Sunday, September 4, 2011

Homily for The Eleventh Sunday after Trinity(Trinity 11)


Luke 18:9-14; 1 Corinthians 15:1-10; Genesis 4:1-15

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.

The scene in Jesus’ parable is played out week after week, each and every Lord’s Day, in this modest temple of the LORD and in Christian churches, basilicas, and cathedrals large and small, glorious and humble, throughout the world. Two men go to church to pray, one a self-righteous Pharisee of a Christian, the other a humble and repentant sinner and beggar of a Christian. The former trusts in his own righteousness by his works and so stands condemned in his sins; the latter boasts of nothing in himself but instead confesses his sins and unworthiness and pleads for God’s mercy. And, as in Jesus’ parable, it is this latter man who leaves church today justified, that is, made right with God, and not the former.

Each and every one of you must come into this temple each and every Sunday, and each and every day were it offered, to confess your sins and your unworthiness and to plead for mercy from your God and Father through Jesus Christ. For just as there is no distinction between the Pharisee and the tax collector, so there is no distinction between the disobedient child, the petty thief, the adulterous husband, the murderer on death row and the outwardly pious, respected, and obedient Christian – there is no distinction when it comes to justification, being made right with God. For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and [all] are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.

However, what you must understand is that the Pharisee in Jesus’ parable was telling the truth. All the things that he boasted of before the LORD were true and they were good. He wasn’t an extortioner, a blackmailer, or a thief. He wasn’t outwardly unjust, he wasn’t an adulterer or even a tax collector. Rather, he was faithful in his prayers, he fasted twice a week, which was more than commanded by the law, and he gave tithe on all of his income. He was pious and he was fervently religious. He kept the law better than anyone else and everyone respected and revered him as a faithful and pious man of God. Indeed, the Pharisee in Jesus’ parable is the kind of man every pastor would gladly have in his parish despite his sometimes boorish arrogance. He is the kind of man you would look up to as an outstanding example of godliness, faithfulness, and piety, even if he did look down his nose a bit at the hoi polloi of obvious and notorious sinners.

But the tax collector, in contrast, I wouldn’t invite him into my home and I’d watch him closely around the collection plates, my wife, and the children of the parish. The tax collector is the kind of man that you’d pass by on the street, likely crossing to the other side to avoid. You might even report him to the authorities. He made his living and a whole lot more extorting people by charging whatever he wanted in taxes he collected for the hated Romans. He likely lived in luxurious squalor at the expense of his own people, spending the peoples’ hard earned money, which he stole from them, on wine and women and worse. Though he wins the day in Jesus’ parable because he is humble and repentant and Jesus says that he, and not the Pharisee, went home that day justified, don’t you suspect that the next day, and every other day of the week after that, that the tax collector was right back at his old ways? And then, the next Sabbath, there he is once again in the temple in humility and repentance, beating his breast in sorrow over his sins, pleading for mercy from God? And you know what? God will forgive him again, and again, and again, and again.

But why? That’s unfair! That’s unjust! Yes, it is, thanks be to God! Thanks be to God that He does not give us what is just. Thanks be to God that He does not give us what we do deserve, what we have earned, and what we have merited. For, there is no distinction between the Pharisee and the tax collector when it comes to justification. Indeed, despite all of the Pharisee’s good and pious works, and despite all of the tax collector’s wicked works, there is no distinction between them. And, likewise, there is no distinction between you and the worst sinners you can imagine. For, as St. Paul writes, “There is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and [all] are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.”

What this means is that your righteousness, your right relationship with God, does not depend upon you, or upon anything you do, or even upon your repentance or what you believe, but it depends upon one thing, and one thing only, Jesus’ Christ’s atoning death and resurrection. This St. Paul also writes in what can only be described as a creed, “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that He was buried, that He was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures.”

Thus, the reason that the good and pious Pharisee went home that day still in his sins and not right with God is because he could not see that he was dead in his sins. The Pharisee believed in a God that would work with him and his good works, cut him some slack and say “Well done, good and faithful servant.” But what the Pharisee truly needed was not a God that could work with him, but a God who could raise Him out of death to new life. In contrast, that is exactly what the tax collector was looking for. He knew that he was a sinner. He knew that he had nothing to offer God. He knew that the best of his works were worse than filthy rags. He could not begin to look up to heaven but he bowed himself down in the dust and cried out, not for grace, not for leniency, not even for forgiveness, but the tax collector cried out only for mercy fully believing that he didn’t deserve even that! He likely knew in his heart that he’d fall right back into the same sinful wickedness tomorrow. That only served to drive him deeper into the hopelessness of being saved by his works so that he depended all the more on God’s mercy alone. The tax collector didn’t need a God to pat him on the back and send him on his way. He didn’t need a God who would overlook his failings and say, “That’s ok.” He needed a God who could raise him from the death of sin and from eternal death. And that’s the God the tax collector had. And that’s the God that you have too. You have the one and only God of Life who alone can raise you from death to life.

For, in death, as in life, there is no distinction. Indeed, death truly is the great equalizer, is it not? The good and the bad, the rich and the poor, it matters not, we all die. Each and every descendent of Adam and Eve is conceived and born in sin, and the wages of sin is always and invariably death. “Who can deliver me from this body of death?” asks St. Paul. “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord.” For, Jesus Christ your Lord did not come to reform the reformable or to improve the improvable, but Jesus came to raise the dead. Jesus came to raise those dead in their sins to true and eternal life in Him. But if you insist that you have no sin, or that your sin is not so bad as to be fatal, you deceive yourself and you remain in your sin and in death. For, only the dead can be raised, and only sinners can be forgiven. Therefore, empty yourself of your pride and your arrogance. Confess your sins and repent. Throw yourself daily before God’s mercy and trust that, through Jesus Christ, God is merciful and God has forgiven. And live a new life, Jesus’ life, to the glory of the Father. But, beware of the complacency of measuring your goodness against others. Rather, measure yourself against God’s standards—then repent. For, God is ready to justify the worst of sinners, even you, by His generous grace in Jesus Christ.

In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.

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