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Jesus also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: “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 up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ 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.”

In our parable this morning we have two men. One a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. We’re used to thinking of the Pharisees as the bad guys. Jesus really goes after them, doesn’t He? They’re self-righteous, arrogant, and filled with pride. They’re the bad guys – the villains – and therefore they most certainly are not us.

But here’s the thing. It’s important to remember what the modern-day Pharisee would look like today. If one of those Pharisees who we know to be one of the bad guys were living in our own day, well, he’d look a bit more like us. He’d go to church. He might even hold some kind of office or serve on a board. He’d pay his taxes, and serve on the Lions Club. He would look like the model citizen. At church he’d even acknowledge that he’s a sinner, in a general sort of way. But a more special kind of sinner, a respectable one.

On the other hand, a modern-day tax collector is someone who doesn’t look good from the outside. The world disapproves of him. When he goes to church, he can barely raise his head from the shame he feels, but he prays, “God be merciful to me, a sinner.” And boy does he mean it. He knows that there is only one escape for him; to throw himself upon the mercy of God.

Jesus says, “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.”

The good guy, the Pharisee, the professional churchmen and upright citizen, is declared unrighteous, condemned, and turned away, while the bad guy, at least to the eyes of the world, is declared, good, justified, and holy in the eyes of God.

Folks, today’s lesson is so simple, and so familiar, but it’s a lesson that always needs to be learned again. You see, there are essentially two religions in the whole world. There is the religion of the Pharisee and there is the religion of the tax collector. These two religions are also seen so clearly in our Old Testament reading this morning. Because there is the religion of Cain and then there is the religion of Abel.

Cain’s religion was a works-righteous faith. His offering and prayers did not proceed from a heart that revered and trusted in the Lord, but from a heart that trusted in himself. This is the faith of the Pharisee. This is the religion of self-righteousness and self-worship rather than the true worship of God.

Abel’s religion was true. Abel’s offering was accepted because he offered it from a faith that trusted in the mercy of God. Abel’s faith was grounded in the grace of God.

That Pharisee was of the religion of Cain – the religion of self-righteousness. That tax collector was of the religion of Abel. A religion that believes God’s salvation to sinners is a gift of His grace, all received through faith in the promise. St. Paul put it this way in our epistle this morning: “By grace you have been saved through faith … and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.”  

Jesus ends the parable with these words this morning. He says: “I tell you this man, this humble contrite tax collector, relying upon the mercy of God, goes home justified, that is, declared righteous before God in heaven, rather than the other, that Pharisee. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

Now there’s something in that tax collector’s prayer this morning that is worth giving a little attention to. His prayer this morning is translated as “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” That’s a good prayer, no doubt about it. But that word translated here as “mercy” might be even better translated as the word “propitiation.” That’s a fancy word for the mercy seat in the Old Testament. Remember that golden lid that covered the ark of the covenant containing the two stone tablets of the Ten Commandments? Well, that golden lid, that mercy seat, stood between God’s Law and that tax collector. And on that mercy seat was sprinkled blood, atonement blood – propitiating blood.

So when that tax collector goes to the temple to pray, he prays in this way: “God, be propitious to me.” That is, make payment for me. He’s praying: “Send Your Son, the Messiah, to be a sacrifice for me. That His atoning blood would cover me, cleanse me, and set me free.”

God answered that beautiful prayer of the tax collector. He sent His Son, Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, to shed His blood on the cross. And unlike that ark of the covenant, this time, the Lord wouldn’t be enthroned between two cherubim, but instead enthroned between two criminals. All to make atonement, to sprinkle forgiving blood that speaks a better word than Abel. Blood that speaks more loudly and clearly than Abel’s blood ever could. The blood of Christ, the Lamb of God, who taketh away the sins of the world.

This morning we remember there are two religions in the world. There is the religion of Cain, which trusts in self. It is a works-righteous faith which only damns. This is the faith of the Pharisee. Then there is the religion of Abel: faith in God’s unmerited grace and mercy. This was the faith of the tax collector. A faith which trusts in the righteousness of Christ, which alone avails before God. May God keep us from all pride and arrogance and nurture in us the true religion of His grace and the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Dear Christians, finally, in today’s parable Jesus also shows us how we are to live with one another. It shows us what the church is all about. Not people who have their act together, but poor sinners, pleading for mercy, and then living together from the mercy they receive from the hand of God.

This morning let’s not pretend to be anything other than what we are: forgiven sinners! There’s no point in looking down on one another, as though some were worse than others. We are, after all, all brothers and sisters, all a family, where each and all say with the humility of Paul “that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost.” And so we visit, live, and enjoy each other, in true Christian friendship, considering every brother and sister as a fellow recipient of the eternal love of Christ. Who was willing to suffer and die to set them free. In the name of Jesus. Amen.

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