Sunday, October 24, 2010

The Parable of the Two Gods

Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost
October 24, 2010
Luke 18:9-17

Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector…

And you thought Jesus was telling a parable of two men. Nope, His parable was of the Two Gods. There’s the god who will make you feel good about yourself and the God who will actually do you some good.

Two men went to the temple to pray and each one prayed to a different god. The Pharisee was praying to the god he felt very comfortable with. This was the god who made himself feel good, told him what he wanted to hear, gave him comfort when he needed a lift in his spirits. This god was always around. The Pharisee could look up and not fear because his god would love him as he was. And why not? There was a lot to love. He was not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like that tax collector over in the corner. In case there was any forgetfulness on the part of his god, there was this helpful reminder: “I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.”

With a god like that, it’s smooth sailing. You can keep comparing yourself to others who aren’t nearly as righteous as you are, if at all. Is there any reason not to have contempt on them? After all, they are not living as God would have them live. If only there were more people in this world like the Pharisee, the world would be a better place. And God would be so pleased. It’s the way God wants it, but sadly so many do not live as He has commanded.

This god is the god you’ll hear about the most. He’s the god that does a lot of good, if by good you mean that you will be able to feel good about yourself and stand in the comfort of knowing that you really are a good person. This is the god of every religion but one, Christianity. It’s even the god of every religion that people don’t want to think of as a religion. Even atheism, the religion that supposedly doesn’t believe in God, even atheism has this god that the Pharisee was praying to.

One of the basic things we learn as we grow in the faith is that there is only one God. In terms of how many gods being truly God, there’s only one, the Triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. All other gods are not the true God, they are false gods. The Large Catechism says that your god is whoever or whatever you look to for all good. If you believe in the Triune God you believe in the true God. If you don’t, you believe in a false god. The Pharisee went to the temple but prayed to the wrong god. He prayed to a god in his own image, a god he could count on to make him feel good.

Who was this god? It was himself. Luke says that Jesus “told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt.” He was telling a parable to those whose god was themselves. They look at themselves and are pleased. Look how good they are! Who needs God, I’m very capable of myself in being a good person. But to make themselves feel even better they set the true God up as their god. The only problem is that they don’t look to him for all good but to themselves. You know the great thing about this god? You can always count on him. Because you will always be able to find someone who is worse than you. Someone who certainly isn’t as good as a person as you. Someone God certainly isn’t as pleased with as He is with you. And there’s great comfort in that. It makes you feel good. If you got inside the mind of the most wicked person you could think of I’ll bet you’d see a person who has convinced himself that he’s a really good person. So how can you go wrong with a god like that? When you’re your own god you call the shots. You get to determine how you need to be in order to be in good standing. And there’s always the added bonus that you get to look down on others who aren’t at your level.

So if this is what you want, there’s really nothing you need to do. You’re already doing everything necessary, you’re just being yourself. Looking at yourself in the mirror and being satisfied that, overall, there’s a lot to be pleased with. And when the doubts come, you can turn your gaze from the mirror onto other people—and you will never run out of people you can plainly see are worse people than you are. What comfort this sweet rationalization gives! Just by being you you have excluded the Triune God—the true God—because you have all you need in yourself, the god you really want.

It’s always one of the hardest things to come to terms with when it comes to evangelism. When you want to tell someone the Good News of salvation, when you share with them what a great opportunity we have at our church for worshiping the true God and receiving His many blessings, and when they show up they hear words that we are poor miserable sinners. We are by nature sinful and unclean. We have sinned against God in thought, word, and deed. We are unworthy and deserve only eternal and temporal punishment. That’s not quite the uplifting, feel-good message a lot of people want to hear. They want to hear good things about themselves. They want to hear things that will make them feel good about themselves. Imagine that. And that explains why there’s a lot of people who go to other religions or to Christian churches that tell them what they want to hear, that say things that make them feel good about themselves. It brings in the people, but it’s not evangelism.

The thing Jesus really wants to tell us about in His Parable of the Two Gods is the second God, the true God, the Triune God, the God who doesn’t make us feel good, but does us a world of good, even an eternity of good. He’s the God the second guy prayed to. The one the miserable tax collector couldn’t even lift his eyes up to, he was so ashamed. The God that that guy couldn’t even bring himself to go forward to the altar to, he was so aware of his sinfulness, his unrighteousness. The God to whom the guy tried to show some way of communicating his unworthiness that he beat his breast.

The Pharisee prayed: “God, I thank you that I am not like other men.” The tax collector prayed: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” The Pharisee prayed to the god who was himself, because he put his trust in himself. The tax collector prayed to the true God because he knew that there was nothing within himself that was of any eternal worth or value or goodness. He might be able to convince himself he was a pretty good person, but where would that really get him? How far would it really take him? His life was already consumed with himself, was that really the kind of life he wanted to live? Not thinking of others, not helping them in their need, not serving them for the simple joy of serving them, not putting others before himself, so that he could see that without that he really would be left with only himself and all of his wretchedness, the stain of his sin, the pride that was bringing about his downfall.

Jesus says that one man was justified—declared righteous, right with God—and that one man was not. The one who put his trust in himself felt good in his own mind, the one who cried out for mercy to One who was outside of himself actually received something good, something that lasts. Something that gives true comfort when all you can see in your life and your heart and your thoughts is selfish desires and sin. So you could think of this parable as the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, in which case you’d be focusing on two men. Which one are you more like? Which one should you be like? And you would be missing the point. If you hear Jesus’ words, “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted” and think that the lesson you need to learn is that you shouldn’t be like that Pharisee and exalt yourself but be more like that tax collector and humble yourself, you will not have heard Jesus’ parable. It is about God, not about the two men.

Jesus really wants you to see the true God, the one who does you real good. When you see the tax collector you should see a picture of Jesus. I’m not saying that Jesus was saying He was the tax collector in the parable. But I am saying that He is giving us a picture of Himself in the tax collector. Jesus Christ came to us as a man and suffered in our place. He took upon Himself our sin. He hung on the cross as a sinner before God, not receiving mercy from Him but wrath. This is not some cosmic injustice but Jesus willingly bearing our guilt in our place. It is because of this that our cry to God can be, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” He is the one who is exalted and yet has humbled Himself so that we who are poor miserable sinners may in the mercy of God be exalted to eternal glory.

Unfortunately, those who exalt themselves are not easily brought down. Those who look to themselves for all good are not easily convinced that it’s all about God and not at all about them. So Jesus took the lowly among them to drive home the point. If an adult can point out to others, but especially himself, how good he is and all the good he has done, an infant can’t do any of that. We can’t point to an infant and say, Look at what a good person that is, for all the good they have done. We can say babies are cute. And we can say they bring joy to our lives. But we can’t say that they are able to determine good things to do and then actually do them. And yet, these are the ones who were being brought to Jesus. These are the ones Jesus lifts up as He did the tax collector. These are the ones we are to look to so that we can see who Jesus really wants us to see, and that is the true God. Jesus does not say that it is to children belongs the Kingdom of God, but “to such belongs the Kingdom of God.” And He doesn’t say that they attain it by anything they do, even by anything good they do. He says they simply receive it. It is given them. Whoever receives the Kingdom of God as one in whom there is nothing one can point to within himself for any worthiness, merit, or hope, will enter the Kingdom of God.

Pray all you like how God should respond to your invented worthiness. But you will be setting yourself up as your god, ultimately pleasing yourself. God is pleased in His Son Jesus Christ who alone has done all things well. But God is also pleased in placing your unrighteousness on His Son so that you may live as it pleases Him. This is life now and forever. Amen.


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