Updated: Dec 20, 2022
Pastor Brian Rajcok St. Matthew Lutheran Church
Luke 18: 9-14
Sunday October 27, 2019
Reformation Sunday: The Pharisee & The Tax Collector
There’s a theme in Jesus’ parables. Hopefully you’re picking up on it. It’s that there’s usually a character his audience would assume is outside of God’s favor—who is generously, sometimes unfairly, loved by God. Think of the Parable of the Prodigal Son or the Vineyard Workers or the Lost Sheep. In this parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, Jesus’ original listeners would probably have thought the Pharisee was a good person. Tax collectors, on the other hand, were seen as greedy traitors exploiting their own people for Rome. As one of my former seminary professors Matt Skinner wrote, “When Jesus says, ‘This man went home justified’ we should imagine his words taking his audience’s breath away. The tax collector is not the kind of person one might expect to be so easily restored.”
The man asks for mercy, but he doesn’t promise to change. He doesn’t promise he’ll quit his job and join the resistance against Rome. He just asks for mercy. And he goes home justified. Skinner continues, “It’s outrageous that God shows mercy so easily to such a villain. The grace on display here is as absurdly generous as what we see in the prodigal son’s return home (Luke 15) and the end-of-the-day payment of the workers in the vineyard (Matt 20).”
I hope you notice this theme of extravagant grace, of scandalous forgiveness, is the predominant theme of Jesus’ parables. Jesus’ audience assumed God would be pleased with the Pharisee (and, of course, I do think God prefers holy living to exploiting our neighbors!) but what doesn’t please God about the Pharisee is his contempt for the tax collector and his thinking that his holy living is what justifies him. It’s not our good works that justify us, it’s God’s love and mercy alone—the love and mercy of God which are the tax collector’s only hope, because he is under no illusion that his actions will save him.
Jesus makes it clear in this parable and throughout the Gospels that we are set right with God because of God’s doing, not our own. This theme of grace is found throughout Jesus’ parables, and Paul’s letters, and the whole Bible really. It’s literally all over the place in Scripture! But the sad thing is, we consistently miss it.
The church of the middle ages forgot the message of grace that Jesus taught and that the early church knew so well. The church had filled a power vacuum in Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire and by the 1500s looked more like its own military-political-economic empire than it did a community of disciples trying to live like Jesus. The church was corrupt and powerful and silenced anybody who spoke up against them, killing many critics as heretics. The idea of grace seemed completely forgotten. The idea of having to earn God’s favor by doing what the church told you was the common theology of the day. People like a young monk named Martin Luther were more scared of God than anything, and frightened to death about God’s wrath. One author said, “At [this] time, Luther was struggling with the need to confess completely everything he had ever done wrong. He wore [his confessor] out, trying to remember every sin that his mind would try to cover up. On at least one occasion, he confessed for six hours straight.”
Luther’s confessor, Johann von Staupitz, told Luther he didn’t need to worry so much. He told Martin to just love God and rely on the promise of God’s love, mercy, and forgiveness. Later in life Luther described this period saying, “I was more than once driven to the very abyss of despair so that I wished I had never been created. Love God? I hated him!"
The theology of the Medieval church had driven serious monks like Luther to despair. And it was reading the book of Romans at his confessor’s request and reflecting on the phrase “the righteousness of God” that Luther finally had his great breakthrough—a moment when he said the Gospel was truly revealed to him and he felt as though he was altogether born anew and had entered the gates of paradise!
This experience and new understanding of God’s grace changed Luther’s life, and changed the course of history. What Luther realized is that we don’t become righteous by striving to become worthy. We are declared righteous because of Jesus, and are loved and accepted by God because of God’s grace, not anything we have done. This is what we celebrate Reformation Sunday. This is the Good News! God gives out free forgiveness for everybody. Sin doesn’t cause God to stop loving us. Sin doesn’t separate us from God whatsoever. God offers wild mercy, scandalous forgiveness, extravagant unearned grace. That’s the Good News of Jesus Christ! That’s the Good News that caught the world by storm in the early church period! And that’s the Good News that inspired the Reformation!
And so we celebrate this Sunday. But the world still needs to hear this Good News. And so this Reformation Sunday is also fittingly our Stewardship Sunday. The day we make commitments to support the ministry of St. Matthew Lutheran Church. Because the world still needs to hear this Good News.
With an understanding of God’s grace and love for us, we don’t make financial commitments because we think it’ll earn God’s favor. We give because the world still needs to hear this Good News. We are blessed and loved by God, and want to support the sharing of the incredible Good News of God’s love with the world.
Our faith in Christ inspires many things. Out of this faith flows a love for our neighbor and a desire to share the Gospel. Out of this faith flows acts of charity, like feeding the poor and housing the homeless. Out of faith flows a concern for justice, the willingness to critique systems of oppression and work for social change. Out of this faith flows a passion for spiritual practices which deepen our connection with God and help us mature on our spiritual journey. And out of this faith flows a desire to contribute to the mission of the church by making a commitment on a day like today. The church’s mission is to share the Good News of Jesus Christ—the message of this God who forgives outlandishly and loves unconditionally. The message of a Savior who suffered and died on the cross for the sake of the world. The message of the Spirit present in us, working for our healing and the healing of all creation.
We do all these things—giving, volunteering, advocating, practicing spirituality, not because we think it’ll earn us God’s favor, but because we are so overcome by God’s love and grace that generous lives flow out of the experience of faith. Giving itself is a spiritual practice. It’s a discipline. It’s a commitment to God’s mission in the world. And so I thank you this day, for being a part of what God is up to in the world. For being participants in the ministry of reconciliation. For being a laborer in the field. For being a disciple on the road. For being part of the church that is always reforming. Thank you for your commitment to this congregation and for your commitment to sharing the Good News of God’s love with all the world.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen,