Sermon from the Twentieth Sunday After Pentecost

20th Sunday after Pentecost
October 23, 2022
By: Deacon Ben Remmert

Jeremiah 14:7-10, 19-22 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18 Luke 18:9-14

Grace and peace to you from our Lord and Savior, Jesus who is the Christ. Amen.

Great to be back preaching with you all today. Since the last time I preached in August, we have been moving through the Gospel of Luke. In Luke 14 Jesus told his disciples about the cost of being a disciple. In chapters 15-16 Jesus taught about God’s love and desire to find those who are spiritually lost and so we had the stories of: “The Lost Sheep”, “The Lost Coin”, and “The Lost Sons”. In Chapter 16 Jesus confronted the Pharisees regarding our ultimate destiny. He tells the story of “The Rich Man and Lazarus.” In Chapter 17 Jesus talks about the consequence of sin and the challenge to practice forgiveness with one another. In Chapter 18 Jesus teaches his disciples about the necessity of persistence and faith in prayer. He tells the parable of “The Widow and the Unjust Judge.”

The Word of God continues to engage us by hearing Jesus challenging the opinions of those around Him. Our Gospel reading is really broken down into two sections. The passage begins in the realm of imagination, in the form of a parable; but then leaves us in the realm of reality, as Jesus’ ministry is played in full view of His disciples. And in the end, we see the God’s love for us fallen creatures.

In the temple of Jesus’ day, a lamb was sacrificed at dawn for the sins of the people. A second similar sacrifice was offered at three in the afternoon. When the time came for the burning of incense, this was thought to be an appropriate time for private prayer. By this time in the service the sacrifice of the lamb had covered the sins of Israel and thus the “way to God was open for prayer.” The faithful could now approach God. It is likely that the two men in the parable were present for either the dawn or mid- afternoon ritual.

Like I said, the two sections of this passage are very much tied together, as the events unravel and we hear and join in the narrative of what I call “The Good, The Bad, and the Snuggly.” And the thread holding it together is found in that first verse. Jesus looked around Him and saw that He was surrounded by people “who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, [while treating] others with contempt.”

So, Jesus says to them, “Stop me if you’ve heard this one…Two men walk into the temple to pray. One a Pharisee, and the other a tax collector.” It certainly sounds like the beginning of a joke. See, we’ve grown up learning about Pharisees challenging Jesus and so we have always thought of them as the bad guys. But sometimes it’s good to step back and consider what Jesus is saying from the perspective of those around him.

If you were a first-century Palestinian, you’d find that the Pharisee, from a worldly perspective, was a good man–not so bad. He was a model Jewish citizen. The word “Pharisee” means “separated,” meaning they did not live like others. Which is really saying something, because the people of Israel were already supposed to be living holy lives, or “set apart,” to the Lord. They were already supposed to be living differently than all the other nations of the earth. Then, within this group, the Pharisees arose, setting themselves apart. So, it’s no surprise, then, to hear Jesus telling the story saying the Pharisee stood by himself. He was physically setting himself apart from everyone else in the temple that day–up front, away from everyone, but in full view of them all. And all who heard his prayer would have admired him. He did what was right according to the Law. And if you question the validity of that statement, just look to his example. He fasted and tithed more than what was required by the Law of Moses. Only one fasting a week was prescribed—this guy’s doing double duty. And tithing was only required for certain specific profits—this guy is giving 10% of everything. Not just 10% of what he makes, but 10% of ALL he possesses! If anyone was right before God, we could think, this guy is it. Anyone would be happy to have him serve on their church council (or on a stewardship campaign). Everyone would be more than happy to welcome this guy into the family.

Then there is the tax collector. Your blood boils just at the thought of this person. The tax collector, from a worldly perspective, was deplorable. He was considered a traitor for working with Rome. A sort of “puppet” doing the bidding of a foreign world power. He was not honest with his taxes, using certain loopholes to get more money than he should have. The government gave him certain responsibilities relative to his dealings there in the Middle East—but he often betrayed their trust. He should’ve been thrown in prison, but the authorities had no one else to hold this office, no better system for collecting their taxes. From his job to his politics, to his lifestyle—everything about this guy flies in the face of your values and what you believe and uphold. He was no model citizen, and everyone knew it—including himself!

In fact, the tax collector’s prayer is suggestive of this, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” It’s as if this man wakes up every day with a weight of guilt on his mind. God, be merciful to me, a sinner. It’s as if he looks in the mirror every day and hates the person, he sees looking back at him. God, be merciful to me, a sinner. It’s as if he feels he cannot stop himself from engaging in his sinful lifestyle—he’s been doing it for so long. God, be merciful to me, a sinner. It’s as if time and time again he catches himself going through with these sinful acts and is immediately overwhelmed with a sense of guilt; a feeling of hopelessness, because “There I go again”; a feeling of doubt that God could ever love someone who so often breaks God’s Law. God, be merciful to me, a sinner. And then, he goes to worship that day and sees all around him, all these people; he hears the prayer of that Pharisee and beats his chest and he tries his best to hide in the back pew and says, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” The only one here, apparently. The only one in need of mercy. The only one who doesn’t measure up to these people around. The only one who just cannot get it right. So, God, be merciful to me, THE sinner.

