Luke 18:9-14

20th Sunday after Pentecost ‚Äď 10/23/2022

I find it ironic these days that in a culture such as ours that is proud to consider itself progressive and unshackled from any religious dogma, everyone and their mother is defining what a Christian is and ought to look like. But, of course, if we want to know what a Christian ought to look like, we can turn to the public media, right? They have fashioned themselves as the moral watchdogs of our behavior. They even consider themselves the voice of our conscience. They are continuously critical and even condemnatory towards public figures who, in their estimation, are not behaving as the Christians they claim to be.

Of course, you and I are just as susceptible to set ourselves up as judges of the Christianity of others as well. We say things like, "That John Smith, he sure is a good Christian!" What criteria are we using to make such a pronouncement? Is it even biblical? And besides, is there such a thing as a bad Christian? Is it true that Christians are the epitome of virtue? Do all the right things. We are never caught up in any of the seedy, filthy, or sinful behaviors that we read about daily in the newspapers or watch on all those so-called reality shows on television. If that is the case, then what would distinguish a good Christian from, say, a good Muslim... or even an atheist who just happens to like being kind to his neighbors? What does a Christian look like?

Who better to show us what a Christian looks like than Jesus himself? Being Christ, he definitely ought to know what a follower of Christ ought to think, say, and do. Additionally, as the Son of God in human flesh, he certainly sees the genuine article. He knows the hearts of all men.

In our text today from Luke's Gospel, Jesus is doing just that: defining what a Christian is. Of course, it must be noted that Jesus never used the term "Christian."

The name "Christian" was coined by the enemies of the followers of Jesus. It means little Christ... as in the sense that one is just like the Christ Jesus he follows.

Instead of using the term Christian, Jesus customarily spoke in terms of believers or even the righteous ones. So we see after our text when Jesus says of the publican, or tax collector, "I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other." In Greek, the words translated as "justified" and the earlier used term "righteous" are simply forms of the same word. The justified one is the righteous one. The righteous one is the one who is saved, the one who has forgiveness, the one who has eternal life, and the one who is a true believer in Jesus Christ. Again, as Jesus says, "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life."

So, just who is the true believer¬†in Jesus Christ? Who is truly righteous‚ÄĒwho is a true Christian? What does he look like? His true identity might shock you!

One teaches that "two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector." 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. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.' But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift his eyes to heaven but beat his breast, saying, "'God, be merciful to me, a sinner!'"

Jesus first draws our attention to this Pharisee. His posture for prayer was to stand. This was not uncommon. There were no pews or chairs in the temple courtyard to sit on. At the same time, unlike the custom among Muslims to kneel on prayer rugs, the Jews often stood to pray. This is a custom we still observe today in our church.

So it isn't this Pharisee's posture that tells us much, but rather the content of his prayer that is quite revealing. Our translation indeed says that he was standing by himself. The Greek, however, is not emphasizing the man's posture but rather the content of his prayer. It can be translated as "While standing, he prayed toward, or concerning, himself these things." In other words, we might say that the prayer the Pharisee offered was all about him!

The Jews were accustomed to beginning their prayers with words of thanksgiving (Arnt), but not quite like this Pharisee's words of thanksgiving. Instead of thanking God for his graciousness or even for what God had mercifully done for him, the Pharisee prayed quite arrogantly, "God, I thank you that I am not like other men..."

Wow! Talk about having a positive self-image! This guy was a "legend in his mind!" He saw himself as being more righteous than not just some men, but all people! After all, as he continues, other men are nothing but extortioners (swindlers)... unjust (unrighteous).. and even adulterers. He saw himself as above all that wicked stuff! He was, in his estimation, an honest, upright, and sexually pure person. Others could only hope to aspire to his level of righteousness. He was not even discreet about how righteous he considered himself to be over others. He specifically, and quite publicly, prayed about how thankful he was that he was not like his fellow worshipper, the tax collector!

Then, as if the LORD was not aware of his righteousness, he gladly delineated for God and everyone else what he considered proved his righteousness. He said that he fasted not just occasionally but twice a week. He didn't just give the required tithe (10%) of his income to support the Levitical priesthood, the infamous Temple tax, but he gave a tithe of everything he owned! A true believer in models!

Does being a Christian look like this guy? I mean, his demeanor and attitude kind of make you want to throw up, doesn't it? Surely, being a Christian is not about "tooting your own horn" or being better than everyone else, is it?

I wonder how often, even you and I, are tempted to think just like this Pharisee? It is so easy to believe that heaven is reserved for those who have earned it through good and chaste virtue and exemplary deeds. We look at the great achievements of others and think, "It is hard to imagine that they won't go to heaven!" We might even look at our virtuous acts and imagine that we are somehow better in the eyes of God than those people guilty of public sins, all the while convincing ourselves that God will simply overlook our private sins and vices.

