But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’
—Luke 18:13 +INPFSS+
I. Explaining the Story.
What a haunting, tragic, beautiful picture it is in the story that our Lord told in the Gospel lesson this morning. The story of the pharisee and the tax-collector, and the different ways that they pray. The pharisee cataloging his good deeds, and the tax-collector so ashamed of his sins that he can't even look up to heaven, but just bleats out, “be merciful to me, a sinner.”
Now because we've heard this story before, we are in danger of warping the details to suit what we “know” the meaning to be. So let me nip those in the bud:
In the first place, the things the pharisee lists about himself: That he has kept the 10 commandments, that he tithes and fasts regularly. These are not shallow exercises of piety. He is not pretending to be a good person. He is actually a good person. These are actual good deeds he is doing. He really has – like St. Paul – a righteousness under the law. Not only is he blameless as far as the Law of Moses is concerned, but out of a sincere attempt to be devoted to GOD, the Pharisee is even going above and beyond what is expected of him, in his fasting. When JESUS first told this story, his listeners undoubtedly would have heard this first part – about the pharisee – and thought, woah, now there's a Godly man.
And then JESUS mentions the tax-collector, full of dread and sadness about his sins, literally whacking his own chest with sorrow, and begging GOD for mercy. Keep in mind – our LORD was not describing something familiar to those he was talking to. It would not have been a common thing to see a tax-collector beating his breast in penitence. Tax collectors, you'll recall, are the despised scabs – the traitors who have sold out their own people to their Roman over-lords to make a quick buck for themselves, who were often, if not always, unfair and extortionate in their tax-collecting. Tax collectors were scum. They were like a grim combination of a slimey used car-salesman and IRS agent. The very mention of them in a story might perhaps draw “boo's” from a crowd.
But not in Jesus' story. No – here Jesus is telling a story of a man acting like the few tax-collectors he himself had encountered – whose lives he had changed. Like Levi, or little Zaccheus. Men who were great sinners, but who repented, who turned, and gave their lives to following Jesus. Men who were sorry for what they had done in the past.
This repentant tax-collector in the story is a stark figure for the point Jesus is trying to get across. The radical juxtaposition, the strange flip-flopping that happens now that Jesus is in charge of the Universe.
The good-guy? He will not be reckoned righteous before God, as long as his eyes are fixed on his own good -works.
The bad-guy? He WILL be reckoned righteous before God, because he fixed his eyes on his own un-worthiness.
The difference between the two men? In a word? → Penitence. The pharisee was not penitent. The tax-collector was.
II. Elucidating the theme
Which brings us to the great theme I wish to un-pack this morning: Penitence. Penitence. One of the single most important words for our Christian lives. Even the word itself is great! So many great words, over time, start to lose their power through familiarity and mis-use. “Grace” used to really mean something, and now it mostly means 'a short prayer before dinner'. “Awesome” used to mean 'full of awe', now it mostly just means 'cool'. Likewise with 'faith', and 'spiritual' and 'religion', all these words, don't illicit in our hearts what they once did. But 'penitence', on the other hand, 'penitence' still has razor-sharp teeth that bite us when we say it. It's a word that would quickly change the tone of a coffee or a cocktail conversation if it were mentioned. It's a word that makes even non-Christians pause for a brief moment – redolent as it is with depth and power and the great things of the Kingdom of Heaven. You can almost hear within it the dim sobs echoing from a medieval cathedral, “Penitence.”
Penitence is simply the state of being sorry for one's sins. Another word for it that you'll hear sometimes is contrition.
It is a disposition captured in the words of the old prayer book, “the remembrance of my sins is grievous unto me, and the burden of them is intolerable”, and like the Psalmist, to “water my bed with tears” for what I have done.
Penitence is more than feeling, it is a condition of the inner-man, but it is not less than a feeling. It includes feelings. We can see whether or not we have this Christian sensibility by looking at our feelings. When you think on sins you have done in the past? Are you filled with sadness and sorrow?
And let me be clear – this feeling is not to be confused with shame – the dark heavy feeling that actually keeps us from turning to God with our whole heart. No, it is the kind of Godly sorrow that, as St. Paul says, in 2 Corinthians 7 – leads us to repentance. It is a sorrow full of the light of God. Indeed, it is a sorrow that God himself in some deep place within us soothes with his own grace. As our Lord promised – blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
But it is an ever-present sadness nevertheless. Even though we know that in Christ, those sins which we have confessed to him are forgiven and put away from us as far as the east is from the west. Even though we know that God's mercy is everlasting. Nevertheless, the thought of our sins – sins past and, if we are honest in our self-examination: present sins also – the thought of them should sadden us. Should take us into the stooped posture of the tax-collector, asking God in a gentle voice, that he would show his kindness to us, in forgiving our sins.
III. How to not be the pharisee
But how do we get there? How do we come to be penitent, like the tax-collector in Jesus' story?
Well, the first step is to avoid being the pharisee. This is trickier than it sounds.
For instance, when you heard this story a few minutes ago, did you think to yourself: “man, what an arrogant pharisee, I'm glad I'm not like that!” Uh oh – do you see where that's headed? → “I thank you God, that I am not like other men, not like this pharisee in your story”
See, it's human-nature – in so many endeavors in the Christian life, our default mode is 'pharisee'. And this default mode has two characteristics: (I) Esteeming oneself too highly, and (II) judging others.
