Trinity 11, 2015–Justified and Exalted.
11th Sunday after Trinity
St. Peter Lutheran Church
St. Luke 18:9-14
August 16, 2015
“Justified and Exalted”
Lord, who may dwell in your sanctuary?
Who may live on your holy hill?
He whose walk is blameless
And who does what is righteous. Psalm 15:1-2
Who will live forever? Who will be honored to sit at the right hand of God? Who will receive God’s praise?
The Bible says: the righteous person. The just person. The one God finds to be righteous is the one He exalts. “Whom He justified, He also glorified,” says Romans 8.
Many people today think that God isn’t concerned about righteousness. God accepts everyone, righteous or not. So goes the thinking of the world. Just about everyone goes to a better place when they die.
But that is not the testimony of the Scriptures. The Bible doesn’t picture a God who is unconcerned about righteousness. The God of the Bible came down in fire on Mount Sinai to speak His ten commandments. There was thunder and lightning, with a thick cloud over the mountain, and a very loud trumpet blast. Everyone in the camp trembled…Mount Sinai was covered with smoke, because the Lord descended on it with fire. The smoke billowed up from it like smoke from a furnace, the whole mountain trembled violently, and the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder. Exodus 19:16-19 The people were so terrified they were shaking with fear. God has no pleasure in unrighteousness. He wants His commandments kept.
Psalm 11 says:
The Lord examines the righteous,
But the wicked and those who love violence
His soul hates.
On the wicked He will rain
Fiery coals and burning sulfur;
A scorching wind will be their lot.
For the Lord is righteous,
He loves justice;
Upright men will see his face. (v. 5-7)
God does not leave us in doubt as to what righteousness is. “So then the law is holy and the commandment is holy, righteous and good,” says Romans 7 (:12). Do the commandments of God and you will be doing what is righteous. His commandments begin with our obligation to Him and then tell us to love our neighbor as ourselves. The first three commandments tell us to fear, love, and trust in God above all things, to use His name in prayer and thanksgiving and not for lying and cursing, and to keep the Sabbath by gladly hearing His Word. First and foremost, a righteous person is a worshipper of God. First He trusts God, hears His Word, and prays, and from this comes love toward his neighbor.
But no one who disregards God’s commandments is righteous.
Since that is true it makes sense that a person would want to be found not only to be a hearer of God’s commandments but also a doer of them. It makes sense that we would want to be those who keep God’s commandments. The Pharisee in Jesus’ parable appears to have wanted to be among the righteous who keep God’s commandments. He avoided immoral conduct like greed and adultery. He tithed on everything he had, which meant he gave ten percent of his income and possessions as an offering to God, as His Law in the Old Testament commanded. He also fasted twice a week, which God’s Law did not command. He seemed to live a strict, God-fearing life, even going beyond the commandments of God.
But God was not satisfied with the Pharisee’s works. He did not regard the Pharisee as righteous and therefore worthy of eternal life. He did not justify him.
Why not? Because God doesn’t justify the hearers of His Law but the doers of His Law. He does not judge us by comparing us to other people, as the Pharisee judged himself. He regards us as righteous if we have actually fulfilled His will. When a rich ruler comes to Jesus later in this same chapter of St. Luke’s Gospel, he asks Jesus, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus responds, “You know the commandments—do not commit adultery, do not murder, do not steal, do not give false testimony, honor your father and mother.” (Luke 18:18-20) The answer to the question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life,” “what must I do to be righteous in God’s sight” is—you must keep the Ten Commandments. The Pharisee never claims to have done that. He thanks God that he is not like the rest of humanity, which is wicked. While he accurately diagnoses human beings—that they are filled with all manner of wickedness—he fails to judge himself rightly because he compares himself to others instead of God’s law. Everyone who transgresses God’s commandments in the smallest point is under God’s curse, because it is written “Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything that is written in the book of the Law.” (Galatians 3:20) If a person has a covetous heart, he has transgressed the Law of God as much as any thief; if a person is lustful, he is unrighteous just like any adulterer. “Until heaven and earth disappear,” says Christ, “not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.” (Matthew 5:18) The Pharisee comes to God and asks for nothing. He boasts and thanks God that he is not as bad as other sinners. And God finds him guilty, just as surely as God finds you guilty if you consider yourself righteous because you have done better, lived better, than others. Never look at yourself in relation to other people when it comes to your standing before God. Look at yourself in the mirror of the Ten Commandments, and you will have a true sense of what you look like before God, and what kind of prayer you should bring to Him.
