9 He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: 10 “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed  thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ 13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ 14 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.” (Luke 18:9-14 (ESV)
“He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt.” Trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and yet treated others with contempt. Of course that is where self righteousness will lead, treating others with contempt. It needs be so, because in order to feel as if you are righteous, you need to compare yourself with others rather than with God’s law. You have to thank God that you are not like them. Never mind the fact that you are just like them, precisely the same as them, a sinner who falls short of the glory of God. You get to thank God your sins are different than theirs.
It’s an easy trap to fall into. It’s a knee jerk reaction to have when you read the news and hear of awful things that have happened. You hear about rape, murder, and incest. Perhaps we even have reason to thank God we aren’t like them when we hear things like that. It has after all kept us out of jail. And in this life God has rewarded us somewhat for avoiding heinous crimes. He keeps us out of jail, and we make a decent living, even a happier life for it. But then, if we think this makes us righteous before God we have another thing coming. In the eyes of the earthly judge, whom God has graciously given us to keep the peace in this world, we might be different, but in the eyes of God, not a chance. He knows and judges our hearts just as much as our actions.
We haven’t committed murder… Why not? Ever ask yourself that? It’s been a temptation hasn’t it. You have hated your brother haven’t you? What kept you from doing it? Love? No, I think not. If you had loved it would not have been a temptation. Fear of getting caught and punished for it? We can thank God for judges and justice, without them more of us would act on our impulses I’m sure. You resist the temptation to commit adultery. The very fact that it is a temptation betrays the foulness of your heart. Same goes for stealing. False witness against your neighbor. You know, there are days when I look upon my words with utter disdain for myself.
No, the only way you can trust in yourself that you are righteous is to abuse God’s law. But people do it. Our society is full of them. No, they don’t go to church. They don’t think they need that. They are righteous without it. I mean, at least the Pharisee knew enough to go to the temple. He had some inkling that this thing about worshiping God was serious, that not to was to cut yourself off from righteousness. Today, ask why people don’t go to church. Just invite your neighbor who doesn’t go to church, why? I tell you it isn’t the publican but the Pharisee you will hear. And it affects our thinking too. I mean the Pharisee thought he was doing something for God by going to church and that something needed to be done in order to keep his righteousness. Really. Today, you hear this: “I don’t think I need to go to church to be a good person.” People say this. They miss the point. I don’t go to church because I think it makes me a good person. I’m not under the delusion that being good is a possibility for me. “No one is good except God.” This is what Jesus says. “No one is righteous, no not one,” as Paul puts it in the third chapter of Romans. And going to church won’t make you any less of a sinner.
No, my experience tells me this. I will go to church, and I will still sin Monday through Monday, 24 seven. There will be times I will catch myself slandering friends. There will be times I will find myself wrestling with murderous thoughts. Sensuality and lust will be found in my heart just as Jesus describes it. No if anything going to church doesn’t make me a good person, it divests me of the notion that being good is possible in this life. And perhaps that is really the reason so many people stay away. They know they will hear God’s law in church, or have a good chance of hearing it. It won’t let them think they are good any longer, they will be judged their by a measuring stick they do not want to be judged by. It is safer at home where one can believe about themselves that they are good because they didn’t actually murder anyone this week, yet. They can stay at home and believe they are good because they donated money to a charity. They can hold others in contempt, because they don’t drive the right car and contribute to Greenhouse gas in the atmosphere. It is safer for one’s self esteem. They can rest their heads at night thinking, “I’m a good person. Not like those hypocrites who look down on me for not going to church. Who are they to judge?” And that is the world’s estimation of us, who go to church.
We can’t afford that, to think we are good in and of ourselves. No one is good except God, Jesus says. The Tax Collector knew this. All he had, the whole reason he went to the temple, was a prayer. “Lord, be merciful to me, a sinner.” That was all he had. But that prayer was answered and he went home righteous, that is forgiven, for God has mercy on a soul that humbles himself, he exalts such a soul. Mercy, that is why we go to church, because we need it, and it is found in church. Mercy, it is found in baptism that washes away our sins. It is found in confession and absolution. It is found in the sermon explicating God’s word that we can understand it better and grow in it. Mercy, it is found in the body and blood of Jesus Christ, the one and only who was Good, who was both God and man and died for us on the cross to show us mercy. Lord, be merciful to me a sinner. Yes, we come to church to receive mercy as we acknowledge that we are sinners, and no better than other sinners. So it is that we receive forgiveness alongside sinners like us. Yeah, here we come to the rail and commune alongside sinners, alongside murderers, adulterers, thieves and slanderers, revilers, and here we acknowledge we are one with them, for we partake of the one loaf with them. And here brothers, here at this altar, we receive mercy from that one loaf, mercy in the body of Christ given into death for you. Here we receive mercy, and receiving mercy we return home justified, we return home righteous, with a good heart and a clean conscience, one with which we can stand before God, because it was God who gave it to us, confident in our salvation, and with no reason whatsoever to boast or hold others in contempt.
Now the peace of God that surpasses all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Loed. Amen.