Text: Luke 18:9-17
Grace, mercy, and peace to each of you from our Lord and our Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.
There is an important word in our Gospel reading today, the word is “justified.” We are told that the tax collector who had come to the temple in Jerusalem to pray and asked God to have mercy on him and forgive him went home “justified.” So what does that mean?
Normally when we think of justifying someone or something it means that someone is trying to make an excuse or a case for why they have behaved in a particular way. A great example is when kids are in trouble and try to get out of it. When I was in grade 2 or 3 I got in trouble at recess for pushing another kid. I didn’t mean to hurt him, but my friends had told me to stay behind and protect the snow fort we had just made and that’s all I was trying to do when this grade 4 kid came and started snooping around. So, I pushed him. I just didn’t realize that the principal was supervising recess that day and that she was looking right at me. I was sent inside and had to wait to talk to the principal. When she finally came I tried every excuse I could think of to justify what I had done. “I’m not feeling good,” “I’m sick!” “I’m having a bad week,” “It wasn’t my fault,” etc… None of them worked. I was still in trouble, still guilty, and would not get to go outside for the rest of the recesses that day.
This is what happens when we try to justify ourselves and our own actions. We cover up our guilt and the wrong we have done, but we never really get rid of it. And yet we keep trying to justify our own actions. Whenever someone has a problem with something that we have done or whenever our own conscience starts to feel guilty about something we have done we start justifying ourselves because we don’t like to be wrong and we don’t like to feel guilty. We come up with excuses for ourselves or we try to comfort ourselves by remembering the good things that we have done and focussing on those things. But our excuses are never more than just excuses and the good stuff we’ve done doesn’t excuse our bad behaviour. Justifying ourselves never actually deals with the wrongs that we have done it just tries to cover them up with explanations.
That’s the way it is when we try to justify ourselves, but what about if God justifies us? That’s really what is going on in our gospel reading today, God justifies the tax collector and He goes home guilt free, forgiven of his sin. When God justifies it is not just God making excuses for what we have done, it’s just God covering our guilt and our sin with Jesus and forgiving us through and through.
In our reading today Jesus tells us about two men who go up to the temple to pray. They probably came up to the temple at one of the appointed times when people gathered to pray. It might have even been at a time when sacrifices were being offered for the sins of the people. Anyway, these two men come up to pray. One of them is a Pharisee and he is a really good guy who takes his faith really seriously. He fasts two times a week, even though God never said that it was necessary for His people to do that. He is also generous with his offerings. He gives 10% of everything that he gets, not just 10% of his paycheque or of his income, but 10% of everything. 10% of the vegetables from his garden, 10% of his birthday presents, 10% of everything. He has gone above and beyond, by all appearances he is a righteous guy.
The other man who comes up to the temple that day is the exact opposite. A tax collector. Not only is he a lackey for the Roman Empire that everyone at that time hated, he is almost certainly a crooked tax collector. From time to time he probably shaves a little extra off the top of the taxes that he collects so that his pockets can be a little fuller. He doesn’t do all that stuff that the Pharisee does, he doesn’t go above and beyond, he has a hard enough time just doing the basics when it comes to following God’s law. All too often he even comes up short even in those efforts.
These two men come up to the temple to pray, but only one of them goes home justified. It’s the tax collector who goes home justified. His sins are forgiven. He prays, “God have mercy on me a sinner!” and God does not disappoint. Even though this man is anything but righteous, even though he is so far from righteousness that he doesn’t even dare to lift up his eyes to heaven, God declares that he is righteous, innocent of all sin.
That is what it means when God justifies someone, it means that they are declared righteous. Even though they are not righteous, even though righteousness is impossible for them, God declares them to be righteous for the sake of Jesus. God looks at this tax collector and all of his sin and says, “Not guilty.”
God has done the exact same thing for us. We are not righteous, there is nothing righteous, nothing good or holy about us. We are sinners. We aren’t tax collectors, but we have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God just like he did. We have not loved our neighbours as ourselves each and every moment of every day. We have not loved God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength each passing moment. We are sinners just like him. But God has looked at us in His mercy and has not counted our sin against us. His verdict for us is: “Not guilty.” Better yet, even though we are not righteous and we do not do the righteous things of God, God has looked at you and said, “You are righteous. Go in peace.” God has declared us to be something that we are not. Innocent. Righteous. Holy. And when God says something He means it. God said “let there be light” and there was light. God says, “You are forgiven, holy, and righteous” and you are forgiven, holy and righteous.
In a world where we are rewarded for trying our best and people get what they deserve this would seem to be completely backwards and completely unfair. But in the Kingdom of God this is the honest reality of human sin and God’s salvation. Sinners, not righteous people who have done the right things, are covered by the blood of Jesus that forgives them for all of their sins. This is what Jesus means when He talks about receiving the Kingdom of God like a little child. Children don’t bring their good works to Jesus, Jesus welcomes them just as they are.
This is the wonderful thing about tiny newborn babies getting baptised. They don’t bring anything to the process, they don’t do anything, they aren’t getting baptised because of how great and cute they are, they are getting baptised because they are sinners who need Jesus just like the rest of us. And there, in the water of baptism, they get Jesus. In baptism we were covered with Jesus so that, even though we are unrighteous, even though we are sinners, God would look at us and not see our sins but see Jesus our Saviour who bled and died for us. We have been covered with Jesus.
There is tremendous comfort in this reality for us that we have been covered with Jesus and declared righteous by God. This means that right now we are the holy people of God, but as we live out our lives there will be many times (pretty much every day!) when we realize again how we have fallen short of the righteousness we ought to have and have not lived up to God’s commandments for our lives. But here is the comfort, even though we continue to sin and fall short in our lives of God’s glory, He continues to declare us righteous, innocent, and holy. As we come to Him like that tax collector knowing that we have fallen miserably short He looks at us again and again and, for the sake of Jesus, declares us to be “Not guilty” again. As we remember our baptism, hear the words of absolution, and receive the body and blood of Jesus in Communion we are covered again with Jesus and God declares us to be righteous.
The difference between the two men who go up to the temple that day is not their line of work or the quality of their way of life. The difference is that one man goes up to the temple clinging to what he thinks is his own righteousness while the other man goes to the temple empty handed seeking God’s righteous verdict that he knows that he does not deserve. The one man thinks that he is righteous and the other man is declared to be righteous by God. Whatever goodness or righteousness that we think that we have is nothing more than worthless rags. It is much better to be clothed and covered with Jesus because He has taken away the sin of the world. He truly justifies us, not just making up excuses to cover us but covering us with Himself, so that we can take comfort in knowing that our sins are forgiven.
We have been justified, declared righteous, and it is not our own doing, but the work of God for Jesus sake. Amen.