THIS MAN WENT HOME JUSTIFIED
Dear Christian friends,
“It’s not my fault!” Does that sound familiar? A teacher hears it; a supervisor hears it. Any and all parents have heard it. What is behind that statement? A person often attempts to justify himself or herself for what he did or didn’t do. A person who says this is shifting the blame to get out of whatever consequences might be coming.
All of this is kind of ironic in light of the fact that the word justify is one of the most important words in the Bible. The Greek word means that “God declares us not guilty in his courtroom.” But when we use it in everyday speech, it almost always means that we make an excuse. That difference illustrates the theme of our Lenten devotions this year. We’re are going to hear about irony. One dictionary defines irony as “a combination of circumstances or a result that is the opposite of what . . . might be expected.” Jesus’ passion is filled with irony. Tonight, we’re considering a parable Jesus told. What is the irony, the unexpected result? “This Man, the Tax Collector, Went Home Justified.”
Now, maybe this parable doesn’t seem all that ironic to us. Maybe we have heard it so much and have been grounded in the Word and the promises of Gospel that it doesn’t seem strange. But think about it! The gospel, the good news of Jesus, promises results that are the opposite of what anyone has the right to expect. People were surprised when Jesus taught that the man, the tax collector, went home justified and not the man who tried to follow God’s laws.
Jesus told this parable to people who were confident of their own counterfeit perfection. He was talking to people who thought they were sufficiently righteous to make the Lord proud of them. Jesus says, “To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’
Two men went up to the temple in Jerusalem to pray. One was a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. At that time lots of things could be said about Pharisees. You might be surprised to hear that the news about them might be both good and bad. We use that term “Pharisee” exclusively as a negative term. Someone who is pharisaical is someone who thinks he is better than someone else.
The Pharisees were the group of Jews who grew out of the Hasidim. Historically, when Judaism was being taken over by the politically-minded and religiously indifferent class, the Hasidim were the ones who stayed pious and made the distinction between the religious and the political. But like a lot of things instead of staying with the straight and narrow, they ended up going from the ditch on this side of the road to the ditch on the other side of the road. They became religiously arrogant and self-righteous. Soo the Pharisee prayed, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.” We cringe at that prayer, don’t we? But how did the audience Jesus was speaking to react?
To understand that better let’s take a look at tax collector who also went to the temple to pray. “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ Tax collectors worked for the Romans who had conquered the Jewish nation. The Romans collected taxes. Lots of crooked stuff came from it all. The Romans allowed tax collectors collect far more than the government required. It was common practice that the tax collectors kept the difference. They were some of Israel’s richest but despised people. Again and again the Bible links them in the company of prostitutes and sinners. They, as well as you, are known by and influenced by the company that you keep.
This tax collector was different, however. “He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’”
So let’s talk about one of the ironies of this parable. Let’s look even more closely to the word Pharisee. As I said prior, that word means proud and self-righteous. We can’t imagine a Pharisee as anything else than a hypocrite. The gospels back up that assessment.
But to the first-century Jew,
Pharisee meant something else. St. Paul was raised a Pharisee, and he was proud of that label before he came to faith. The Pharisees were the people who defended a strict interpretation of the Old Testament law. They held that the Scripture really was the Word of God. They were theologically opposed to the Sadducees who were like the theological liberals of today who seem to doubt everything about the Bible and God. They didn’t have much use for Moses and the Prophets
So when this man said that he was not a robber or an evildoer or an adulterer— that was outwardly close to true. Pharisees, for the most part, didn’t break into people’s houses or shoplift. He had never committed any crime that could get him thrown in jail. He didn’t sleep around. To put it in modern terms, he didn’t even have a traffic ticket. To any first-century Jewish observer, there was a clear difference between him and the tax collector.
Pharisee avoid all that, but he gave 10 percent of his income to the Lord, just like the Old Testament laws commanded. He fasted twice a week. God commanded in the Law of Moses to just once a year. Instead of hoarding their money and being so dishonest about it, they prided in their tithes. So, it’s pretty easy to see why this Pharisee was pleased with the kind of man he was.
But this is one of the great ironies of Scripture. The Scriptures tell us that even though we might be doing the right thing, if it is for the wrong reason it’s sin. This man was confident of his own righteousness. He thought he was earning points with God, tipping the balances in his favor with God. He thought his record book with the Lord was unstained. But he wasn’t! He ignored everything God said in the Old Testament about needing a new heart, about approaching God with humility, about being holy like the Lord God is and not falling so miserably short like he was if he had been more honest with himself. He certainly did not plead for God’s mercy.
Another great irony of Scripture is that people who think they can keep God’s
Law have to rewrite those laws to make themselves look better. Instead of keeping God’s law perfectly trying hard becomes good enough. One good deed cancels out the bad. Instead of perfection God becomes a 50 percenter; do one good for every bad and that’s good enough.
We cut off the parts we can’t keep—like having a pure heart and a humble spirit. Soon we become people who say and believe down deep, I am closer to the person you want, Lord, than the one over there. I don’t use drugs. I stay out of trouble. Look at all I do for my congregation—I’ve served on the Council, I have taught Sunday School, I give 10 percent of my income to the church. I never miss a Lenten service, and I always help and clean the church. I always stay behind and make sure that I am the last one out the door.”
Could we offer that prayer? If we did, what would be wrong with it? He does expect us to love our spouses and our children. He does call us to keep our bodies pure and free from things that harm us. He does expect us to support the work of the church with our offerings, our time, and our talents. So what’s the problem?
The same problem this Pharisee had—pride. If we’re doing all that and think that makes us righteous before God because that makes us righteous before God or better than someone else; if we are separating our shoulders patting ourselves on the back for all we do, if we ignore the areas of our hearts and lives where we sin and tell ourselves that we’re better Christians than all those others, then we have done nothing that God considers righteous. We are sinners, born and bred. Our sin is like filthy rags in God’s sight.
Jesus is the only reason God accepts our efforts. He died and paid for the sin in our hearts that contaminates every effort we ever make to serve God. He died and paid for the pride and sin that cuts off those parts of God’s law we cannot do and that adds things God never commanded
The irony in this parable is that the man who thought of himself as a committed,
church going follower of God failed to grasp the meaning of repentance for a new life.
But the man who lived a sinful life understood what it means to repent, and he threw himself on God’s mercy. This man, who humbled himself before God, went home justified.
The tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even lift his eyes to heaven.
He prayed simply, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” He understood that he could make no defense in God’s courtroom. In our society, even the most obviously guilty criminals have a right to a defense in court. They can hire a lawyer. They can try to convince the jury that they really didn’t do whatever they’re accused of. They can sing and dance and argue, and sometimes it even works. But in God’s courtroom, there are no lawyers’ games. There are no technicalities. There are no miscarriages of justice. God has all the evidence before him because he knows all that we’ve done and said and even all that we’ve thought and felt.
This tax collector didn’t lie to himself about his righteousness. He understood that the only verdict God’s court could be and should be was “guilty.” So he threw himself on God’s mercy.
What is mercy? It’s the desire to help someone who’s in trouble. It’s what we feel when we see news reports about cities destroyed by hurricanes, and so we send money to buy blankets and medicine. God has mercy on sinners. He knows that we deserve to die and go to hell, but he loves us and wants us to reach heaven. So he sent his Son to live and die and rise again to wipe away all record of our sin.
In 1984 300 postal workers received their paychecks three days late--because their original checks were lost in the mail. That’s an irony. What Jesus teaches us tonight is that there is an irony in knowing that people who know they are lost have been found and people who think they are the way are really lost.