“Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this morning comes from the Gospel lesson read a few moments ago from the eighteenth chapter of the Gospel according to Saint Luke. Dear friends in Christ, I am not a first-century Jew. I think that is probably obvious. Moreover, I don’t think any of you are first-century Jews either. This simple fact means that in a certain sense we have to work harder to understand Jesus’ parables than His first hearers did. They knew their Old Testament better than most modern Christians, and in addition they knew the Jewish religion inside and out. And that meant that they could fill in the context when they heard one of Jesus’ parables. An important example of this is in our text for today. Jesus tells a parable about two men who go to the temple to pray. For us modern day Christians, that makes sense, because the temple seems like a perfectly reasonable place to pray. But Jesus’ original hearers would’ve known the important fact that public prayers only could occur in the temple twice a day, at 9am and 3pm. Those are the two times that the atonement sacrifices were offered each day. As the people prayed in the courtyard, the priests were killing animals to atone for the sin of the people, for as the author to the Hebrews reminds us, “Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.”
Therefore, the Pharisee Jesus describes in our text entered the temple courtyard at the very moment when animals were being sacrificed, slaughtered for the sins of the people of Israel, and for his sins. He stands off from the others a bit, not for privacy, but so that everyone can see him, can observe his piety. In the background the gathered multitude can hear cattle bellowing and sheep crying as they are prepared to bear the people’s sin, but his voice rises above the clamor. “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.”
He has appointed himself as judge over his fellow man and over himself, declaring the obvious verdict- ‘I am better than all these other poor slobs!’ In the Christian Church this attitude can be unfortunately all too common. “Lord, I thank you that I am not like that family down the street, or my brothers and sisters (man, they sure screwed up their lives!), or even that person sitting next to me in the pew. I show up at church, I put some money in the offering plate. Thank God I am not like other men!” It is so easy to see the sin in the lives of others, so much so that we can ignore our own sin, or at least explain it away. “I may have screwed up, but I’m not nearly as bad as that family I read about in the paper!” In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus has something to say about this attitude. “Judge not, that you be not judged.” Whenever we set ourselves up as judge over others or ourselves, as the Pharisee did, we are taking the place of God, and that is the textbook definition of idolatry.
The Pharisee quite simply does not get it. At the very moment when animals are being sacrificed for the sins of Israel, for his sins, he goes to the temple and declares that he has no sin. “God, I thank you that I am not like other men.” He has convinced himself that he is righteous, and that seems to be a reasonable assumption to make. At least he isn’t as bad as the other people he unfortunately has to rub shoulders with each and every day. He trusts in what he has done for a right relationship with God. “I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.” His righteousness flows only from himself, because he doesn’t really need God. He is the judge, he is the righteous one, and the only reason there is to talk to God is to brag. Notice what he doesn’t do in his prayer- he doesn’t ask for a thing. And that is no surprise, because he doesn’t really need anything. He has everything he needs, God is simply someone there to affirm him, to tell him ‘good job, that’s the way to do it, you show em!’ For this Pharisee, God is some kind of lazy basketball coach, someone who has no criticisms or corrections to offer, but simply and only affirmation. And that’s the kind of God our human nature wants. ‘Just give me the thumbs up, God, I got this handled!’
That is the kind of God we may want, but it is not the God that we have. We have a God who hates sin, all sin, and in His righteous and just wrath punishes it. That is the kind of God the tax collector prays to. He stands off to the side, not so that men may see him, but because he knows he is unworthy to even be in the temple courtyard. He does not lift up his eyes to heaven, because he knows that he cannot look a righteous God in the eye. He beats his breast, an act of anguish and mourning. And he prays. “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” He doesn’t offer anything to God, not his piety, not his good works, not his decent life. He doesn’t offer anything to God but his sin, because that is all he has. And yet, like the Pharisee, he compares himself to other men. Our translation misses it; the tax collector does not say, “God, be merciful to me a sinner!” but “God, be merciful to me, the sinner!” He considers himself the sinner, the worst of sinners, for the purposes of his prayer, he is the one and only sinner. “Chief of sinners though I be,” as we sang earlier in the service.
