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Humble Yourself

August 23, 2020
By Rev. David French

In today’s lesson we meet a Pharisee and a tax collector. It’s a fairly straight-forward parable; in general, easy to understand. So easy, in fact, we may assume things or miss some of the finer details that also reinforce eternal truths.

We see, for example, how different God’s gift of justification is from the Pharisee’s idea of justification. And I’m not talking about the faith versus works difference. We all see that. No, I’m talking about the objective justification God offers, free and complete, and the subjective justification earned (at least in his mind) by the Pharisee.

In our text we’re given a picture of a broken man, a betrayer of his people, a Jew by birth and a Roman tax collector by choice who’s been cut to the heart by the truth of his sin and cries out to God for mercy … and we’re told he went home justified before God. The Pharisee, who could see the sins of others but not his own, judged himself not by the demands of the Law, but by comparing himself with those around him. The end result of his self-glorifying was that while he no doubt felt good about himself, we’re told that he went home unjustified. That is, still under God’s condemnation because his sin remained.

You see, with God there are no “better than” comparisons to be made. And, while some people do behave worse than others, none of us are perfect. The truth is, in our mind’s eye, we all see others as having a higher or lower standing in life than we judge ourselves to have. It’s one of those lies that’s easy to believe, but you know as well as I do, the truth is, we are all sinners. We are all in need of God’s mercy and we all need His Spirit, working through His Word, to open our minds and hearts to the truth that Christ has fulfilled the law for us. Truly, we are saved by grace alone.

You may not know that the tax collector doesn’t literally say “God be merciful to me,” but “God, be propitiated to me.” Now, propitiation is pure Old Testament sacrificial language. It’s a word that we just don’t use much, if at all, today. It’s a word that means “to appease or to satisfy.” It’s more the reason to expect mercy than a cry for mercy.

Another dot most of us wouldn’t connect to anything, but would jump off the page to a first-century Jewish disciple, is that just before prayers at the temple began, the high priest would be in the inner-court of the temple preparing a whole unblemished lamb, that is flesh and blood, as a burnt offering to God on the altar of sacrifice. That happened twice a day, morning and evening. The altar fire never went out and the sacrifice to God never ended. It was a visible sign that the people could see to know that their Almighty God was being propitiated; that is, His wrath against sin was being appeased. As God said in our psalm, “your burnt offering is continually before me.”

This daily offering also pointed to a yearly offering on the Day of Atonement. On that day, after the priest killed the unblemished lamb, he would collect the blood in basins. Half of the blood would be put on the four corners of the altar as well as on the mercy seat that covered the ark of the covenant which was God’s earthly throne, the place where He could be with His people. The other half was sprinkled on the people covering their sins with the blood of the lamb. And so, the blood of the lamb without blemish fulfilled two purposes. First, it appeased God’s wrath against sin. Second, it satisfied the debt owed to God for sin. Even as it reminded His chosen people in a very tangible way that their God was propitiated, He was satisfied that His demands had been met and they were forgiven. Again, not because of their faithfulness or good deeds, but because they were covered with the blood of the lamb without stain.

So, what does all this have to do with the tax collector’s or our cries for mercy? Remember, the tax collector or the sinner doesn’t asked God to be merciful to him. He asks God, for the sake of the body and blood of a lamb on the altar, to be propitiated towards him.

Today, we seek God’s mercy through the eternal sacrifice of the body and blood of Christ on the cross. That is, we ask God, for the sake of Christ, to be who He has showed and told us He is, the One who freely and daily forgives sinners. 

Remember where the tax collector put his faith. It wasn’t in his works or education or wealth or social standing. No, his faith was focused on the lamb being offered on the altar of sacrifice for all of God’s children as he was going in to pray. You can picture him looking at the smoke of the sacrifice as it was ascending as a pleasing aroma to the Lord crying out: “Show me your mercy oh God, not because I deserve it but because of your promise and the body and blood of the lamb burning on your altar for me.”

You see, this man knew his sin. He didn’t try to justify himself or to blame others or look for someone worse. In his heart of hearts, He could see and feel the true weight of his sin. And when he looked into his heart through the lens of the law written on it, what he saw filled him with shame and fear. According to God’s law, the Pharisee and tax collector in our text, the person in your pew or at home in a comfy chair watching online or standing in this pulpit are all sinners. The tax collector understood that and did the only thing he could do. He turned to God and begged for mercy. He knew he didn’t deserve mercy, but he believed God’s promise to be merciful to him because of the unblemished life that had been sacrificed for his sin. By grace through faith, he trusted God’s promise, and as Jesus says, he went home “justified before God” while the Pharisee, we’re told, just went home, no doubt still feeling really good about himself.

So, humble yourself. But, understand that’s not easy to do nor is it a pleasant experience. As we learn from Luther’s small catechism, true repentance is both sorrow over sin and trust in God’s word of forgiveness. We can be honest with ourselves and with our God because we know Christ has with His body and blood has already paid for our sins - even though we also know we don’t deserve it, we have been forgiven.

And so, Christ comes to you again this day to be with you, to share His table with you, to feed you with His life-giving Word and His true Body and Blood; the same Body and Blood that appeased God’s wrath for all sin on the altar of His cross. Hold tightly with the faith God gives to His Lamb, who is the Christ, for in Him alone is our life. And, be confident, not in yourself, but in Him who also rose from the dead and has promised he will never leave nor forsake you.

My friends, our triune God has paid for your sin, washed you with His blood, called you by name, and on the day of your baptism into Christ, made you His precious child. 

In His name, Amen.

Tags: Luke 18:9-17