Sunday, October 23, 2022

Savior of the Helpless

[Below you can find videos of today's worship services from Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio, as well as the prepared text of today's message.]

Luke 18:9-17

At the end of last week’s Gospel lesson, Jesus, speaking of His second coming at the end of this world’s history, asks, “...when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?” (Luke 18:8) In today’s Gospel lesson, Luke 18:9-17, Jesus shows us what saving faith, faith that allows people to live with God eternally free of sin, death, and darkness in the Kingdom of God, looks like.

Our lesson can be divided into two sections. The first section, composed of verses 9-14, finds Jesus telling a parable to “some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else.”  (Luke 18:9) Jesus likely directs this parable to the Pharisees and teachers of the law–scribes–who have been hanging around Him as He makes His way to Jerusalem. There, He’ll be rejected, tortured, crucified, die, and then, be raised from the dead by God the Father. The second section of our Gospel lesson, made up of verses 15-17, tells us about Jesus’ disciples rebuking people for bringing their babies to Jesus to receive His blessing. 

In the parable, Jesus talks about two men who ascend to the temple in Jerusalem to pray. The Jewish custom was for those who prayed to stand and pray out loud. So, it wouldn’t have been difficult to eavesdrop on the prayers of anyone praying at that hour, especially if a proud person wanted to be heard.

Pharisees were respected by Jesus’ fellow Jews, pillars of first-century Judean society. This Pharisee also had a high opinion of his own righteousness. He offers a prayer of thanksgiving…thanking God for how wonderful he himself is. “God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector.  I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.” (Luke 18:11-12) Tax collectors, of course, were treasonous people who sold out their fellow Jews to work with the Romans and fatten their own wallets through extortion. The average Jew regarded tax collectors as scum. Jesus says that: “the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast [a sign of his grief for the ways he had hurt God] and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’” (Luke 18:13) While the Pharisee exhibited pride in his own righteousness, the tax collector confessed his own unrighteousness. But Jesus declares, “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Luke 18:14)

Now let me ask you a question. Who do you identify with in this parable? I know who I want to identify with: the tax collector. Good Lutherans that we are, we know that “no one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the law”. We know that because we are born sinners incapable of perfect obedience of God’s law, the most that law can do is make us conscious of our sin. (Romans 3:20) But, isn’t it true that when we encounter people we see as modern versions of the Pharisee, we secretly thank God that we’re not as self-righteous and judgmental as them, in the bargain being self-righteous and judgmental? And don’t we, in conversation with friends, lamenting the sorry state of our sinful, fallen world, adopt the same sinful attitude of the Pharisee?: “I thank God that I’m not like that wealthy person who thinks their wealth means they have God’s approval. I thank God I’m not like those people violating God’s will by engaging in sexual intimacy outside of marriage. I thank God I’m not as big a gossip as so-and-so.” We can be the Pharisees who harbor the belief that we have a righteousness that makes us fit for life with God and makes us better than other people. I once found myself telling Ann, just after she had called me out for something I’d done, that I was a good person. I don’t know about you, but I find it scary to realize how easily I fall into the Pharisee’s self-righteous way of thinking!

Jesus says that it was the tax collector who walked away from the temple that day justified. He was declared by God innocent of sin and righteous in God’s eyes. Why? The tax collector turns to God as a helpless child and so, is justified. The Pharisee, certain of his own righteousness, is, at the end of the parable, still dead in his sin and condemned in the eyes of God.

This leads to the second section of the lesson. Here, the people Jesus needs to teach this same lesson are His own disciples, the Church. Adults in the crowds surrounding Jesus want Him to touch their babies. The disciples are incensed! Why are these people wasting Jesus’ time? What do babies know about faith? How can babies have the righteousness of faith? Maybe the disciples haven’t yet heard about what happened when the pregnant Mary, bearing Jesus in her womb, visited her relative Elizabeth, also pregnant. Elizabeth, speaking to Mary, says, “As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy.” (Luke 18:8) The baby in Elizabeth’s womb, John the Baptist, already believed in Jesus! The faith in Christ that makes sinners like you and me righteous–worthy of life with God–isn’t the result of our good works or our capacity to understand God. The faith in Christ that makes us righteous comes to us when Jesus, Who died and rose to set us free from sin and death, touches us through His Word, the waters of Holy Baptism, the bread and wine of Holy Communion.

That’s why Jesus tells the disciples rebuking people for bringing babies to Him, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” (Luke 18:16-17) Jesus is not idealizing children here. Jesus knows the witness of God’s Word that we are born in sin. (Psalm 51:5) But He also knows that, like the tax collector, conscious of the gap between himself in his sin and God in His sinless righteousness, babies are helpless. It’s to the helpless that the perfect, sinless righteousness of Jesus is given!

I was sorry that I couldn’t make it to the Whole Truth dinner this past week. It’s amazing to spend time with those served by Whole Truth, people recovering from addiction. They’ve been to the depths. They understand how helpless they are, how much they need Jesus. Like the apostle Paul, they can say “when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Corinthians 12:10) Emptied of any delusions about having strength to live in their own power, they daily turn to Christ for His power and strength, love and grace, to fill them. May we be so helpless! It is helpless people like these–and like repentant tax collectors and babies in their parents’ arms–who are most ready to receive the gift Jesus has for us: the gift of righteousness not through our doing but through what Jesus has already done for us on the cross and our faith in Him. It is people like these who know that they are (and we are) “justified by faith [in Christ] apart from the works of the law.”

God’s Law is unchanging, friends. Only those who are righteous–innocent of sin–will gain entrance into His eternal kingdom. That’s bad news for us if we propose to come to God like the Pharisee in Jesus’ parable, bragging about all our godly deeds. But the good news, the gospel, is this: God gives Jesus’ perfect righteousness to all who turn to Him like a tax collector conscious of his sin, in need of God’s mercy and forgiveness. And God gives saving faith even to little babies touched by His grace and help. It’s to the humble and the helpless who receive the gifts of Word and water and bread and wine, that God’s kingdom comes. May we learn each day to be helpless children who want nothing more than Jesus and the forgiveness, grace, and mercy that only He, crucified and risen God the Son, can give. Amen