Let’s be clear about what the problem is in today’s reading. When we hear the word “Pharisee” we think “bad,” and there’s reason enough for thinking it, especially in today’s reading. But let’s take his words at face value and consider them in light of our own lives. He says, “God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.” Are we not grateful to God that our lives are not defined by sin, that we are not slaves of vice or passion? Certainly we thank God that He has rescued us from the unbelieving world and pulled us back from our plummet toward hell and redeemed us and called us His own. We thank God that He has distinguished us in His Son, that Christ has ransomed our lives from death, that He has set apart the godly for Himself, and, though we certainly do not deserve it, that He has numbered us among the godly. We give thanks to God that we are righteous, not with a righteousness of our own, which we could never attain as sinners, but with the righteousness of our Lord Jesus, who is our righteousness and sanctification and redemption.
And can we not claim with the Pharisee that we have not given free reign to our flesh, but have disciplined it? We have not done this perfectly, alas, and Lord have mercy upon us! But just as the Pharisee claimed that he fasted twice a week, so also Christians can say that they have denied their flesh and not simply catered to its demands. Praise be to Christ, the Holy Spirit has not been idle in us, but has brought forth fruit and helped us in the war against the flesh. And this is worth dwelling on for a moment. As Christians we’re aware of our sins and feel them, but we should not for that reason turn a blind eye to the fact that we would be so much worse off if the Holy Spirit were not lending His aid and strengthening us in the fight. There are plenty of times you resist temptation. There are plenty of times do good works according to the Law of God, and that without even thinking about it. There are plenty of times when love for a fellow Christian is simply natural, and taking up your cross and following Jesus is a delight and not a burden, and you give of yourself and lose something earthly and are glad. Thanks be to God, the old man is crucified with Christ and dying, and the new man is daily emerging and arising to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.
And just as the Pharisee tithed, do we not recognize that our greatest treasure is not in this world, but in our Lord Jesus Christ? We may still feel the allure of mammon, but we regard the Gospel as our most precious possession, and we use our lesser possessions, like money, in service of that most precious possession. Our Lord has said concerning food and clothing, “But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you” (Mt. 6:33). Faith understands this. Faith understands that the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof. All things are His, and He takes care of us, not mammon. Thanks be to God, He has not merely given us little things, like a loaf of bread or a shirt, but has given us heaven and earth, the Gospel and the Sacraments, and His very self. Thanks be to God, we can afford to be open handed with the lesser things of life, for He who did not spare His own Son, but gave Him up for us all, will certainly also with Him graciously give us all things.
You see, it’s not that the words coming out of the Pharisee’s mouth were wicked or evil or unchristian. We sincerely desire to be able to say what he said, and to say it sincerely. So what is the problem in today’s reading? We must remember that Jesus told this parable “to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt,” and the Pharisee represents these people. When the Pharisee stands there and thanks God that he’s not like other men, he’s not expressing his gratitude for the righteousness of Christ that forgives his sins and gives him a new life and distinguishes him from the multitude of unbelievers. No, the Pharisee thinks he’s made something of himself. He trusts in himself that he is righteous. He comes to the temple to parade himself before God, and he expects that God will be impressed and bow down to him and applaud his great achievements.
So this Pharisee mocks God. He also hates his neighbor. He does not see his neighbor as a fellow creature, made in the image of God, redeemed by the blood of Christ. He sees his neighbor as a tool, as a stepping stone, as a body to be heaped up in a pile of other bodies so that he might build a tower with its head in the heavens and make a name for himself. The Pharisee stands before God and tries to haul other people along with him: extortioners, unjust, adulterers, this tax collector. He hopes that God will look at the lot of them, see the superiority of the Pharisee, and judge him righteous, not by some objective standard, but by comparison with others.
Except that’s not how the judgment of God works. God doesn’t judge comparatively. When you stand before God you don’t get to talk about how you rank among men. If there is anything placed alongside you for comparison, it is the Law of God, graven on stone tablets, unchanging, unbending. When you stand before God, you don’t want to plead your works. You don’t want to think you’re righteous in yourself. The Law of God will show your works for what they are. If you present a good work as a point in your favor, the Law of God will show the ulterior motives, the grumbling heart, the impurities. And even if you found a hundred truly good works, done on your own, apart from the Holy Spirit, entirely a credit to your account, and placed them in one side of the scale, the Law doesn’t need a hundred sins to counterbalance them, though the Law could certainly find the hundred. But it says in James 2, “Whoever shall keep the whole law, and yet stumble in one point, he is guilty of all” (Jas. 2:10). If you have one sin, even one little sin, even if it were one split second of anger or lust or covetousness or idolatry in an otherwise spotless life, and that one little sin were placed in the balance opposite the hundred truly good works that you could never achieve, the weight of sin would come crashing down so hard that all the good works would fly out of the other side and you would be left with nothing: nothing but guilt and eternal condemnation. And so the psalmist says, “If You, Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand?” (Ps. 130:3). And again, “Do not enter into judgment with Your servant, For in Your sight no one living is righteous” (Ps. 143:2). The Pharisee is not righteous before God. He is a proud braggart who hates God and his neighbor. He will not stand in the judgment.