Before we can approach the tax-collector's sincerity in prayer, we need to – with God's help – knock these things off. We need to nip every judgmental thought about others in the bud. Whether we are assessing them as a citizen, or their culture or class, or their spiritual life, or their outward expressions of religious devotion, or whatever it is. We need to just stop playing the role of judge. Stop comparing them with ourselves. Stop making it a competition. Stop painting ourselves in the best possible light. Someone else is expressing themselves more in public prayer or worship? They're not being showy. It doesn't matter what they are, to you. Someone else seems to be “less mature” of a Christian – and I'm not just talking here at Good Shepherd, but also in your wider circles of Christian friends – the very fact we would entertain the thought assures us the opposite must be true – we must be the less mature ones, stuck in the world of petty judgments.
The flip side of that same coin of course, is esteeming ourselves too highly.
Like the pharisee – who takes stock of what he has done, and pats himself on the back for it.
As a matter of fact, I believe this might be the single greatest danger to our souls and to our spiritual health in 21st century America: Thinking of ourselves – as Christians – more highly than we ought.
If we think that we've already got ourselves pretty sorted out. That we're all set for heaven, that we've got this Christian thing down. Then boy are you in danger.
Because it's actually an essential trait of the vibrant, alive Christian life to be always discontent with where one is at in the present. Like Paul – we forget what is behind – and he's talking about the good things that are behind, and what he has accomplished – forgetting what is behind, and straining toward what is ahead. Philippians 3. Or like our Lord said – blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness. Not blessed are those who are happy with what they drank 10 years ago, but who thirst in the present. Whose longing for God is insatiable. Who is always wanting more. Wanting to do deeper. Wanting to comprehend more fully the great and terrible mystery of the suffering Christ who is our master.
In order to not be the pharisee, we have to not be satisfied with where we are in the present. And not because God is always moving the goal-posts on us. Not at all. The Goal-posts are always already very far away, but we trick ourselves by looking at the few little good things we have done, and thinking we've already gotten there, but that's just a mirage. The actual goal still lies ahead of us. Pressing on toward what is ahead.
IV. How to be penitent.
So that's step one – don't be a pharisee. But let's put this into practical terms that we can get our hands into a little bit more. How do we actually come to be truly penitent – sorry for our sins like the tax-collector?
We can't make ourselves feel things. Emotions don't work that way. If we don't feel sorry for our sins, we don't feel sorry for our sins. I often feel this way. But this is not how we should feel. At least not if we want to be justified before God, as our Lord shows us.
At root, the problem of self-satisfaction, that is – the failure to be sorry for our sins is a failure of estimation. We estimate our sins as either being small, or long ago in the past, and therefore not “attached” to us anymore. On both counts, we are of course wrong. Before the infinite, awful purity of God, even the slightest blemish is unbearable. Think of Isaiah, seeing just a glimpse of the glory of God, and falling to his face crying out, “Woe is me!!”
And even if the sins which nag our conscience were committed long ago – we must recall the figure our Lord uses for how the great judgment will go down at the end – that of a book. The books will be opened. The book of our life will be examined – as a whole. If there are terrible sins in the early chapters, they do not disappear by virtue of their being early on. No, they too are in need of the great mercy of God, of his sweet word of forgiveness, and they are still worthy of being sorrowful over.
But of course, we are more than just brains, and so, “thinking right” about these things will probably not get us there – to actually being among the penitent. The Church, in the wisdom given her from her head, Jesus Christ, has always known this, and so several practices have been recommended to all her sons and daughters, which can help get us there. Of these many practices, I want to recommend just one to you this morning, if you want to know more – feel free to call me this week and we can talk about it.
What I want to commend to you is making prayers of confession. First and foremost, I believe, this means the hard practice of making confession to God, in the presence of a priest. This is an exercise that I myself do about every 4 months – taking time beforehand to think through and ask God to shine light on my sins. It has been a great source of grace and growth in my life, and one of the many things I have learned from it is how even sins which in my mind feel small – when I force myself to say them outloud to one of God's priests, I actually get to see and hear how horrible they are. Indeed, I think I only ever began to truly feel Godly sorrow for my sins when I began going to confession.
I want you to know that I am always available to hear confessions – here or anywhere. And I will also, starting this Saturday, be making confession available from 10.30 – noon on Saturdays. If you're interested in this, but aren't quite sure what it means or how to do it – ask me about it, and I'll be glad to talk about it with you.
If you don't feel up for this just yet, nevertheless the practice of confessing sins is still a must – and our church, non-coincidentally, puts the words of confession on our lips every morning, in morning prayer. Which I encourage you to imitate – to confess your sins, concretely and generally, every day. Even if it's in the Lord's prayer, to take seriously when we say, forgive us our sins, and to recall which sins we need forgiveness for. Prayers of confession are essential for cultivating penitence in our hearts.
As we name our sins more regularly, and more concretely, and as we become more and more acquainted with the fact that we are sinners, in need of a savior, the Holy Spirit that God has placed in our hearts will soften our hardness. He will sand-away our pharisaical tendencies, and we will be made more and more like the tax-collector: sorry for our sins. This is my prayer for myself, and for you.
And as we approach the Holy Table here in just a minute, I invite you to look into these holy gifts of Christ's body and blood as into a mirror: That our sins are indeed so great that we need Christ himself to heal us, and that in this we see how great his love is for us – that he would gladly give himself on the cross so that our sins can be forgiven – if only we would stop glossing over them. Amen.