The Pharisee and the Tax Collector

Text: Luke 18:9-14

Listen to the sermon here

Two men enter, and two men leave. Two men go up to the temple to pray, and both go down again. Two men go in, but only one returns justified. One man was a Pharisee and the other, a tax collector. Yet, the one who went down justified was not the one people would’ve expected. Our text today from St. Luke’s Gospel often gets combined with another occasion where Jesus talks about Pharisees and prayer. In Matthew 6, Jesus says, “when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward.” Jesus uses the word “hypocrites” there, but it’s clear that He’s talking about the Pharisees, who habitually put on shows of piety for others to see.

Passages about the Pharisees often get combined, and most of the time when they come up, the sermon becomes an opportunity to encourage humility and tolerance. For, every knows how judgmental those evil Pharisees were; and, of course, we are better than they are. Or, if you like – take out Pharisee and put in whatever other people you want. Although we could preach a sermon on humility from this text, I’m not convinced that’s the main point. St. Luke gives us why Jesus preached this parable in verse 9, “He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous.”

This parable is a little more sophisticated than it appears at first. It actually cuts right to the core of the Christian faith and the thing that separates the true faith from all the other falsehoods out there. The core of the Christian faith and what separates us from all other religions is how we are justified, how we are made righteous – how we are saved. Two men go into the temple to pray, one leaves justified. One man offers an eloquent prayer, which is to be commended, but his prayer revealed where his confidence ultimately lied: in himself. So, he left without his sins forgiven. The other, as we will see, returned to his home forgiven. Jesus demonstrates in our text that the ones who are truly justified – who are made righteous and whose sins are forgiven – are those who trust not in themselves, but only in God’s abundant mercy.

I.

Our text begins, “He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: ‘Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.’” In Luke 18, things are starting the ratchet up a little bit. If your remember last week, our text was Luke 19, which was just after Triumphal Entry. Jesus is teaching in this chapter in view of His upcoming passion. The things that He talks about have His suffering and death as their central point. Soon after our text comes Jesus’ third prediction of His death, which will accomplish all that was written in the prophets; He will win salvation for the world by His death and resurrection. His suffering is what makes peace between God and the world and is the reason for our justification.

In order to teach this, Jesus uses a parable. He sets up a contrast that would be startlingly real to the audience. In one corner, a Pharisee, and in the other, a tax collector. It’s important to remember that, contrary to how we perceive Pharisees now, they weren’t the bad guys. Well, they were for their evil doctrine; but think of the Pharisees as the people in church that everyone likes. They are the most religious, most giving, most well-liked people in the congregation. They were whom everyone looked up to. The tax collector, on the other hand, was the bad guy. Yeah, they were Jews. But they were greedy swindlers, who worked for the Roman occupiers. They paid a great sum of money be tax collectors, only so they could extort more money out of their fellow man. And yeah, they probably went to church, but they maybe weren’t the most well-liked.

II.

Both men go up to the temple to pray. “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. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’” The Pharisee goes up to the temple for the time of corporate worship with all the other people, but he situates himself so that he is set apart from the others. To some extent, this was the Pharisees’ M.O.; to them you were either pure or not. Salvation for them was measured by how pure you were. Included among those who were not pure, were some who were fellow churchgoers. So, he separated himself from the crowd, because if he got too close, then he would also be impure, and then also so he could be seen by the others.

He offered this prayer: “God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers…” Now, in some ways, the prayer itself is not so bad. It is good to thank God that He has preserved us from falling into great shame and vice. If it weren’t for the Holy Spirit, we would be much worse off. It’s okay to recognize that. But that’s not what the Pharisee did. Remember why Jesus is telling this parable. The Pharisee was saying that he was better than all other men. All the others are unrighteous robbers and adulterers, but not him. He concluded that, because he does not do any of those things, he must be righteous. Then he justified himself by saying, in addition, he also fasted not once but twice a week and tithed not just what he earned, but also what he bought.

Jesus spoke this parable against those who were confident that they were righteous in and of themselves. They were the ones who counted their works, and based their hope of salvation on them. The Pharisee wasn’t really thanking God, but he was advertising and celebrating himself. He didn’t need to ask God for forgiveness, because he knew how good he was. His posture and prayer revealed what was inside his heart: neither repentance over sin nor faith in Christ, only his own goodness. Therefore, Jesus said, the Pharisee was not the one who went down from the temple justified. The Pharisee thanked God that he was not like the others, the unrighteous. But now he is the “other,” the one whose sins were not forgiven. “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

III.  