That’s how the tax collector in Jesus’ parable evaluates himself. He doesn’t tell us that he read the ten commandments in preparation for coming into the temple (which is, by the way, a good way to prepare for confession and absolution and the receiving of the holy body and blood of Christ—reading the Ten Commandments.) No, Jesus doesn’t tell us that he examined himself in the light of the Ten Commandments. We know it from what he says. He calls himself—not a person who makes bad choices sometimes, not a good person who means well. He calls himself “a sinner.”
Tax collectors had a bad reputation. They were regarded as sinners, whether or not they called themselves that, because commonly tax collectors made themselves rich by charging extra taxes and putting some of that extra in their pockets. When a tax collector went to the temple it was about like a drug dealer or a stripper coming to church. People would look at him as if to say, “What are you doing here?”
And so the tax collector enters the temple. But he comes in the temple with actions and words that speak a different message than that of the Pharisee. They show “a broken and contrite heart” which Psalm 51 says are “the sacrifices of God [which He] will not despise.” (v. 17) Because he doesn’t come into the temple acting like God owed him something, like the Pharisee. He comes but doesn’t look up to heaven when he prays. He stands far off—one would assume far off from God’s presence in the sanctuary, but maybe away from everyone else, too. He beats on his chest, a sign of great mourning. And he says, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”
By saying he was a sinner he was saying just the opposite of what the Pharisee said. Not, “thank you that I’m good,” but, “I know that I am bad.” A sinner doesn’t have a claim on anything from God but His anger. In fact, the Law of God doesn’t hold out any hope for those who break it. It proclaims that God is a jealous God and that He punishes those who hate Him, which is what disobedience to His commandments is—hatred of God. The Law doesn’t hold out hope to sinners. In fact it proclaims with certainty that God will punish them. Because God is righteous, and His Law is righteous, and the unrighteous, the wicked, His soul hates, as Psalm 11 said.
Yet this tax collector has hope. He says, “God, be merciful to me.” The word in the original language is “be propitiated toward me.” That means, “God, let Your anger be turned away from me and Your favor come to me.”
Now, how did it enter into the tax collector’s head to pray this. Was it just some kind of shot in the dark, hoping to win the spiritual lottery, that maybe God would cancel His offenses and let His righteous wrath against the tax collector’s sin pass by? That would be a pipe dream, a vain hope. God is righteous and because He is righteous, unrighteousness, lawlessness, sin, and sinners must be punished.
No, the tax collector was basing his prayer on the Gospel, the good news that has been proclaimed by Scripture alongside of God’s holy law since the fall of man into sin. The tax collector prayed and trusted in the same thing that the saints of the Old Testament trusted in for salvation. They didn’t trust in their works, but in the promise of God to remove their sins, to justify them without the Law. Because David believed God would do this, after he stole another man’s wife and murdered him, he prayed: “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to Your great compassion, blot out my transgressions. Wash away all my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.” (Psalm 51:1-2) Because David believed that God would justify sinners apart from the Law, apart from their deeds, he prayed, “Blessed is he whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered. Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord does not count against him, and in whose spirit is no deceit.” (Psalm 32:1-2)
In the Gospel, another righteousness is revealed than the righteousness of the Law. The righteousness that is by the Law says, “The man who does these things will live by them.” (Romans 10:5) The righteousness revealed in the Gospel is the righteousness God has prepared for those who are under the curse of the Law because they have not kept it.
The righteousness revealed in the Gospel is the righteousness of Christ. He fulfilled all the commandments of God. He had no other gods, never misused God’s name, kept the Sabbath, always gladly hearing and learning God’s Word, always honored His parents, never spoke a word in hate, never harbored bitterness in His heart, never lusted, never stole, never slandered or gossiped, never coveted. He was righteous in thought and deed. Because He was righteous He merited God’s praise; He deserved to be declared righteous and to be exalted by God.
But instead He humbled Himself. He made Himself nothing and took the form of a slave. He humbled Himself to bear responsibility for our sins, for the sins of the world’s tax collectors and the sins of the world’s Pharisees, for Cain’s sins and for Abel’s, and for all the iniquity and wickedness from Adam to the end of the world. “And being found in appearance as a man He humbled Himself and became obedient to death—even death on a cross!” (Philippians 2:8) He died a cursed death for everyone who was under the curse of the Law, because it is written “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree.” (Galatians 3:13) And by His death He redeemed us from the curse of the Law. He did not deserve to die, but He subjected Himself to death as though He was a sinner like us.