And then there’s the tax collector. Tax collectors were local citizens who worked for the Roman government. Their supervisors would say, “You need to collect this amount of taxes and return it to us.” Many tax collectors would take that amount and add some to it, a little benefit for themselves. Jewish tax collectors were considered traitors to their people, swindlers and cheats, the lowest of the low. But, as tempting as it was to abuse this office, tax collectors didn’t have to be that way. The tax collector in the reading is a pious Christian. He wasn’t a swindler or a cheat, because Christians don’t live in open, unrepentant sin. He collected what he was commanded and probably scraped by because he didn’t pad his pockets with other people’s money. Most people still looked at him with contempt because he was a tax collector, but perhaps some people knew the truth. Perhaps his neighbor’s harvest failed and the poor man couldn’t pay his full taxes. Perhaps the pious tax collector lowered the amount the man owed, and then made up the difference himself so that his neighbor would not get into trouble or be put to shame. Perhaps the pious tax collector pleaded with his superiors on behalf of those who didn’t pay on time. Perhaps he was understanding and exercised forbearance, and rather than being a traitor to his people stood as a defense between them and a greedy government. And yet for all his care he still received nothing but scorn from his countrymen. That’s life as a pious tax collector, and it’s a noble life, it’s a life of good works worth boasting about, truly good works done out of true love and in secret, and our heavenly Father who sees in secret will reward them.
But when the pious tax collector stands before God, he doesn’t bring up his good works. He understands that he has nothing of which to boast. All his good works were inspired by the Holy Spirit, cleansed of impurity by the blood of Christ, carried out with the body and soul that he received from God his Father. As St. Paul writes to the Corinthians, “What do you have that you did not receive?” (1 Cor. 4:7). Nothing. “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of lights” (Jas. 1:17). Even our good works are gift of God, as it says in Philippians 2, “it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure” (Phil. 2:13). And in Ephesians 2, “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them” (Eph. 2:10). When you receive a birthday present, do you turn and boast to the one who gave it, “Look what I have gotten for myself!” It makes just as little sense to boast of our good works before God.
So the tax collector doesn’t plead his works. He has more real, actual good works than the Pharisee could ever hope to have, and yet the tax collector passes over them. Before a perfect God, the tax collector is aware of his imperfection, and before a holy God the tax collector laments that he has not lived as holy a life as he wishes or as God’s Law requires. The tax collector stands in the temple at the appointed time of prayer and he sees the lamb burning on the altar: a male, a year old, without blemish. He sees the sacrifice that God instituted, he thinks on his dear Savior, the promised Seed, the Lord’s Anointed, the Son of God born of Mary, and he prays, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”
There’s a Christian. He is full of faith and love and good works, and yet when he appears before God he does not look at that at all. He sees in himself nothing but sin and death, and he sees in Jesus nothing but forgiveness and life. The Law of God has shown him his sin, and the Gospel of Christ has shown him his Savior. So he doesn’t look at himself. He looks to Jesus. He prays, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner,” and God is merciful. “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 Jn. 1:9). “For as the heavens are high above the earth, So great is His mercy toward those who fear Him; As far as the east is from the west, So far has He removed our transgressions from us” (Ps. 103:11-12).
This is comfort for the troubled conscience. Return to the scales of judgment and place all the weight of your sin in one side: all the “thou shalt”s that you didn’t do and all the “thou shalt not”s that you did do. See the awful weight of sin drag that side of the scale down to hell and note what you deserve. But then see Jesus come, and put Himself in the other side, and with the weight of His body, the weight of His blood, the weight of one drop of His blood, your side of the scale goes flying up as if there were nothing in it. Indeed your sins are scattered like chaff before the wind and you are accounted righteous in your Lord Jesus Christ.
The Pharisee got one thing right. He said, “I am not like this tax collector,” and that’s very true. The Pharisee was a hypocrite, and the tax collector was an actual saint. Jesus condemns the Pharisee, and of the tax collector He says, “I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other” (Lk. 18:14).
And so the tax collector is the one who can truly say, “I thank You, God, that I am not like other men. I thank You that I’m not a proud Pharisee, that I’m not insulting Christ by seeking to make myself righteous and despising my neighbor in a misguided attempt to elevate myself. I thank you for giving Jesus for me, who has made me righteous out of His grace and freed me from the fruitless task of seeking righteousness from myself. I thank You that the Holy Spirit wars against my flesh so that I am no longer a slave to sin. I thank You that earth has no pleasure I would share. I thank you for making me rich with true riches by the Gospel.” The tax collector can say in complete honesty everything that the Pharisee can’t say but says anyway. And yet the tax collector wisely doesn’t say it. He knows that pride lurks at the door, and so he would rather sing what we just sang:
When all my deeds I am reviewing,
The deeds that I admire the most,
I find in all my thought and doing
That there is naught whereof to boast.
Yet this sweet comfort shall abide―
In mercy I can still confide.
There’s the right course, to say with the Apostle Paul, “But God forbid that I should boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Gal. 6:14), and from the epistle reading, “But by the grace of God I am what I am” (1 Cor. 15:10), to live according to these words: “in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself” (Phil. 2:3). There is much to be lost with pride, but everything to be gained with humility. So do not be ashamed to be the tax collector. Do not be ashamed to mourn for your sins and beat your breast and say, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” Do not be afraid to see your neighbor as better than yourself; you have nothing to lose. For of you Jesus is pleased to say those blessed words: “this man went down to his house justified.” In the name of Jesus. Amen.