Jesus tells us the story of two men who went up to the temple to pray - two very different men. One, a Pharisee: a man respected by everyone; in fact the most respectable of all fine, upstanding citizens. While we’ve heard most of our lives that the Pharisees were the “bad guys,” those who were first hearing the words of Jesus had quite the opposite understanding. This Pharisee was a man who tithed - who gave 10% of all that he had to God - who fasted twice a week, who did his best to keep the Law, who avoided sins of the flesh. All of this is good and commendable, even admirable. But where this Pharisee goes wrong is when he thinks that he is “not like other men.” In fact, he goes so far as to thank God that he isn’t like other men - especially not like that man - that tax collector.
We have much the same attitude. We say to ourselves, “Thanks be to God that I’m not one of those people - those people who voted for the wrong presidential candidate, those people who don’t pull their own weight, those people who selfishly hoard away their money, those people who can’t seem to do anything right, those people who think they’re perfect. Thank God I’m not like those people. Thank God that my politics are right, that I watch the right TV shows and read the right books and newspapers and share the right articles on Facebook. Thank God I’m not like them.
Repent. It wasn’t the Pharisee’s tithing or prayers or fasting that condemned him. It was his pride and unbelief. Likewise, your offerings and prayers and fasting do not condemn you - but your pride. The pride that says that you have no need of forgiveness, that you have no real sins to speak of, and that at least you’re still doing better than those around you - those tax collectors over there.
The tax collector, or the publican, as he was called in the King James Version, looked quite different from the Pharisee. He wasn’t respected by everyone. Most likely, he wasn’t respected by anyone. This tax collector wasn’t like a mid-level IRS bureaucrat, just following the rules, collecting taxes, and doing his job. To his fellow Jews, he was a traitor and a thief: a tool of the occupying Roman Empire, who collected from his countrymen not only what they owed Caesar, but also more than enough to line his own pockets. To the Romans, he was just another Hebrew, just another member of a conquered nation that wasn’t strong enough to withstand the might of Rome, and a particularly detestable one who wasn’t even loyal to his own people. Nobody liked tax collectors.
But for all the external differences between the two, the true difference, the difference that finally matters the most, is in what they believe, and in what they then say. As the Pharisee lauds himself on his many good deeds, he commits the gravest sin of all: he tells himself that he is righteous, that he needs no help, and that he can stand before his Heavenly Father unashamed. He doesn’t see that no amount of tithing, fasting, and prayer can make him righteous in the eyes of God. At its heart, his sin is unbelief - well, unbelief in God; he replaces his faith in God with faith in himself.
The tax collector, on the other hand, recognizes his sin. He, unlike the Pharisee, sees himself as he truly is. He sees himself as God sees him - as a poor, miserable, sinner. And because he recognizes his sin, because he knows his failures and errors, he can do what the Pharisee cannot - he can repent. He can repent because he knows he is a sinner, and he knows that he is someone who, in the end, has nothing to be proud of. He can repent because he knows that he has no righteousness in and of himself, and he sees clearly the only thing that he can do: plead for mercy.
Our English translations, perhaps, don’t quite do his words justice. The Greek text of St. Luke’s Gospel relates that the tax collector prayed something to this effect: “O God, be propitiated to me.” He prays not only that God would look upon him with kindness and mercy, but that God would make it right - that God would provide atonement for his sins, and that God would fix what man had broken.
This is why the tax collector went down to his house justified. Because he had faith that God would do as he promised. He had faith that God would repair what was broken, and would make atonement for his sins, and the sins of the whole world.
And this is why you are justified. This is why you are made righteous in the sight of God. Not because of your good works, or your lack thereof. Not because of what you have done, or what you have left undone. You are justified because God has made atonement for your sins in the sacrifice of His Son. He has given to Jesus the punishment that you deserved, and given to you the mercy and love that a Father shows to his children. You are justified because God has credited to you the good works of His Son, rather than your own pride and your own vanity.
And today, in this church and at this altar, He gives to you that same sacrifice, that same propitiation of Jesus’ Body and Blood which the tax collector prayed for, and which was offered up for our sins and the sins of every tax collector and Pharisee and prideful, self-righteous sinner on the altar of the cross. He gives to you the promise that you are reconciled with God and that your sins are atoned for. And you who have come up to this church today will return to your house justified.