Pastor Jim Kniseley presented this sermon at Resurrection on October 24, 2010, the 22nd Sunday after Pentecost. The sermon text is Luke 18:9-14, The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector at Prayer in the Temple.
Dear Friends at Christ here at Resurrection,
Last Sunday I preached at Bethel Lutheran Church in Winchester for their Consecration Sunday. Bethel is a congregation about our same size and they have had a challenging year. The economy and the reactions to the ELCA have taken their toll. Some members have left and their offerings have dropped. Their two beloved pastors accepted new calls out of state. Now they have new pastors, a husband-wife team. This Consecration Sunday in which people were indicating their financial commitments is still a new idea for them. The leadership is greatly concerned. Will they receive enough in pledges to do the ministry that is needed at Bethel? The initial report I received after the service is encouraging. Last year was the first time in many years that they received pledges. The total number of pledges last year from about 225 families was 70 pledges. Last Sunday they received 80 pledges and expect to receive 10 to 15 more. There was a 21% increase in pledges among the 80. As I left them last Sunday, they are certainly joyful and greatly encouraged.
Last Sunday I also participated in the adult forum at Bethel and heard again Dr. Mark Allen Powell’s lecture on “How Lutherans Interpret the Bible.” He made a point that is so true: How we hear and understand a Bible passage or story is greatly influenced by our own situation in life.
I tell you this because it’s true today for me as I read the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector in preparation for this sermon. I’ve read that parable lots of times, but this time I found a whole new meaning. The story did not change, but my life and your life has shifted enough that now new truths leap out that I never saw before.
In the parable, two men are at prayer in the Temple. Both are presenting themselves and what they have to offer in order to be acceptable to God. One is so self-righteous and the other is understandably humble. It would be so easy to dismiss the Pharisee because of his attitude problem. He lifts up all his virtues and good deeds. Here’s the “twist” that Jesus puts in this parable” that lets this be a story for all generations: this Pharisee represents what we encourage and promote here at Resurrection and most Christian congregations as being good and faithful members. Listen to what he says he does: I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income. I am not a thief, I am faithful to my wife, and I support our people and try to be just and fair with them.”
The Tax Collector everyone knows even before he enters the Temple is corrupt. He collects taxes on behalf of the Roman occupiers and often takes more than his share. He does not lift up any virtue to God and simply prays, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”
Jesus then does what he often does; he upends the world’s measure of value. He says, “I tell you, this Tax Collector went down to his home justified rather than the Pharisee; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” So, dear friends, how do you feel about Jesus’ teaching today? Feeling a bit humbled by life? This just might give you hope. Feeling like you have everything under control and you are really being a faithful Christian? This should give you reason to pause and ask the standard Lutheran question, “What does this mean?”
Several of the Bible commentators point out that this parable of Jesus is a wonderful seal of approval by Jesus on what we call The Doctrine of Justification by Faith. This doctrine is a "biggy" for Lutherans; it is the key insight that Martin Luther received that touched off the Reformation and continues to be a hallmark of what we teach and believe today. Luther said he was absolutely overcome when he read these words of St. Paul in Romans: “But now righteousness from God apart from law has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe.” (3:21-22)
“Where, then, is boasting? It is excluded. On what principle? On that observing the Law? No, but on that of faith. For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law.” (3:27-28)
Where did St. Paul gain his insight? This parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector from Jesus surely was an inspiration. Luke’s introduction to Jesus’ parable says this: “He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.”
Regarded others with contempt. I think that is a most important point in the parable. It might have been understandable if the Pharisee had simply expressed to God what he was doing to show he was trying to be faithful. He did something else that we often are tempted to do: he lifts himself up by putting down someone else. In his prayer he makes it a point to say, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.”
What we take away from this parable is this: God deserves all the credit. We strive to live a good, just and honorable life, but that is not what gets us to heaven or closer to God’s favor. Our neighbor who cannot boast of his own righteousness has equal standing before God. Attitude makes a big difference in how we understand and worship God. I think it sends a strong message to the world too: Not our righteousness but wholly that of God because of the loving sacrifice of Jesus on our behalf.
Now we come to the part of the sermon that I promised: Please take out your cell phone or i-pads or anything you have to electronically communicate with. The slogan of our congregation is “the inviting church.” Let’s practice what we preach by actually inviting folks to come to worship with us next Sunday, October 31, Reformation Sunday. We are putting our best foot forward by having wonderful music, the color all around will be red, we’ll do our best to have a fine sermon, we’ll have a good reception after each service, and we have something to present to all our guests. If someone says, “I already have a church, you could respond by saying that you will attend worship at their church sometime.” You might also invite them to our Health Fair this Saturday. Please take the next 3 or 4 minutes to give your invitation…