God through faith, and no sin but unbelief can change the verdict for the believer.

This verdict was given to us at our baptism, where we were marked with sign of the cross, “not guilty.”

This verdict is declared at the start of each service in the absolution when I proclaim, “Not guilty! Forgiven!”

We receive this verdict when we commune, for we receive the proof of our salvation and righteousness before God in the body and blood of Jesus.

Our standing and acceptance before God is only based on grace. It is not based on works since we will always fall short. The Pharisee approach just won’t do! It is because of Christ that we can approach God. Luther summarizes the message and says it well when he said, “When I look at myself, I don’t see how I can be saved. But when I look at Christ, I don’t see how I can be lost.” IN JESUS’ NAME, AMEN.