Why Petty Rule-Keeping Amounts To Nothing Before God

Text: Luke 18:9-14

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

I had a next-door neighbor once. Let’s call her Eleanor. Eleanor was a lifelong churchgoer in her 80s. She taught Sunday School for over 50 years, was a school teacher, and was very stern. Besides being stern, she was also very righteous, and she knew it too. She crossed her T’s and dotted her I’s. She was a model citizen who never broke the law, paid her taxes, and contributed to society. But amid Eleanor’s righteousness was something very problematic. You see, most everyone who knew Eleanor was afraid of her. Now, she wasn’t a physically strong woman by any means, for she only stood at 5’3”. So, what made her so intimidating was not anything physical but her sharp tongue and shaming eyes. You see, she saw herself above others. She even kept score of when those around her would fail to meet up to her expectations. So, for example, you would not even dare mess up in front of Eleanor, for she would tell you what she thought, remember your fault forever, while shaking her head in shame. She had a way of categorizing your sin in her memory – she did this so that she could easily access the sin and bring it to her mind to hold it in front of a person who needed a kick in the rear.  


Now, speaking of getting a kick in the rear, one night, there was a big storm, and a very large tree fell on Eleanor’s garage. One of my other neighbors – a retired drunk truck driver suffering from severe diabetes – said to me over the fence, “Hey, Reverend. Did you see what happened to Eleanor’s garage?”  To which I said that I did. He then went on to say, “I’ve been feeling sorry for God this morning, for I am sure that Eleanor gave Him a horrific tongue lashing and a kick in the rear.”  


Now, with this in mind, I am certainly not trying to be overly cruel to Eleanor, and I am not trying to air some past pent-up emotions to you. But rather, every time I read our reading from the Gospel of Luke – the story of the Tax Collector and Pharisee – I wonder if Eleanor is with Jesus in glory. I sure hope so. But I don’t know for sure. If I was a betting man, which I am not, I would put the odds in favor of the drunk diabetic truck driver being in glory before Eleanor.    


You see, Eleanor embodied the same disposition, theology, and spirit as that Pharisee did in our reading from the Gospel of Luke. And here is the kicker, the Pharisee, for all that he did and achieved, left that temple not being justified.


Consider a moment the actions of that Pharisee. He declared himself good. He looked to his own works. He put himself in the spotlight. He kept score. He displayed all his good qualities so that everyone could see. Frankly stated, he was an arrogant, you know what.  


But at that temple, that day was also a tax collector. And unlike the Pharisee and Eleanor, the tax collector declared himself a sinner. He looked not to himself but to God’s mercy. His head was down as he stood far off in the shadows of unimportance. He declared defeat and beat his chest in repentance.  


Now, I need to caution you right now as you think through the story of the Tax Collector and Pharisee. I need to caution you as you consider Eleanor. The issue that Jesus is addressing is not that the Pharisees and Eleanor were wrong for fasting, giving offerings, teaching Sunday School, or even being stern. Jesus is not showing us that being a religious Sunday School teacher is bad and being a drunk retired truck driver is good. No, that is not the point. He is not stating that doing good works is somehow bad. But instead, Jesus is showing you and me the godless, pathetic and wretched attitude of becoming complacently pleased with ourselves. He exposes the problem of when you and I pridefully self-delude ourselves in thinking that our good works, attitudes, and abilities somehow obtain us favor before God.   


But isn’t God pleased with the good works we do? Yes, He is. God loves it when we do good works for others. But when we do good works for others thinking that we are somehow getting our foot in the door with God, well… we insult grace. Believing that if we do something good, then God will owe us is not only extremely manipulative, but it tramples upon the blood of Christ. Making the Christian faith about what we do and how we are doing it better than other Christians around us does not add to Christ’s work on the cross but spits upon Christ’s work. It is supremely arrogant.  


Think about the Apostle Paul. In his letter to the Philippians, Paul does something quite remarkable. It is as if he decides to play a game with the Pharisees and Eleanors of this world. He takes them on. Listen to a paraphrase of Paul, 


You know my pedigree: a legitimate birth, circumcised on the eighth day; an Israelite from the elite tribe of Benjamin; a strict and devout adherent to God’s law; a fiery defender of the purity of my religion, even to the point of persecuting the church; a meticulous observer of everything set down in God’s law Book.[1]


Now, do you hear what Paul is doing? He is one-upping them. He keeps a score of what he has done and shows them that he has outscored them. He is showing that he is better than them.  


But then, hear what Paul goes on to say, 


The very credentials these people are waving around as something special, I’m tearing up and throwing out with the trash—along with everything else I used to take credit for. And why? Because of Christ. Yes, all the things I once thought were so important are gone from my life. Compared to the high privilege of knowing Christ Jesus as my Master, firsthand, everything I once thought I had going for me is insignificant—dog dung. I’ve dumped it all in the trash so that I could embrace Christ and be embraced by him. I didn’t want some petty, inferior brand of righteousness that comes from keeping a list of rules when I could get the robust kind that comes from trusting Christ—God’s righteousness.[2]


Awe, dear friends, now it makes sense. You see, the Tax Collector was not declared righteous because he was a Tax Collector. Instead, he was declared righteous because he knew that he was not righteous and needed the righteousness of another.  


Consider that Tax Collector a bit more closely. What the Pharisee and Eleanor see is a sinner who is at the bottom, in the shadows of unimportance, beating his chest in defeat. They see a loser. But that is not what God sees.  


Dear Baptized Saints, Christ does not come for arrogant-self-righteous-puffed-up-spiritual-super-stars. God opposes those who are so caught up in their pride looking downward in contempt on others, thinking they don’t need grace.  But when you declare yourself a sinner, look outside your life for mercy, and are defeated in the shadows of unimportance, the Lord does not somehow look over you. You are not forgotten and certainly not unnoticed. 


That day at the temple, the tax collector went home made right with God, not the Pharisee. The reason being, if you walk around with your nose held high before God, you will end up flat on your face in hell. But when you are poor in spirit, meek, mournful of your sins, and hungry for righteousness, the Lord does not disappoint. He has great joy in giving you good gifts. In His Word and Sacraments, He gives you rich grace, a comfortable conscience, joyful forgiveness, and hearty assurance. 


And so, you and I need not care what the Eleanors of this world think, say, or do. Why would we care when we have Christ and Christ has us? In fact, in Christ, we are free from the constant worry of trying to acquire righteousness. Instead, we have everything in Christ. This means that we get to do good works neither to impress the Eleanors of this world nor to build up our spiritual resumes but simply because it is good for our neighbor.  


This is the freedom of being a Christian. In Christ, we are “perfectly free, lord of all, subject to [nobody].”[3]  And at the same time, we are “dutiful servant[s] of all, subject to everyone”[4] in Christian love. 


You are made right with God in Christ. 

Period. It is a sheer gift given to you. 


In the name of Jesus. Amen.


[1] Taken from Eugene Peterson’s “The Message”

[2] Ibid.

[3] Martin Luther, On Christian Liberty. 

[4] Ibid.

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