160210 Luke 18:9-14 Ash Wednesday

Last Updated on Wednesday, 10 February 2016 Written by Pastor Pagels

Text: Luke 18:9-14
Theme: One Man Went Home Justified

Irony. As I moved from thinking about this sermon to putting some thoughts down on paper, I discovered that irony is a concept that is not exactly easy to explain. And it is much easier to give real-life examples than it is to come up with a definition.

Roaches infesting a pest control service. Weight Watchers and Baskin-Robbins sharing the same building. The words, "Nothing is written in stone," etched on a block of stone. Those are all examples of irony, but if you want to go beyond examples, if you want to come up with a working definition of irony, you could do worse than this: a figure of speech for the disconnect between what appears to happen or what apparently is said and the actual truth or reality.

We are in church, not English class, so why all this talk about irony? Because the theme of our midweek Lenten devotions this year is "Ironies of the Passion." Because there is no shortage of ironic statements and events leading up to our Savior's suffering and death. And the specific irony of tonight's text revolves around a single word: justify.

The coach who suspends his best player before the biggest game of the season will be forced by boosters and reporters to justify his decision. The husband who gets his wife a brand new vacuum cleaner for Valentine's Day will have a tough time justifying his choice of a gift. When we use the word, "justify," it is usually in the context of sticking up for ourselves, explaining our choices, presenting evidence to defend our behavior.

But in a theological context, the word, "justify," takes on a radically different meaning. In the New Testament "to justify" means "to declare not guilty." And we can't do that because we are guilty. Only God can remove guilt. Only God can forgive sin. Only God can declare a sinner to be "not guilty." And the Lord emphasizes that point in the parable before us on this Ash Wednesday.

Tonight Jesus introduces us to two men, two fictional but very believable characters who have much to teach us about ourselves and our relationship with God. And at the end of this story Jesus makes it clear that only...

ONE MAN WENT HOME JUSTIFIED

I. Not the one who tried to justify himself
II. But the one who humbled himself

The setting for this story is the temple in Jerusalem. Two men have come to this place for the same purpose, and both men begin their prayers with the same word ("God"), but that is where the similarities end.

The first man is a Pharisee. Pharisees were the spiritual elite of Jewish society. Pharisees were always quick to seize the high moral ground. They were more reverent and more obedient than their fellow Jews, and this particular Pharisee wanted everyone else in the temple to know it.

He prayed: "God, I thank you..." (11a). It was such a beautiful beginning. You or I might start a prayer that way. Christian parents want to teach their children to pray that way. If only the Pharisee would have stopped there. If only he would have said, "Dear God, I thank you. Amen." Unfortunately he didn't stop there. And as he continued he revealed that his prayer was not a prayer of thanksgiving at all.

He said: "God, I thank you that I am not like other men—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector" (11). Even if the Pharisee's hands were folded in prayer, he was verbally patting himself on the back. He wasn't a robber. He kept the seventh commandment. He was no adulterer. He had kept the sixth commandment. The way the Pharisee saw it, he had kept all of the commandments.

Actually, that isn't entirely true. The Pharisee didn't believe he had kept the law. He was convinced that his obedience went above and beyond the requirements of the law. And just in case God hadn't noticed, he was quick to point it out at the end of his prayer: "I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get" (12). The Law of Moses required faithful Jews to fast one day out of the year. He fasted two days out of every week. And on top of that, he gave God back 10% of everything he received whether he had earned it or not.

On the surface, the Pharisee looked very good. Because of his morality, because of his generosity, other people probably looked up to him. But what about beneath the surface? What was going on inside his head? What was in his heart? Why did he feel compelled to pray that prayer?

Luke doesn't include any details about the Pharisee's motivation, so anything we come up with will be speculation. It is possible that he was so impressed with himself, so full of himself, so blinded by sinful pride that he didn't realize how arrogant he was. Or maybe he knew himself better than he was letting on. Maybe he prayed that proud prayer to mask his insecurity. Maybe he drew attention to the good things he had done to deflect attention away from all the good things he hadn't done. Maybe he wasn't trying to convince the other worshipers in the temple of his special relationship with God as much as he was trying to convince himself.

Does that kind of attitude sound a little bit familiar? I am not accusing any of you of being Pharisees, but you are in church on a cold, cold Wednesday night. You must be pretty good Christians, right, the kind of people who read their Bibles and say their prayers? You might even be the kind of people that other people look up to.

So when you serve, is your primary motivation gratitude or guilt? Do you do what you do to thank God for everything he has done for you, or are you trying to convince God (and yourself) that he should accept you? And if you are working hard to earn God's respect, if you are running yourself ragged to earn God's favor, if you are trying to earn your ticket to heaven, how will you ever know if you have done enough?

One of the ironies of preaching on this parable on Ash Wednesday is that the Pharisee would have had no need to go to church on Ash Wednesday. Ash Wednesday is about confessing our sins. The Pharisee believed that he had no sins to confess. Ash Wednesday is about asking God for forgiveness. The Pharisee was convinced that he had no sins for God to forgive. On Ash Wednesday we look to Jesus as our only hope for salvation. The Pharisee didn't need to be saved, so he didn't need a Savior. And because his prayer was nothing more than a thinly veiled attempt to justify himself before God he did not go home justified.

Most worshipers probably didn't even notice the other man who was praying in the temple. He stood at a distance. His chin was buried in his chest. He was so ashamed of himself that he beat his chest. He knew what he had done. He knew what he deserved. But instead of giving up hope, he offered up a simple prayer: "God, have mercy on me, a sinner" (13).

The tax collector didn't try to compare himself to really bad people to make himself look good. He didn't put together a resume of all the good things he had done to make him appear more worthy of God's favor. Instead he stared at himself in the mirror of God's law. He saw himself for the helpless sinner that he was. And he realized that his only hope was to plead for mercy.

It wasn't a long prayer (only seven words), but it was powerful because it came from a heart of humble faith. And the faith of the tax collector was rewarded when Jesus declared: "I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted" (14).

Jesus didn't share this story with a specific group or class or people. The parable wasn't addressed exclusively to Pharisees or tax collectors or his disciples. Luke tells us that Jesus was talking to people "who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else" (9).

As you look out into that crowd of people, do you recognize anyone who fits that description? Maybe the classmate in school who is always talking about how great he/she is. Maybe the co-worker who is constantly correcting you or trying to tell you how to do your job. Maybe the friend whose annual Christmas letter feels like an excuse to brag about their family.

Do you see the irony here? When we complain about people who think they are better than us aren't we making ourselves out to be better than them? When we criticize the people who look down on the rest of us aren't we in a way looking down our noses at them? We would never stand up in the front of church and call out another worshiper like the Pharisee did, but would God have the right to judge us for the way we pass judgment on each other in our hearts?

Because you and I can be so much like the Pharisee, we need to follow the example of the tax collector. We need to bow our heads. We need to lay open our hearts. Not just on Ash Wednesday, but every day we need to confess: "God, have mercy on me, a sinner."

And when you humble yourself before the Lord, you have his Word that he will lift you up. He will hear your prayer. He will answer your prayer. He will have mercy. He already has.

Because of his mercy God sent his Son to take your place, to live a sinless life in your place, to die on the cross in your place, to make sure that you will have a place at his side in heaven.

Because of his mercy, God gives you his Holy Supper, and with Christ's body and blood he gives you the personal assurance that all your sins are forgiven.

Because of God's great mercy, you don't have to live with guilt or doubt or fear. Your Savior will be with you as long as you live. You know where you are going whenever you die. You can walk out of church tonight with your head held high because just like the tax collector you are going home justified before God. Amen.

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