Both men who came to pray that day needed God’s grace; but only one of them realized it. Only one of them acknowledged that salvation could only be attained outside of himself, outside of his own abilities and goodness. And for that reason, only one of them walked away that day looking favorable before God. And it’s not the one we would pick from a worldly perspective, either. No, it’s the tax collector who goes away getting even more than he asked for. He had requested God’s mercy–lenience for what he had done, “God, don’t give me the full weight of Your wrath, please!” But, instead, he gets justification; he gets righteousness before the throne of God. He goes away with far more than he what he asked. “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled,” Jesus says, “but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” See, God does not judge according to our standards or thinking. Worldly goodness can be good, but our good works do not save us. It does not make us righteous before the throne of God.

This is what Martin Luther would call, “The Two Kinds of Righteousness.” The idea that from a worldly perspective, one person can appear more righteous than another. For instance, the lady in front of you at Starbucks might’ve paid for your coffee, but it’s not like she gave up her life to live and help the impoverished people of Calcutta. And for another extreme example, Joe Schmoe lied in his job interview, but at least he didn’t participate in mass genocide. So, comparatively, he’s not so bad after all. From strictly a worldly perspective, then, you can see how someone might be considered more righteous than another; you can see how a Pharisee could be better than a tax collector. From a worldly perspective, you quickly think that one sin is NOT as bad as the next.

But what about before God? Again, God doesn’t judge according to our standards or thinking. Because our good works do not–cannot–save us from the fact that we are covered in sin, and every good thing we do is tarnished by imperfection. For that reason, everyone who exalts himself; everyone who points to their own merit, will be humbled—cast out from before the throne. We can only say, like the Tax Collector, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” Without comparing ourselves to anyone or anything except for a holy and righteous God and the standards God demands, we simply humble ourselves, seeking God’s grace alone.

And it is there the Savior lifts us up. Because, while on our own we would be separated from God forever, God was unwilling to leave it that way. So, Christ humiliated Himself so we might be exalted. Christ became flesh so humanity may be restored. Christ died so that death may be destroyed. Christ rose so that we have life abundantly. And for all who fall before God seeking mercy; for all who try to hide in the back, praying and beating their chest in humility and guilt; for everyone who recognizes how helpless and needy they truly are, Jesus says, “They’re with me. I’ve got them covered.” And Christ’s righteousness becomes our own.

And it’s here that our text leaves the realm of imagination and picks up in the realm of reality, putting the parable into practice. And we see the kingdom belongs to so many more than we can fathom. The kingdom belongs to the humble. The kingdom belongs to the dependent. The kingdom belongs to those who are helpless and needy. The kingdom belongs to those who rely entirely on someone else to do all the work for them–especially when it comes to salvation. We’ve seen the good. We’ve seen the bad. And now, the snuggly.

People were bringing children to Jesus for him to touch them. Not just children, but infants, even. You can maybe understand why the disciples thought this was a bit weird, and a huge distraction and began turning them away. Why should an important teacher be wasting his time on this class of people? And that might sound harsh, but that’s how it was. If you look at the context of the time, children had no social standing, no rights, really. Children were looked down on. Children were nothing but a pain. After all, infants are the most helpless, needy creatures on the planet! They can do nothing for themselves or anyone else.

I say that with all the love and affection as a father myself. They can do nothing for themselves or for anyone else. Someone else is responsible for feeding them, changing them, burping them, clothing them, bathing them, changing them, making sure they’re breathing, cutting their fingernails, washing their clothes, putting away their toys, etc. Babies are entirely dependent on someone else for everything. And Jesus says, “Exactly! To such belongs the kingdom of God.”

To those who, like infants, rely on the love and work of someone outside of themselves, that’s who my kingdom belongs to. “Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” It’s not about the “innate wisdom” children have that adults can’t comprehend, when it comes to matters of faith. It’s about the fact that these little ones are helpless and can precisely do jack-squat! And so, like children who can do nothing but cry, trusting that they will be heard; like the tax collector who sought salvation outside of his own works; we rely solely on God’s grace in Christ Jesus.

The struggle is real, but along with it, the snuggle is real. You know, when you think about it, when you consider everything you have to do for your children and grandchildren, there is no rational reason for the desire to snuggle children. There is no logical reason why at 3:30 in the morning, when they have woken you up from a deep sleep, walking into their room shouldn’t put a smile on your face when they are looking up with bright eyes and a look that says, “I’m not sleepy, Dada/Mama! I’m not going to go down that easy!” Why is it that that puts a smile on our faces? And that’s the kind of love our God has for us. An irrational love that defies all logic. A love that will do anything to put an end to our tears; an end to our pain; an end to our discomfort. By grace alone, the Kingdom belongs to you, to me, and all of God’s children. Amen.