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!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other.” As the Pharisee stood in front of the congregation congratulating himself, the tax collector stood at a distance. All men are liars, cheaters, adulterers, and thieves – in other words, poor miserable sinners – a fact the tax collector freely acknowledged. Convicted by God’s Word and ashamed of his sin, the man would not even look up to heaven. Instead, he beat his chest. This act of contrition was common in times of great sorrow, but even then usually only among women. For a man to do it…

He offered up a simple prayer, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” Hidden in those words is a profound theological statement that we miss in English.The word for mercy in Greek is ἔλεος , which is where we get Kyrie Eleison from. That isn’t the word the tax collector uses. He uses the word ἱλάσθητί, which relates to another word, ἱλαστήριον. The ἱλαστήριον is the part on the ark of the covenant that would be covered by blood of a sacrifice. Once a year, one priest would go furthest into the temple, into the holy of holies. There he would present a sacrifice and sprinkle the blood on the mercy seat of God. That blood would cover the sins of the people.

When the tax collector came to the temple and offered that simple prayer, what he was asking was that the blood that was shed for the forgiveness of sins would be for his sins also. His sins were great and many, there was no righteousness in him. But God is righteous and merciful and provides His own payment for sin. The author to the Hebrews writes, “It is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins…[therefore, Christ] by a single offering [he] has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.” When the tax collector begged that God would have mercy on him, he asked that God would make atonement for his sins and wash them away with blood. And, so has God done through the blood of Christ.

Jesus said, “I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other.” Those who are truly justified, made righteous, are those who trust not in themselves, but wholly in God’s abundant mercy. The Pharisee prided himself in his goodness. Though it is good to tithe and do other good works, it is wrong to place your confidence in them and measure your salvation against them. Or, insert good intentions, good morals, church attendance, or whatever else you want into that sentence. The Pharisee is anyone who places his hope of salvation and confidence anywhere other than God’s mercy. The tax collector went away justified, forgiven his sins, because he trusted not in himself but in God’s great compassion. Does that mean the tax collector got a free pass to continue on sinning? No, for being forgiven our sins leads us to show that same compassion to others. But, that is the point. We are not saved by who we are, by our works, or by anything else we do. We are saved because God has had mercy on us. He has made atonement for our sins not by the blood of bulls and goats, but by the blood of the only-begotten Son of God.

 

The Dishonest Manager and the Merciful Master

Text: Luke 16:1-9 (10-13)

I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous wealth, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal dwellings.” Jesus says one of the most vexing sentences in all the Gospels in our text today. It seems to follow the parable of the Dishonest Manager as Jesus’ interpretation of the story. Make friends, Jesus says, by means of unrighteous wealth (you may have heard that phrase by another title, mammon), so that when it fails, you may be received into eternal dwellings. What is Jesus telling us to do, and why does the master in the story commend the dishonest manager? To use the familiar Lutheran question: Was ist Das?

When I was a student at our seminary in Fort Wayne, students took three homiletics classes. In these classes they learned what a sermon is, how to write one, and got some practice in delivering them. The first class covered sermon theory, the third class covered wedding and funeral sermons. It’s the second class that covered parables. In my experience, we were offered the choice of any parable to preach on. If you chose the parable we have today, and preached it well, you would get an automatic A in the course. No one picked it.

There are two ways that we’re going to look at the text today. First, we are going to look at it doxologically. That means that we’re going to look at it in a way that gives all glory and praise to God. We’ll do that by focusing not on the manager in the parable, but the master. Second, we’ll receive the parable as a teaching on the proper use of mammon, wealth. For, Jesus says, “You cannot serve God and money.” In the parable of the Dishonest Manager, Christ teaches us the proper use of wealth and about our merciful Master who forgives.

I.

Let us start with the text. Luke 16 begins, “[Jesus] also said to the disciples, ‘There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was wasting his possessions. And he called him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Turn in the account of your management, for you can no longer be manager.’” On a surface level, the first chunk of the parable needs no explanation. The story is about a wealthy landowner who has hired another man to be the manager of his property. The system was such that the landowner rented his land to tenant farmers. The farmers would pay their rent as a set portion of their crop, usually either in oil or wheat. The manager was in charge of collecting that rent. After a time, charges were brought to the master that his steward was squandering the landowner’s property.