Someone once said that if you have to tell other people about your good deeds, then how outstanding are they? Shouldn't they speak for themselves? There is a real inherent danger in holding up to God our good deeds. We immediately swell with pride and imagine that God is impressed with us and will surely want us to be with him in heaven. It is compelling to compare our deeds with those of others because, of course, their good works never measure up to our own. In our judgment, we made bigger sacrifices, gave more offerings, and worked harder around the church than anyone else. Why wouldn't God consider us more righteous? The reality is, however, that God is not impressed with our self-professed righteousness. He is not convinced that we are more righteous than others, no matter how badly we remind him that others are.

God sees the real us. He sees as He says in His Word, that our good deeds are turned into filthy rags by our ulterior motives‚ÄĒour impure thoughts. God states in both his Old and New Testaments that none of us is righteous, not even one (Ps. 14, Ro. 3).¬†Jesus even says, "Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the Scribes and Pharisees, you shall never enter the kingdom of heaven"¬†(Matt. 5:20). In other words, we need a righteousness that is beyond what any mere man is or can do.

When I think about this Pharisee's self-righteous prayer, I am reminded of those rather pointed anti-Meth commercials of a few years back. They always featured some naive young person who imagines that they can experiment with meth once and not end up like that grotesque, emaciated, diseased drug user. "I'll never be like that guy!" they insist. "I can control the drug. I won't become addicted and have it take over my life. I'll never be like that guy! I'm better than him. "

But that is the whole point, isn't it? We are all that guy! We all have the same weaknesses as meth users do. Our sin, like meth, can and does get the upper hand on all of us. By God's grace, we might not be suffering from all the consequences of our sins in this world, like that guy over there, but we are no better than him when it comes to our guilt before God and our wretched condition. And if we think we are somehow better than that guy, we are only deluding ourselves into hell!

Yes, a Christian is seen doing good works and living an honorable and chaste life occasionally, but that is not what makes him a Christian. Being a Christian is not living this delusion of self-righteousness. A true Christian looks like this other guy that Jesus holds before us: the tax collector. He prays under no grand delusions concerning his righteousness. He stands at a distance. His head is not held erect in pride. On the contrary, he refuses to even cast his eyes upward toward heaven. He is seen beating his breast in disgust, sadness, and despair over his lack of righteousness. Instead of thanking God that he is not like other sinful people, the true Christian pleads for God's mercy. "God, be merciful to me, a sinner!"

Now, this is a guy with eyes wide open regarding his lost spiritual condition. He has no time to compare himself to others. He is too busy casting epithets of blame and shame upon himself for just how wicked he is. With his pummeling fists, he acknowledges that he deserves nothing but God's present and eternal punishment. Instead of arrogance, his posture, demeanor, and words exude humility, as well as true sorrow over not just the things he has done wrong but his whole sinful, unrighteous condition. Like St. Paul, he cries out: "O wicked man that I am, who will save me from this body of death?"

This, dear friends, is what a Christian looks like! He is a broken, humbled, wretched person with no pretensions to his goodness or his righteousness but only the horror of his sin and wretchedness before God and others. Instead of demanding attention from God and others, he shies away from compliments, knowing how undeserving he is of them. Instead of drawing attention to any good things he has done, he acknowledges in true repentance his utter failures.

But we see another distinct feature of the true Christian, as is also illustrated in this humble, repentant, tax collector. He is imploring with all his might for God in His mercy to take away his sin and make him right in God's sight.

The word translated as "be merciful" is really "propitiate."¬†This is the term used in the Old Testament to signify atonement‚ÄĒmaking the payment with blood.¬†In other words, this tax collector is seeking from God the only solution to his condemnation under the rightful judgment of God. That solution is for God to atone, pay with blood,¬†for his sin. He is praying for a sin offering... a sacrifice for his sin, that he might be forgiven. His dirty, filthy slate might be wiped clean and he might be declared what he isn't in his person; that is, righteous in God's sight.

Here's why we rejoice in the Gospel. It is good news for the sinner, not the self-righteous. On numerous occasions, Jesus has stated that He did not come for the righteous, but for the unrighteous; not for those who do not require repentance, but for sinners. He did not come for perfect people, for people who do everything right, or even for those who only think they do. He came for sinners... even the worst of sinners, like this tax collector... like you... like me. He came to offer his own life as a sacrifice for all sins... your sin, my sin. Jesus' cross is the answer to this repentant tax collector's prayer. Jesus' cross is the answer to all that ails you and me. As the apostle, John proclaims, "Jesus is the propitiation for our sins, and not only for ours but for the sins of the whole world!" (I John 2:2).

So, what does a true Christian look like? He is not that guy who exalts himself before God and man... that guy who looks down on others whom he considers to be beneath his station... that guy who expects God to reward him for his good behavior. No, the true Christian lives in genuine repentance. He is revolted by his lack of righteousness, his wicked deeds, and his impure thoughts. He is that person who so hates his sin that he cannot get far enough away from it. However, he is also the person who clings to Jesus as his atoning sacrifice... his forgiveness... his righteousness... his eternal life. Accordingly, instead of looking down at others, he is the one who sees all others just like himself, wretched sinners made righteous only in the blood of Jesus Christ and, as such, worthy of his love, his help, and his respect.

Surprising as it might be to some, this is what a true Christian looks like!

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