[Luke 18:9-14] He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: 10 “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ 13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ 14 I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”
“God, Be Merciful to Me, the Sinner”
The one said, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” The other had said, “God, I thank you that I’m not like other men.”
Have mercy on me, a sinner.
Martin Luther once pointed out – in a slightly humorous way – that each age in life has its own sins, its own temptations. He said, “Young fellows are tempted by girls, men who are thirty years old are tempted by gold, when they are forty years old they are tempted by honor and glory, and those who are sixty years old say to themselves, ‘What a pious man I have become!'” [Table Talk]
An older pastor I once knew said the same thing to me this way – “Every age in life has its own sins. The sin of the elderly is that they don’t believe they’re sinners anymore.” He could say that because he himself was a little elderly.
He said it not to be insulting but because this is the most dangerous sin – not believing that we need to repent. In truth, at every age, the hardest sin to crack is that sin of not believing we’re sinners.
Jesus, our Lord, doesn’t tell us about the old and young in today’s Gospel but about the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. This parable is a warning for us at every age in our life – “He told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt.”
He told this parable to those who were convinced that they were just (righteous). And they saw others as the sinners, as those who need to change.
The Pharisee enters God’s house. He prays, “God, I thank you that I’m not like the other people here. They’ve been dishonest. They’ve been unjust. They’ve been adulterers – sexual sins, failed marriages. And I’m really glad I’m not like this one guy, this tax collector” – “I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get”– “I give it my all. I do what we’re supposed to do.”
The Pharisee measures himself according to what he does best and measures others according to their faults. He counts those things in life that he happens to be good at as the things that really count for righteousness – and he looks down on those who don’t measure up to those same handpicked standards.
The Pharisee refuses to see himself in the mirror of God’s Law, God’s Commandments, which certainly show that he is a sinner. And if the Pharisee were hearing this sermon, he (or she) would be saying right now, “Yeah, those other people are just like that Pharisee!” “I’m surrounded by Pharisees!”, says the Pharisee.
“I’m surrounded by hypocrites”, says the hypocrite. No, you’re surrounded by sinners. And you’re in like company. We all have different symptoms, but the same disease. Sin.
This Pharisee is the perfect embodiment of our own sinful nature. THE sin of our sinful nature is that we believe we are righteous by a righteousness of our own and not by faith alone in a Savior. A Savior who only saves sinners.
The tax collector is the embodiment of faith in the Savior.
If we’ve heard the Scriptures enough, we’re used to the idea that the Pharisee is the bad guy and the Tax Collector is the good guy in the parable. But for Jesus’ original audience this wouldn’t be so easy to accept.
The Pharisees were actually respected teachers of the people. They stood for the Law and the customs the people valued. They were known as upright citizens, faithful to Israel.
Tax Collectors, not so. It would be just as hard for them to see the Tax Collector as the good guy in the story as it would be for you to see the IRS auditor as the good guy in your life – (though they might be a good guy!). But the tax collectors in Jesus’ day were notoriously fraudulent, and that on behalf of a nation occupying their own.
The point is, the Tax Collector is not a good guy. He really is a sinner. Guilty of real wrong that would be hard to forgive and look past. Yet Jesus says, “I tell you, this man – the tax collector - went down to his house justified – reckoned righteous by God - rather than the other.”
We are not saved by our works, merit, or righteousness, but by faith in the Savior who has forgiven us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us. You don’t measure up. So, you don’t need to convince yourself or God that you do measure up. Instead, Jesus’ work on the cross has measured up for your salvation.
The sinner who went home justified relied on nothing in himself but only on the salvation won for him. “The tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’”
And there’s more! In the Greek text, there is a definite article – a “the” – that doesn’t make it into the English. This tax collector said, “God, be merciful to me, the sinner.” He counted himself as THE sinner in the room. “Chief of sinners though I be.” May we all see ourselves this way in God’s house and rely only on Jesus our Savior.
The Temple was the place where lambs without blemish were slain to atone for the blemishes, the sins, of the people. The Tax Collector knew what he was there for. Jesus, the true unblemished Lamb of God, has now been slain for you – He died once for all [Hebrews 7:27; 9:12,26; 10:10; Romans 6:10] – that’s what you’re here for.
Jesus, the only righteous man, took the place of the guilty on the cross. There, He died for your sins. He put away God’s wrath against you by suffering it for you. On the cross, Jesus was counted THE sinner and died to set sinners free.
In response to His love for us, let us thank and praise, serve and obey Him.
Let us not gather to confess other people’s sins, as the Pharisee did. But let us each truly say and sing of ourselves, “Chief of sinners though I be, Jesus shed His blood for me; Died that I might live on high, Lived that I might never die. As the branch is to the vine, I am His and He is mine.”
At any age, you are a forgiven, redeemed sinner – wholly counted righteous to God through faith alone in Jesus Christ who has died and is risen for you. Amen.
Pastor Curtis Stephens was born in Flint, MI. He completed his M.Div. at Concordia Theological Seminary, Ft. Wayne, IN and has served congregations in Ohio and Pennsylvania. Pastor Stephens began serving at Trinity in July of 2023.