What do you think when you come to church? What goes through your mind? “Where will I sit today?” No, we normally sit in the same spots, so it’s more likely, “Will somebody be in my spot today?” Normally you don’t have to worry about that, except maybe Christmas Eve. You have your spot. Maybe it’s where your family has sat for the 38 years we’ve been up here. Maybe you chose it a couple years ago. But you have your spot, and you know the old joke that Lutherans like to sit in the back.
The Pharisee and the tax collector had their spots too. And yes, the tax collector was in the back. The Pharisee was in the front with the acolytes. I wonder if this parable and its hero is why Lutherans sit in the back. He knew he was a bad person. That’s why he stayed in back. He didn’t deserve to go up front, didn’t deserve to be anywhere near the Holy of Holies, let alone in the Court of the Gentiles. But the villain of this parable, oh, yes, he deserved to be right up by the sacrificial Altar. He was that great a guy.
You might have liked that Pharisee. He was an upstanding citizen. His record was squeaky clean, not even a speeding ticket on it. He cheated nobody. He didn’t look at women other than his wife. He never even killed a fly. He was popular, the star athlete, the guy you want to go fishing or hunting with, who you want at your Christmas party or neighborhood cookout.
The tax collector was not that guy. He was not the IRS agent depositing payroll tax checks from your employers or my quarterly payments. Rome told tax collectors what to take for the government, and then to take a certain bit for their own pay, and then turned a blind eye to them taking extra. And they took extra. To make it worse, they were Benedict Arnolds in the eyes of the people, Jews working for those yucky Gentiles. You wouldn’t want to be anywhere near him.
But what people thought of the stars of this parable didn’t affect their place in eternity. Jesus throws a wrinkle into the story. The guy nobody liked went home justified. The whole world thought the world of the Pharisee. It thought that if anybody was going to make it into heaven, it was him. No, Jesus says. It was the tax collector of all people.
How can this be? Well, how did they pray to God? The Pharisee didn’t really pray to Him, did he? He just praised himself. He wasn’t thanking God for not letting him commit certain sins. He was boasting that he hadn’t done them, that he was absolutely perfect. He didn’t think he was guilty of anything worthy of eternal death. He thought he deserved eternal life. Yet if you think you deserve eternal life, you don’t!
The tax collector didn’t praise himself. He humbled himself. He said, “God, make propitiation for me the sinner.” The sinner: nobody worse than him. Make propitiation: cover my sins, wash them away, forgive me for the sake of Jesus’ Death. That’s why he went home justified. He believed all his sins were forgiven for Jesus’ sake. The Pharisee didn’t believe he had any sins for Jesus to forgive.
Our theme during the Trinity Season is sanctification. Today’s Gospel is about justification. God declares us righteous when we believe Jesus died and shed His Blood to forgive our sins. But we’ve been learning about sanctification for a few weeks. We’ve learned the Holy Ghost began to make us holy when we were baptized. We’ve learned He lives in us. Therefore we ought not do anything against Him. We should strive and fight against sin and do what is good instead. We ought not offend Him by committing any grievous sin. We should desire at all times to please God as His own dear children. We should beware lest we drive Him from us by unrepented sin.
So why now do we hear about justification? People often think that if we’re getting sanctified, we’ll just keep on getting more and more holy. Some have even taught that eventually you will stop sinning in this life. This is not what Scripture teaches. St. John says that if we ever say we are without sin, we are liars. St. Paul calls himself the chief of sinners even though at that point in his life he was a holy Apostle, not a proud Pharisee.
What are they trying to teach us about sanctification? Sanctification is not a continual process of self-improvement. It is a constant war against sin. Some days are better than others. There may be times when we think we’re doing pretty good, and then we fail. There may be times when we don’t feel we deserve God’s goodness because of what we’ve said or done. There may be times when we think we’ve been so good God must really like me today. Our sanctification is never perfect in this life, and it never will be. You will only be completely and thoroughly sanctified when you are raised from the dead. Only then will you be untainted by sin and all its effects.
So today’s Gospel teaches us 2 things. First, don’t be like the Pharisee. Never think you’re a better Christian than somebody else or you’re just plain better or you’re too good too sin now. Never think you’ve progressed further than others in your faith or Christian life and start to look down on them. More than that, don’t ever think you’re the reason you’re so good. Never think you made it happen. If you have not committed grave sins, it is only by His grace, so give Him thanks for His grace and do not boast about your life. Thank the Holy Ghost for His gifts to you. Remember to pray for His forgiveness because you are still sinning; you are just as much a sinner today as you were a few weeks ago.
That’s really the second thing this parable teaches us. It teaches us God forgives our sins, even when they undermine our sanctification. You might think you’ve been doing real good and all of a sudden you commit an awful sin. The devil will tell you that you no longer deserve God’s favor. Jesus tells you today to pray God right then to forgive you, to cover your sin with Jesus’ Blood, to bury it in His Tomb and nail it to His Cross. That’s exactly what He will do. He will declare you justified, righteous, in His sight, an heir of life eternal.
That’s not all the Church wants to teach us today about God’s forgiveness. This Gospel is connected to St. Paul’s words at the beginning of I Corinthians 15. We call it the great resurrection chapter of the Bible, but it starts with St. Paul saying he didn’t deserve to be an Apostle. He killed Christians, like St. Stephen. He deserved eternal death for that. But God changed him, used him, gave him eternal life. This teaches us God forgives our pride, our haughtiness, when we repent of it. He forgives us when we repent of thinking more highly of ourselves than we ought. He can humble us for the good. He can even convert the person you think is unconvertable.
What is the key to the sanctified life? The Church teaches us today it’s humility before God. Humble yourself before Him lest He humble you throughout eternity. Humility is this: You always recognize you are a sinner worthy of eternal death. You recognize you can only be saved by Jesus’ Death. That is what exalts you to heaven’s thrones. That is what gives you eternal life. That is what justifies you. The key to being sanctified is firmly believing you are justified.