Simul Justus et Peccator
Updated: Dec 19, 2022
The Pharisees of Jesus’ time were the religious superstars, highly respected individuals who took the laws of the Torah very seriously. They were not the Temple establishment, that was the Sadducees, but they were still greatly respected and benefited from the social order well enough. Tax collectors, on the other hand, were seen as traitors—minions of the occupying Romans, collecting taxes from their Jewish brothers and sisters. Most tax collectors were not especially wealthy themselves, but were hated for collecting others’ wealth for the sake of Rome. They were a despised group of Jews working for the Roman Empire.
In this parable Jesus lifts up one these despised tax collectors as the model of humility and repentance. Opposite him is a Pharisee, patting himself on the back and congratulating himself for being so holy. Jesus makes it obvious who the one we should emulate is: the one we’d think of as holy is proud and judgmental, and the one we’d think is sinful is humble and honest. The obviously sinful tax collector goes home redeemed and the righteous, law-abiding Pharisee may still be “righteous” and law-abiding but is also trapped in his own pride and self-image.
So what kind of response do you have when you hear this parable from Jesus? Do you say “Wow, thank God I’m not like that proud Pharisee: I’m super humble, I don’t judge anyone like that self-righteous jerk, and I never talk about how I’m better than other people. Thank God I’m not like him!” The Pharisee is obviously the example of what not to be. But it’s important not to fall into the trap of judging the Pharisee lest we become like him and separate people into two groups: the humble and the proud. The truth is it’s not always black and white—sometimes we’re like the tax collector and repent of our wrongdoings and sometimes we’re the Pharisee, proud and completely blind to our own faults. Neither is the ideal character.
Humans seem to have something in us that insists on separating people into groups that are right and wrong, saved and damned, us and them. The ego in us feels more secure when we’re right and they’re wrong, then we can easily dice up reality into understandable fragments or labels. We have dualistic minds that like to analyze and separate people and things into either/or scenarios. And while this type of thinking certainly has its purpose when it comes to the right or wrong way to build a computer or an airplane, when we become possessed by analytical, dualistic thinking it leads to tribal, exclusivist thought patterns. Now more than ever, as the world becomes increasingly global, it is clear just how destructive our dualistic mindset can be. Rather than seeing people as the groups of “righteous us” versus “sinful them,” Jesus teaches His disciples to see beyond dualistic thinking and recognize 1.) that we are all in need God’s mercy and 2.) that we are also all reconciled to God through Christ. Jesus invites us to no longer distinguish between righteous and unrighteous, clean and unclean, worthy and unworthy, sinner and saint. Every one of us is both.
In the Lutheran tradition we say that we are simultaneously saint and sinner, simul justus et peccator, as Martin Luther said. Simultaneously saint and sinner. This concept expands beyond dualistic either/or thinking and introduces us to the both/and type of thinking that Jesus teaches.
We know we’re all sinners. Christians are usually pretty good at admitting that. We’re not perfect. We all screw up sometimes. We all do things wrong and we’re all in need of mercy. But more than sin being the bad things we do, the New Testament understanding of sin is that it is a cosmic or social force which imprisons us. So, sin is more of a disease that needs to be healed than a crime that needs to be punished. An interesting thing about the tax collector is that he seems to recognize this. While the Pharisee lists his good works—how he fasts twice a week and tithes his income—the tax collector does not list any sins. He asks for mercy from his condition as a sinner, rather than mercy for specific sins. He seems to understand that being a sinner is a universal disease of humanity more than the accumulation of bad moral behaviors. The tax collector recognizes himself as trapped in a sinful system and begs God for mercy.
And all of us are trapped in this system of sin. We’re all in need of healing from this disease called sin. Maybe sometimes you’re like the Pharisee and are proud or judgmental. Or maybe you’re more like the tax collector—aware of your sin but unable to stop your behavior because you’re trapped in a sinful system. We all encounter the consequences of sin every day, whether it’s the way we hurt those around us, the way we ignore God’s will, or the ways we fail to take care of ourselves.
There’s a deep wound in the human soul and in our society which makes us feel a sense of incompleteness and lack that leads us to seek to gain identity from material things or social status, or gives us the need to oppress others in subtle or not so subtle ways so we can feel superior. This reality is sin. It’s what separates us from God, it’s what separates the Pharisee from the tax collector, and it’s what separates us from each other. It is this separation from our Source, this being curved in on ourselves that is at the root of all the evil we do to each other. And there’s really no escaping it. That’s what it means to be a sinner.
But then there’s Jesus. Who says sure you’re a sinner, but more importantly you are a beloved child of God. You are a saint, who has taken on the righteousness of God through Jesus Christ. You are redeemed and set free from sin. You are set right with God—there is nothing to worry about and nothing to judge in ourselves or others. We are all set free from the bonds of sin and invited to experience life to the fullest! That’s the amazing part about the Gospel—that’s what’s so exciting about being a Christian. That we are already set free from enslavement to the things that separate us from God, and are already in eternal relationship with God Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
That’s the promise Lillian will receive in her Holy Baptism. Christ has freed us from the force of sin and made us justified in God’s sight. No matter what we have done, we are redeemed. God does not hold anything against us. And what’s more is that God is actively transforming us, making us holy. The theological word for that is sanctification (making us holy)—transforming us into permanent saints. But for now, as long as we are on this earthly journey, we are simultaneously saint and sinner, all of us, living our imperfect lives perfectly.
Just like the tax collector and Pharisee, we all need God’s forgiveness and mercy. God loves us and doesn’t even need a reason to forgive us—God just loves us that much. It’s important to realize Christ didn’t die to change God’s mind about us, but to change our minds about God. Because God is love. God is all-merciful, all-gracious, all-forgiving, all-loving. You cannot do anything to make God stop loving you.
So remember, as you go on your way, that you are both saint and sinner. When you get too arrogant and proud—remember you’re a sinner. And when you get too down on yourself or feel abandoned or unworthy or unloved—remember you’re a saint. Live a humble life of balance and let God’s light shine on you and God’s love live through you.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Pastor Brian, 10/23/22