The Pharisee did a lot of good works. We need to establish this clearly. If we think that he was a bad guy who was lying about the good things he did, then we miss an important point, and the parable can mislead us.
He lists two main ways that he did good works. He fasted twice a week, and he tithed.
Now, fasting was not commanded under the Law of Moses, except for the Day of Atonement, one day a year. This Pharisee fasted twice a week, very much above and beyond the minimum required. This was common for Pharisees, and yes, it usually flowed from a desire to appear more righteous than others. But leave that aside for a moment. Just focus on the fact that he fasted twice a week. This is not a bad thing.
We often have trouble understanding fasting. There can be bad reasons to fast, but there are also good reasons to fast. It helps to discipline the body so that your fleshly desires are not controlling all you do. Fasting can curb gluttony. Fasting can help you focus upon prayer and meditation on Godís Word.
So the Pharisee was doing something that was, at least in the outward action, a good work. Granted, he spoiled the work by his self-righteous desire to show off his goodness before others. Yet the action itself is a good one. We need to make sure that we do not miss that point.
The second thing the Pharisee listed as evidence of his goodness was his tithing. Here, again, he was going above and beyond what was required. The Law of Moses required one tenth of a personís produce or income. But the Pharisees noticed that many people failed to give this tenth on their goods. So they would pay the tenth on the goods of others when they bought them.
Again, you could question the motives of the Pharisees, and often you would be right to question them. They might be doing this to show how much more righteous they were than others. But maybe they had good motives. They might have been trying to help their neighbor by paying the tithe on their behalf. They might have refused to participate in the ungodly practice of what was essentially robbing the Lord of what was His due.
This was also a good work that was costing the Pharisees a lot of money. Money is often a very difficult idol to let go of, even for Christians. So the Pharisee was showing that he loved God more than money.
So again, we have the Pharisee in the parable doing something that, at least on the surface of it, is a good work.
Oh, that we were burdened with too many good works! But we too often fall short. Our tithing often lags. True, we are not commanded in the New Testament to specifically give ten percent. Yet should we not strive to give at least as much as the Israelites were commanded to give? We have the fullness of Christ and His redeeming work revealed before our eyes. We have His eternal gifts wondrously poured out to us. Should we then say that we are content to give much less than the Old Testament Israelites gave? But too often we are.
Should we not be willing to fast, if for no other reason than that we should follow the example of our dear Lord Jesus Christ, who has willing to suffer terrible hunger for us? But we get very cranky if we miss even one meal.
In this Church age in which we live in the shadow of Christís sacrifice and redemption, we should abound and overflow with good works, including fasting and tithing.
But we Lutherans sometimes are suspicious of good works. We might grumble under our breath, ďWell, he is only doing that to show how good he is!Ē Perhaps that is true, yet the good work itself is good. We sometimes act as if doing too much good is a bad thing.
I think that this is because we get the main point of the parable a little too well. Who went home justified from the Temple? Was it the Pharisee who did good works, or was it the sinful Tax Collector who repented? Of course, it was the Tax Collector who went home justified. Therefore, we should be sinful people who repent! And that is sort of true. We should realize that we are sinners and constantly go to God in humility to receive forgiveness.
But we should also try to do good works. Try to be like the Pharisee in his outward good actions. The Law does not only exist to drive us to repentance. It is also a rule or guide to show us what works we should do in our Christian walk. If we ignore this, then we are in danger of living in cheap grace.
Of course, true grace is never cheap. Purchasing mankindís atonement cost God an astronomical price at Calvary. But the danger of cheap grace is in us treating it that way. We should not make repentance into a momentary action we do and then we move on with our lives. We are to live our whole lives in repentance.
Repentance includes sorrow over sin. We should genuinely believe that the sins that we have done are most serious and horrible. We should be genuinely ashamed of our actions. We should not say, ďOh, we made a few small mistakes, but itís no big deal because we are forgiven.Ē That is to treat grace cheaply.
Repentance also includes a desire to not sin again. Now, we will obviously sin again, and again, and again. But the true repentance that the Spirit gives also drives us to try to do better. With the Spiritís help, we can overcome sin. We can begin to do good works that we have failed to do. If we do not at least desire to do better, then it is to be doubted whether we are repentant.
So when the Tax Collector repented with such profound sorrow and humility, do you think that he went out and committed the same sins over again as if it did not matter? Of course not. How could he? He might try to resist sin yet fail. He might try to do good works but fail. Yet that is very different from treating sin as if it does not matter.
The Tax Collector certainly was treating sin as a very grave thing. He was not taking sin lightly. If we want to be like him in repentance, we should also be horrified by our sins and want to do better.
So try to be like the Pharisee in good works, yet turn around and repent like the Tax Collector, because your good works do not make you better in Godís sight.
You should not look down upon others as being less righteous than you. You may be able to see particular sins that they do but you do not, but what does that matter? Do not look at the appearance to decide who is better. Look deep into the human heart to see how good you are. Let Godís Law uncover the deep and pervasive corruption that fills thoughts and emotions and the words that leap forth from our hearts. Be deeply disturbed by how sinful you are.
Here there is no room for comparing one human to another. My sinful heart is as stained by sin as yours. I have no reason to treat anyone with contempt. I have no reason to think that I am righteous in myself, nor does anyone else.
The only person who would be justified in these kinds of thoughts was Christ. He was righteous in Himself. He performed the requirements of the Law perfectly. He never failed to uphold every last jot and tittle.
He could have treated us all with contempt. After all, compared to Him, we are awful and repulsive sinners. He is pure, but we are full of unrighteousness.
Yet He did not treat us with contempt. He showed us the very highest love possible. He went above and beyond the requirements of the Law, because He could have left us in our sinful state to perish eternally, and that would have been justice. But He went above and beyond. He did not fast twice a week, but forty straight days in the wilderness in order to defeat satan and his temptations. He went above and beyond by giving up His life on the Cross. He did not give ten percent, but one hundred percent. All that He was He sacrificed for us. He allowed Himself to be treated as the worst sinner by falling under Godís judgment. He did this so that you and I could be treated as the very best, the most righteous, yes, even as Christ Ė as sons of God in the image of the perfect Son.
We are not righteous in ourselves. We are righteous in Christ, and only in Him. Do not boast in your good works, not even in your secret thoughts. Instead, boast in Christ. He is everything to you: righteousness, holiness, salvation, forgiveness, and peace.
God has indeed had mercy upon us sinners. He has made propitiation for our sins, which means that He has appeased His wrath against our sins because of the holy Blood shed on Calvary.
The Tax Collector eagerly yearned for that propitiation to come, because he felt the weight of his sins. The Pharisee did not, because he thought he was a good person in himself.
We should yearn hungrily to receive the fruits of that propitiation. God pours out forgiveness in His house to repentant sinners. May the Spirit increase our desire to receive His gifts, even as we feel the weight of our sins.
In the Name of the One God who justifies sinners. Amen.
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