Justified (Luke 18:9-17)
Rev. Peter Heckert

+ Grace to you, and peace, from God our heavenly Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. + Amen.

The text for our meditation today comes from our Gospel text, especially where Luke records Jesus’ words, “Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” Here ends our text; my dear Christian friends …

We’ve got a unique text today, one which contains both a parable our Lord tells and a real-time event that occurs immediately thereafter. In the parable, we’ve got two characters, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. Both are entering the temple in Jerusalem, and they are united in purpose – to pray, which hearkens back to last week’s parable – but that’s the extent of the similarities between the two. 

The Pharisee saunters confidently to the front of the court of Israel within the temple, near the holy place. He’s alone there and seems to be rather pleased that he is able to so confidently approach such a holy place. There, separated from the rabble who clearly aren’t good enough, he offers up what Jesus generously calls a “prayer”: “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.” 

He may have been blessed by God to not struggle with certain sins and vices, but there’s a certain smugness about him, an enjoyment that he takes in, not only his own self-righteousness, but also that those around him aren’t as good as he is, according to his own standard of measure. He seems to have nothing but contempt for those who do struggle with temptations and sins of various types, and he seems to revel in their struggle.

Compare his conduct and disposition with that of the tax collector. Perhaps it is because he is so loathed by all those around him, but he lingers near the back. Far from heading straight for the holy place, he cannot or will not even lift his eyes up. He simply beats his breast and cries out his mea culpa, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” Jesus then tells us that, contrary to what the original hearers of His parable likely expected, it was the tax collector who went home justified, not the Pharisee.

This parable is followed with the incident of parents attempting to bring their infants and children to Jesus, in order “that He might touch them.” The disciples attempt to bar them, but our Lord puts them in their place. “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.” In Mark’s account of this event, he tells us that after this rebuke, Jesus “took them in His arms and blessed them, laying His hands on them.”

Have you caught the tie between this parable and this real-life event? If you haven’t, bear in mind the text we considered last week, which comes directly before this one. Think about the widow’s persistent plea, and how Luke sets up the parable by telling us, “[Jesus] also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt ….” This entire text—indeed, this entire chapter of Luke’s gospel account—is all about being justified.

The Pharisee thought that because he wasn’t like those terrible sinners around him and that he did what he could to fast and tithe, he was in God’s good graces. And the proof was in the pudding; he was in a position of authority and power and prestige. It’s not unreasonable to assume that he was fairly wealthy, so from all externals, it certainly seemed as though this Pharisee had God’s stamp of approval. Nothing about this mentality could be further from the truth. 

Far from being justified, the Pharisee is guilty of several sins in this prayer alone. Arrogance, self-importance, contempt for those who need compassion, but the literal damning sin is his self-reliance for his salvation. He trusts in his arbitrarily-measured ability to keep the Commandments to give him eternal life … not even realizing that this trust in his own ability (or, more accurately, his lack thereof) is idolatry. He didn’t trust. He didn’t believe YHWH his God to save him, and it was counted to him as unrighteousness.

In the same way, it wasn’t the tax collector’s piety that justified him. It was his trust, his belief, his faith in YHWH his God to justify him that actually … justified him. Several of our confession and absolution liturgies have a question and answer section where the pastor asks the penitent, “Do you believe that the forgiveness I offer is God’s and not my own?” At the reply of “Yes,” the pastor declares, “Let it be to you as you believe.” Indeed, the tax collector repented because he trusted God alone to forgive him, to justify him.

Yes, it truly is that simple. This shouldn’t come as any surprise; this is the same way God has always operated in our world from the Fall onward: believe God’s Word, and it is counted to you as righteousness. Trust in His Word of promise, that He will not despise the broken and contrite heart, and He will keep it. Perhaps this is why children are held up as the exemplar: in their helpless state, in their naiveté, they are unlikely to have reached the point where they can think erroneously that they can save themselves. Adults overthink these things; “Surely, it can’t be that easy! Surely, I must do something!” That’s the way the Pharisees thought, the way the rich young man who asks Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life thought, and that’s certainly the way the majority of human beings today think. If we’re honest with ourselves, we probably get caught up in this need for self-justification as well. But it is that easy, and no, there’s nothing that we can do. Our repentance flows from the gift of faith which trusts that God will forgive. As Luther wrote in his final words, “We are beggars, this is true.”

A child, an infant, cannot do anything for itself. It is entirely dependent on the love and care of others, especially their family. The same can be said of the Pharisee, the tax collector, and indeed, all of humanity. We are entirely unable to save ourselves, to justify ourselves before God Almighty. Thanks be to God, we don’t need to. Thanks be to God that the very One who told this parable, the One who welcomes the little children and blesses them in spite of the disciples’ protestations, is the same One who would, mere days after this pericope, lay down His life to atone for the sins of the whole world. All who believe this, who simply trust like a child that their sins are forgiven in Jesus Christ … they are the ones who stand justified. It is that simple. Allow your mea culpa’s to flow forth in repentance; our Lord hears you and is faithful in His promise to forgive.

+ In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. + Amen.