One of the keys of interpreting a parable is to look for things that don’t match up to reality. Our text today is part of an ongoing section in Luke filled with parables, all of which we’ve actually looked at over the last couple months. The one that comes right before our text today is one you all probably know, the parable of the Prodigal Son. We’ll use that as an example. What is it in that parable that doesn’t match up to reality? Well, it’s not the younger son wasting his inheritance. We’ve all heard stories like that in our lives; and, who of us hasn’t wasted our possessions on immoral living? Or, how about the older son, the one who holds himself high and looks down on his brother who has fallen into sin, the one that we would describe as “self-righteous,”? No, both of those are quite common in reality. What doesn’t match is the father. The wealthy father sees his younger son from afar, he hikes up his robe and runs to greet his son. He embraces him, clothes him, and kills the fatted calf – for his son was dead and now is alive.

The parable of the Prodigal Son is perhaps better called the parable of the Merciful Father, because it’s not about the son but the father. From it we learn about our merciful God who forgives our sins by the blood of the Lamb. Same thing with the parable of the Dishonest Manager. It could probably be called the parable of the Merciful Master. That is the thing in this parable that doesn’t match up to reality. We would expect that, when the master hears his steward is cheating him, he would immediately throw him in jail. That would be his right. But instead, the master has mercy. And, not just on the manager. Remember what the manager did when he figured he was gonna get fired – he went and lowered the debts of all the master’s debtors. In response to that, the master honored the lowered debts. Again, that doesn’t line up with reality. If you fire your bookkeeper, and he in the meantime fudges the ledger, you wouldn’t be expected to honor those changes.

I said a few minutes ago that the first way we are going to look at this text is doxologically. That is, we’re going to look at it in a way that gives all glory and praise to God. We do that focusing not on the manager, but on the master. But first, the manager: what were his goals? Comfort and self-preservation at all costs. That involved squandering his master’s possessions, and lying to cover it up. I wish we could say that is what doesn’t match up with reality in the parable but, sadly, it does. Even among us Christians. The word for what the manager does is the same for what the prodigal son does in that parable: He takes what is his master’s and he wastes it on sinful living.

And so do we. We are each placed in various vocations by God, and given various resources to glorify Him and contribute to the work of His kingdom. We confess in the Small Catechism that God gives us everything that we need to support this body and life; everything we have and own belongs to God and is given for the support of our lives and for service to our neighbor. But instead, we put own spin on it. We dedicate our time, our money, and our talents, to our own comfort. And then we lie about it.

II.

The dishonest manager squanders his master’s possessions. He takes what isn’t his and uses it in service of his belly, then he lies to cover it up. When the master finds out that his manager, for perhaps a long time, has been cheating, he doesn’t immediately take to punishment. That would have been his legal right: to punish, to throw in jail, to take back everything, perhaps even to kill. Instead, he has mercy. And, so does our God. In His infinite wisdom, God knows every sin we have ever committed. Every single little indiscretion, and every lie we’ve told to cover it up and comfort ourselves, He knows. He knows every time we’ve used our money and possessions in service to iniquity, and when we’ve made idols out of them. He knows these things, and He forgives.

The central point of our parable today is not the manager, but the master. We are all dishonest managers of what God has given us, and yet our master has had mercy on us. He sent His only-begotten Son into our flesh to bear our sin and be our savior. He has taken our iniquity into Himself, and has died on the cross for the forgiveness of our sins. He gives this forgiveness to us freely, not because we are perfect managers, but because He is a merciful Lord.

Now, that leaves us with the last verse of the text, the verse that I read at the beginning of the sermon. I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous wealth, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal dwellings.” What’s that all about? The master commended the dishonest manager for being so clever, and then Jesus clobbers us with this verse of interpretation. The simplest way to understand it is this: Jesus uses the word, “mammon.” Mammon is a Hebrew word that means wealth and possessions that are above and beyond what you need to directly support your life. The world says that anything you can make over what you need to eat and have a home, that you can use for play. But, here Jesus says that proper use of everything that doesn’t go directly to the support of the body is for God’s glory and for service to our neighbor.

Everything. That’s why Jesus couches this in the parable of the Dishonest Manager, or rather, the Merciful Master. We are the dishonest manager. We misuse the things that God gives us and we lie to cover it up. But, God has had mercy on us and given His only Son to die for us. Through His Word and Sacrament, God daily conforms us to the image of His Son and leads us to use our time and possessions in ways that are pleasing to Him.

Our text today is hard passage. We can’t claim to have plumbed the depths of its meaning today; it’s good that it’ll come up again this time next year. However, when viewed in the context of the surrounding passages, particularly the Prodigal Son, we can see that it isn’t primarily about the manager who squanders and lies, but the Master who is merciful. Such is our God, who forgives us poor wretched managers.