God is serious about His Word. That’s what we learn from God destroying the Temple. Rome did not destroy it. Titus didn’t want to destroy it. It was an accident. Nebuchadnezzar may have been happy to destroy the first temple, but it just wasn’t Titus’ intent. It went down because God wanted it to go. Its rites were unnecessary. They were just pointing ahead to Christ all that time. So when He came, they could go away. They didn’t need to stick around as a museum piece. Not only that, but the leaders of the Jews rejected their Savior, so God rejected them. The Temple had to go.
Caiaphas didn’t realize He needed a Savior. He only wanted a Savior to rescue Him from Rome. He wanted people to think highly of him. He wanted to be seen as better than the rest. He wanted to be idolized, loved, feared, and adored. He wanted his moment in the sun to last as long as it could and to be received by others once it was over, because he knew it would end. He was just one of many in that family who Rome installed as high priest while they were all still alive!
So Jesus spoke this parable to men like Caiaphas. St. Luke says He spoke it to people who were trusting in themselves that they were righteous and who were also despising the others, that is, everyone else. They despised everybody else. Perhaps we have been guilty of this at times, and history is full of stories of people who despised others just for being different?
But why did the leaders of the Jews despise others? Would they dislike you if you weren’t just like them? Yes. But what was the reason? Was it because you weren’t as rich as them or you didn’t have the right stuff in your back yard? Well, they might have thought that way, but that wasn’t the main reason. It was because you wouldn’t be as good as them! And by “good” I mean perfect. You wouldn’t be as sinless as them. And that would make them look down their noses at you more sharply than you might ever think a teacher or employer was looking at you.
Why would they think so poorly of you? Would they just find us disgusting, the scum of the earth? Well, yes, they would think that, but why? They’d think our sins condemn us, whereas their perfection saved them. They thought they were the saved and everyone else was the damned. They were the saved because of what they had done and we’d be the damned because of what we had done and not done. Why the Pharisee in the parable even tells us just what he had done right and even where he’d gone above and beyond The Law to prove his holiness to God, to show God he deserved eternal life, and to claim those who didn’t do such things don’t deserve eternal life.
To drive his point home to God, he pointed out that tax collector way in back. The problem wasn’t where the guy was standing. It was that he was there. Mr. Pharisee wanted out of the Roman Empire yesterday. The tax collector was a traitor, a Jew working for Rome, taking money from his brethren to support the Roman Empire. There was nothing worse. Surely God would condemn a person that bad!
That tax collector was at the Temple. He didn’t say much. He kept his prayer short. He didn’t promote himself before God. He put himself down. He says “God, have mercy on me a sinner.” Well, that’s just how our English puts it. He says something like this in Greek: “God, forgive me, the sinner.”
He asks for forgiveness. We tell our kids to forgive others and not to hold a grudge. The world likes this concept of forgiving others, of just “letting things go.” But it can’t tell us how things are forgiven. It doesn’t know how God forgives. There’s something firm behind His forgiveness. There’s an action behind it, an action that backs it up. The word Jesus uses here even has the added meaning that something is done in order to forgive. What is it? Is it just saying, “It’s OK. I forgive you”? Or is there more to it?
Jesus says that man went home justified. He went home righteous. He went home with God’s favor. The Pharisee thought for sure God would be pleased with Him because he was so good. He thought for sure what he did would get God’s attention and force God to reward him with eternal life. He thought for sure people that did things he didn’t like could never be saved.
But Jesus says the opposite. The tax collector goes down from the Temple to his home justified. He goes down forgiven. He didn’t consider his sins too bad for God. Instead he confessed them. He admitted he couldn’t do a thing to get into God’s good graces. He admitted He needed God to do the work. He believed He would do it, He would have mercy on him, He would forgive him.
There’s only one reason you can forgive someone that sins against you, whether your friend, coworker, spouse, child, or sibling. There’s only one reason I can say to you every Sunday: “I, by virtue of my office as a called and ordained servant of the Word, announce the grace of God unto all of you, and in the stead and by the command of my Lord Jesus Christ, I forgive you all your sins.” There’s only one reason God forgives. What is it?
God forgives you because Jesus died for you. That’s why there’s forgiveness. Forgiveness is found nowhere else. It is found in Jesus, in His Body sacrificed for you, in His Blood shed for you. Jesus died in order to forgive you. There is no forgiveness without the shedding of Blood, Scripture says. Not just any blood would do. It had to be Divine Blood. Since the divinity doesn’t have blood, God had to become man. So Jesus became man in order to die for you.
He became man in order to die for you. The wages of sin is death. Sin earns for us both physical death and eternal death. The eternal God and Creator of all things had to experience these if He wanted to free us from them. He had to die in order to forgive us. Jesus declared Himself guilty of all our sins, even those horrible ones that make our consciences afraid. He experienced to the uttermost the punishment for our sins. Therefore He declares us innocent of sin. He forgives us. He declares us worthy of eternal life.
We forgive others, and God forgives us, because Jesus died for us. That’s what causes us to go home from this place justified. We go home from God’s House justified when we believe that for Jesus’ sake, God forgives us all our sins. We are justified not when we do what is good enough to get God’s attention. We deserve nothing good from Him, but we are justified, declared not guilty of all our sins, when we believe, when we trust, Jesus forgives all our sins and gives us eternal life.
That’s why God is so serious about His Word. It’s not because He’s a control-freak who has to get his way just because. It’s because only His Word tells us we are sinners in need of a Savior and that our Savior is named Jesus Christ, God’s own Son, Creator of all things. Through His Word, God tells you, “I forgive you all your sins. You are mine. You are righteous and holy in My sight . . . not because you’ve earned it, but because My Son died and rose for you.”