If I were to say to you, “Oh, now I think you’re just trying to justify what you did,” would you take that as a compliment? Would that be a good thing, that you’re trying to justify yourself? No, probably not. In our language today, in our culture, the word justify has the connotation of making some kind of excuse for something we did. For example, if there’s a $100 charge to Fleet Farm on the credit card bill, I may try to justify it by saying, “But, Dear, I needed a new fishing rod. And besides, it was on sale. Think of how much I saved.” Or if I get into a shouting match with my neighbor, I may try to justify my behavior by saying, “It’s not my fault. He started it. He’s the one who let his dog run in my yard.” In each situation, what am I doing? I’m trying to justify myself. I’m trying to make myself look better. That’s the problem with the word “justify.” For many people today, the word justify has a negative connotation.
Really, that’s unfortunate. Because, the fact is, when the bible uses the word justify, it has a wonderful meaning. The word justify calls to mind a court room, in which guilty sinners are declared to be “not guilty” by a gracious God. You might say that is one of the ironies we find throughout the pages of Scripture. When we study the Bible, we find that there are some things that sound like they are bad things, but they’re actually good. And some things that sound like they’re good things, but their actually bad. You might say that they are not quite what we expected them to be. Sometimes these are called “ironies.” Webster defines an irony as “a combination of circumstances or a result that is the opposite of what…might be expected.” In our midweek Lenten series this year, we are going to take a closer look at a number of these ironies, as we consider the theme: “Ironies of the Passion.”
Today, we take up a portion of Scripture which also offers a rather unique irony. It contains something that is we would not expect to hear. And certainly something that the listeners in Jesus’ day did not expect to hear. Today we turn our attention to Jesus’ familiar parable of the Pharisee and the Tax-Collector. That the irony that jumps out at us in this text is that:
This Man (namely, the Tax-Collector) Went Home Justified
Now, for us to truly appreciate the irony in this parable, we need to put ourselves into the sandals of Jesus’ first century listeners. By that I mean, we can’t listen to this parable with the ears of 21st century Americans. Why do I say that? Because, chances are, when you or I hear this parable read, especially if we’ve heard it many times before, we’re already biased. What do I mean by that? Well, you tell me. When you hear Jesus say that one of the men who went up to the temple to pray was a Pharisee, what do you think? Does that word, “Pharisee”, give you warm fuzzies? Are you rooting for that guy? Probably not. In our vernacular, the word Pharisee means more like “a better than thou, a goodie two shoes, someone who is looking down his nose at everyone else.” For many of us, a Pharisee is the equivalent of a hypocrite. And so in our minds, when Jesus starts the parable saying that this hypocrite—I mean, this Pharisee—went up to the temple to pray, we’re all but ready to start throwing tomatoes at the guy. Right? We recognize the bad guy when we see him. “Boo! Hiss! He’s the villain in the story. We don’t like him. He’s the Pharisee.
But, wait a minute. Don’t let your 21st century eyes skew your view of this man. Put yourselves in the sandals of Jesus’ first century listeners. When they heard the word Pharisee, what did they think? Did they think, Bad Man? No, probably just the opposite. Chances are, they thought, “Good Man,” like “Really Good Man.” They thought of someone we might call “a fine, upstanding citizen, someone who never even got a traffic ticket.”
But even more important, this man was not just law-abiding. He was deeply religious. Remember, Jesus doesn’t say that this man is going up to the bar to pound a few, or headed up to the casino to play the slots. No, Jesus says he’s going up to the temple to pray. He was a religious man. The man confesses that he fasts twice a week. He gives 10% of his income to the Lord. Make no mistake about it, this man is no criminal. He’s no hedonist or atheist. No, he belongs to one of the most religious groups in all Israel. In Jesus’ day, the Pharisees were famous for their knowledge of the Old Testament. They took the Laws of Moses very seriously. They were determined to follow every single word of God, and then some. On a spectrum of religious beliefs, these guys were not liberals. No, they were die hard, red-blooded, right-wing conservatives. (If they had the chance, they would have probably all voted Republican!)
My friends, do you see my point? In Jesus’ day, there would have been a lot of people who saw this Pharisee not as the villain, but as the hero, as the person to look up to, the person to emulate. They would have assumed that if anyone was right with God, if anyone had earned a spot in heaven, it was this man.