The tax collector gets it. He understands what is going on in the temple at that very hour, that cattle, sheep, and goats are shedding their blood for the sins of Israel, for his sin. And so his prayer is one of confession, a prayer asking for atonement. I hate to criticize our translation too much, because I do really like the ESV, but once again, it doesn’t say enough. The tax collector prays, “God, be merciful to me, the sinner,” but it is more accurately, “God be atoned to me, the sinner!” Now, that may not be good English, but that is what he is saying. The tax collector is asking that God would atone for his sin, that the Lord would be reconciled to him, that his great sin would be covered up. That is what ‘atonement’ means, to cover up and do away with sin. He prays for this because he knows that blood is being shed in the temple for that very purpose. But he also prays this looking forward to the final atonement for sin.
Jesus has come to answer the prayers of those who, like the tax collector, have nothing to offer God but their sin. He took that sin upon His shoulders and then offered Himself as the atonement sacrifice for the sin of the entire world. The unique and amazing thing about the biblical concept of atonement is that ultimately God took it upon Himself to provide the sacrifice which would reconcile Him with His people. He did it all, for you and me! He offered up His own Son as our sacrifice, and Jesus willing accepted that charge because of His great love for us. He shed His blood for the sin of all people who ever had or ever will live just as the cattle, sheep, and goats shed their blood for the sins of Israel. And He did so willingly. The animals who gave their lives in the temple as the Pharisee and tax collector prayed probably would’ve passed on being sacrificed if given a choice, but Jesus freely and willingly took on our sin, your sin, my sin, and the sin of the entire world, and faced the wrath of God for it. We have a God who hates sin, all sin, and in His righteous and just wrath punishes it. And that is what He did to Jesus on Calvary’s cross. Jesus shed His blood there to satisfy that wrath, to take on that punishment, to pay for our sin, to answer our prayers for mercy. For we needed mercy, we needed deliverance, we needed forgiveness. And God answered our prayers with His Son Jesus Christ, just as He answered the prayer of the tax collector: “God, be atoned to me, the sinner!” Jesus Himself gives us the outcome of this prayer: “I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”
The tax collector went home justified because he despaired of himself and instead threw himself on the mercy of God. He was a spiritual infant, unable to give anything to God, but only to receive from Him. And what does Jesus say about infants as our text concludes? “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God.” We are not incorporated into the kingly rule of God through self-righteous comparisons with others, or by exalting ourselves, but by being spiritual infants. An infant exists only through the love of another, it lives in a constant state of dependence, unable to do anything for itself. That is how we are before God. We have nothing to offer God but our sin, and He takes that sin upon Himself and pays for it on the cross. We live only through the love of God, in complete dependence on Him for His overflowing gifts of forgiveness. That is why we baptize infants, because they are like each of us, unable to give anything to God, but only able to receive. Each time a baby is received into the Lord’s waiting arms through the washing of the water with the Word, we are reminded of our own status before God. We come to this place week after week to be fed, to eat and drink of the forgiveness of the Lord as He offers it to us freely. Even as we mature and grow in the faith, we still remain spiritual infants, praying daily with the tax collector, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”
For we remain beggars, we stand openhanded before God, with nothing to offer Him, not our good life, not our piety, nothing but our sin. We come before God not to brag, but only to receive what He gives in such wonderful abundance. We are bowed down by sin, but the Lord lifts us up. We hunger and thirst for righteousness and He fill us. We are spiritual infants, but as Jesus says, “Truly I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” The new heavens and new earth will be populated by beggars, by infants, by forgiven sinners just like you and me. Thanks be to God that He is merciful to us because of Jesus Christ our Savior! In His precious name, Amen.