Here you can see how the righteousness of the Pharisee and all self-righteousness is directly opposed to the righteousness of Jesus. In our self-righteousness we exalt ourselves and claim we are not like other men. We are not like all the other sons of Adam who deserve death and hell, we claim. We try to raise our heads above the rest of humanity. But in reality we are no better than our brothers. We are transgressors, unrighteous, wicked in thought, word, and deed. But Jesus really was not like the rest of mankind. He was true God, and in Mary’s womb He became a true man. But He was born without the stain of Adam’s guilt and He never disobeyed God’s holy Law. He really was not like us, but He made Himself like us. He suffered with us, was weak like us, was tempted like us. Then He died like one of us, as though He had sinned. And just like we deserve for our sins, He experienced abandonment by God.
That is what the tax collector and we deserve—to beat our chest and weep and gnash our teeth forever because we are abandoned by God for our sins. But instead God has heard the crazy, seemingly impossible plea of the tax collector—“Be propitiated toward me, the sinner!” He has heard our pleas for mercy, too. He blotted out our transgressions in the suffering of His only-begotten Son. And because His judgment fell on His Son, it is no longer directed toward us who believe in Jesus. It is quenched and His favor is turned toward us. He has justified us—declared us to be righteous—through faith in Jesus Christ.
Who may dwell in God’s tabernacle and on His holy hill? The righteous. And the righteous man is the one who does not work but trusts God who justifies the ungodly (Romans 4:5). The righteous man is justified, declared to be righteous, apart from the Law, through faith in Christ alone. That’s why the tax collector went home justified. We don’t hear that he quit being a tax collector or started to restore what he stole. That’s not because he wouldn’t have begun to turn away from his sin and do good works. He would have; that’s the necessary fruit of repentance and faith in Jesus. But it doesn’t tell us that in Jesus’ parable because the tax collector was justified before he began to change his life. God regarded him as righteous the moment he was sorry for his sins and trusted in the propitiation God was going to provide in Jesus’ death.
That’s how we receive the comfort the hymn of the day had us sing of, when we sang
And to this our soul’s salvation
Witnesses Your Spirit, Lord,
In Your Sacraments and Word.
There He sends true consolation
Giving us the gift of faith
That we fear not hell nor death.
In the Word and Sacraments, in preaching, and Baptism, and Absolution and the Holy Supper, Jesus invites us to believe that in spite of our many sins we are regarded as righteous by God.
As Christians we continue to see and experience our sinfulness. We see our unbelief, our lack of fear of God, our other sins, and sometimes we say, “I hope I’m really a Christian. I hope I go home justified today. I hope I have heaven to look forward to when I die.” In the Sacraments and the Word Jesus, who has been exalted to heaven, justifies and exalts us. In His resurrection He left all the sin He had died for behind forever. On the cross sin and God’s wrath met in Him. Blood poured from His body and grief and anguish from His soul. But in His resurrection sin is as far from Him as heaven from earth. It is removed and destroyed. And in Baptism He pledges that we are united with Him in His exaltation. In the Holy Supper He gives us His crucified flesh and blood that blotted out our sins. There and in the Word He gives us the gift of faith so that we believe that His propitiation applies to us. Jesus has been justified, declared free of sin and exalted to the Father’s right hand. From there He gives the forgiveness of sins in the Word and Sacraments and assures us that we are justified in the midst of our ongoing struggle with sin.
And if you are justified, you are also exalted. Who does God exalt? With whom is He well-pleased? Who will dwell on His holy hill and in His tabernacle? The righteous person. Not the one who appears to be better than others in His own eyes. The one who God declares just. And that person is the one who without works believes in Jesus Christ. That person goes home to his house regarded by God as having fulfilled the whole law. And if God regards us that way, who will say otherwise? If God justifies, who is to condemn? And if God justifies us, He also exalts us. We have His favor in this life and we can boast before Satan and the world that we are pleasing to God. And we have in front of us a glorious hope-not merely that we go home to our house justified, but that God will welcome us into the heavenly mansions as His righteous ones, heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ. That’s what Jesus invites us to in His Word and Sacrament.
Your great love for this has striven
That we may from sin made free
Live with You eternally.
Your dear Son Himself has given
And extends His gracious call
To His supper leads us all.
Soli Deo Gloria