But you see, that’s the irony of it all. What everyone expected would happen, what everyone thought to be true, was not what happened at all. Jesus says that it was not this man who went home justified. It was the other man. That means that this “good” man was not right with God. We wasn’t on his way to heaven. He was on the path to hell.
Now, how could that be? How could someone who had been so meticulous in following God’s laws, in the end not be rewarded for his obedience? The answer is simply this: Although this man had done a lot of good things in his life, the problem is, he was counting on those good things to earn him a spot in heaven. He figured as long as he was doing the right things, as long as he was better than most everybody else, he’d be good with God. Don’t you hear a little bit of that attitude in his prayer? “God, I thank you that I’m not like other men—robbers, evil doers, adulterers.” This man figured that in the race of life, he was still way ahead of a lot of other people.
The question is, is he the only one who thinks that way? Or could it be that there are times when our prayers sound a little like his: “God, I thank you that I belong to a church that is not like other churches. We hold to your Word. We practice close communion. We carry out church discipline on those who stray from your commands. God, I thank you that I’m not like those Methodists, or Catholics, or ELCA.” Or maybe our prayers are a bit more personal. “God, I thank you that I’m not like the people who come to church only on Christmas and Easter. I thank you that I haven’t been arrested for drunk driving. I don’t look at pornography like so many others do.
Is it wrong to offer a prayer like that? Doesn’t God want us to belong to a church that holds to all the teachings of Scripture? Doesn’t he want us to avoid the sins that so many people today are caught up in? Yes, he does. But here is a major difference between us doing what is right, and us relying on doing what is right. That Pharisee was doing a lot of the right things. The problem was, he was trusting in those good things to earn God’s favor. You and I are tempted to do the very same thing, put our trust in our church, or in our devotion to our church, put our trust in who we are, or what we’ve done—rather than acknowledging that everything that we’ve done is tainted by sin. We’ve done nothing to win God’s favor. We are deserving of his punishment. All we can hope to do is throw ourselves on his mercy.
In fact, isn’t that, in essence, what the tax-collector did? Wasn’t that the attitude he showed when he went to the temple to pray? What does Jesus say? “The tax-collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God have mercy on me, a sinner.’” Now, you realize, in Jesus’ day, the tax collectors were more than just like IRS agents. Tax-collectors were regarded as the scum of the earth. They were lumped together with the prostitutes. They were public sinners. By collaborating with the Roman government, the tax-collectors practiced a form of legalized robbery that made them rich on the backs of their fellow Jews. And so to the Jews hated them. They regarded them as really bad people.
Again, do you see the irony in Jesus words—that this man, the one with the terrible reputation, the one with the bad track record, the one that everyone was sure was “worse than they were”—this man when home justified? This man went home right with God? How can that be??? It can be because God doesn’t judge by outward appearances. What does Scripture say? “Man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart” (1 Sam. 16:7). God saw that the Pharisee’s heart was filled with pride and self-righteousness. But this tax-collector’s heart was filled with an honest sorrow over his sin. This man recognized that he was not worthy to stand in God’s presence. This man was not proud. Rather, he was repentant. He was clinging to the hope that King David expressed in Psalm 51:17, “A broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.”
Isn’t that what saving faith is all about? It’s about letting go of whatever we think we bring to God and instead clinging to God’s mercy, clinging to God’s promise, a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise. In fact, isn’t that what gives you and me hope to this day? To know that no matter who you are, not matter what your reputation with others, no matter what your track record, no matter how far you’ve wandered or how many times you’ve fallen, still Jesus says to you, “Come to me, you who are weary and burdened and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11:28) Or as the hymn-writer once put it: Jesus sinners does receive; Oh, may all this saying ponder. Here is hope for all who grieve—Jesus sinners does receive.
If you think about it, isn’t that the greatest irony of all? A holy God opens his arms to sinners like you and me. In his Word, in his supper, in the washing of holy baptism, God says to each one of you, “Take heart, child. Your sins are forgiven.” Believe it. And know that, like the tax collector of old, you too will now go home justified, that is, declared not guilty, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.