The Eleventh Sunday after Trinity: The Righteous shall Live by Faith
The Eleventh Sunday after Trinity: The righteous shall live by faith
1 Corinthians 15:1-11 & St. Luke 18:9-14
by William Klock
“Two men went up to the temple to pray,” Jesus said. Picture the temple up on the mountaintop above Jerusalem. Jews, still to this day, go to pray at the temple. Of course, the temple has been gone for almost two thousand years. These days they gather down below and pray at the base of its foundations. But this is what Jews have done ever since there was a temple. The pious and devout prayed three times a day and if you could go and pray at the temple at least some of the time—that place where heaven and earth, where God and man met—that was all the better. Two men climbed the steps to the temple courts to pray. “One,” Jesus said, “was a Pharisee.” If anyone was going to pray three times a day, while also making a point of doing it in the temple, it would be a Pharisee. Maybe he lived nearby and went to pray at the temple daily—maybe he even did his best to go there two or even three times a day. Some of the people in the crowd around Jesus were this man. They were Pharisees. When they were in Jerusalem, they made a point of going to the temple to say their prayers. To be close to God—and some of them to make the point that there was nothing casual about their piety. They didn’t just say their prayers anywhere; they went out of their way to say them in the temple courts.
But there were two men who went up to the temple. “The other,” says Jesus, “was a tax collector.” You can almost hear the booing and the hissing. Tax collectors were scum. They were unclean, because of their contact and association with gentiles. And they were traitors, betraying their own people by collaborating with the Romans. But there were some in the crowd who had been paying attention to Jesus. Some of them had seen or heard of the things he'd said and done. They knew how Jesus ate with tax collectors and sinners. “Here he goes again with the tax collectors!” they were thinking. “Jesus just loves those tax collectors!” And, of course, that’s why they just couldn’t get behind him. For all the Messiah-like things he said and did, the Messiah was supposed to have dinner with the scribes and Pharisees, not tax collectors and sinners. God’s kingdom would never come that way!
“Standing, the Pharisee prayed to himself like this,” said Jesus. “God, I give thanks to you that I am not like other men—like the greedy, like the unjust, like adulterers—or like this tax collector. I fast twice a week. I give a tenth of everything I earn.” You can imagine him going on and on, standing tall, his hands raised to heaven, everyone watching and thinking to themselves, “I wish I was more like him.” But then Jesus turns out attention to the tax collector.
“The tax collector,” Jesus said, “standing far off, didn’t even want to life his eyes to heaven. Instead, he beat his breast, saying, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
We can imagine the Pharisee, standing proudly where everyone could see him and praying loudly so that everyone could hear him. And then the poor tax collector, the complete and utter opposite. He kneels—or maybe he even prostrates himself on the ground—off on the fringes, hiding in the shadows or behind a column and quietly utters his humble prayer for mercy. The Pharisee—at least as far as he was concerned—he belonged there. But the tax collector. He was a sinner and he knew it. He did not belong in the presence of the holy. Other people made that clear and he probably believed it himself. But he desired God’s mercy and this was the place to ask for it. What happened to the tax collector that brought him to the temple. Jesus doesn’t say. It is just a story. But maybe he was one of those tax collectors and sinners who had met Jesus and, through him, had encountered the grace of God. Maybe he was one of those people to whom Jesus had pronounced, “Your sins are forgiven. Go and sin no more.” And so he followed it up the only way he knew how, by turning over a new leaf, by ritually purifying himself, and by going to the temple to fall on the mercy of the Lord.
“This one—the tax collector,” said Jesus, “he went down to his house justified, not the other one.” Why? “Because everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”
Now, there’s an interesting twist in the tale. If you were following along in Luke 18 or if you were paying careful attention when the Gospel was read earlier (and you have a good memory), you might have noticed that I left out Luke’s introduction. At the beginning, Luke introduces the parable, writing, “Jesus told this parable to some who were confident in themselves, because they were righteous and looked down on others.” In Greek, “righteous” and “just” are the same word, so Luke plays with that here. Jesus told this parable to some who were confident in themselves, because they were righteous (or just). The point is that they expected to be amongst those justified or vindicated by the Lord for their faithfulness when he finally came to deliver his people and set the world to rights. But then in the end, who is it who go homes justified or in the right? It’s not the righteous Pharisee, but the tax collector who prayed for God’s mercy.
It's not that the Pharisee—whether the one in the parable or the ones Jesus was telling the parable to—it’s not that they weren’t righteous. By all accounts they were. They were obedient to the law. They weren’t perfect, but if they made a mistake, they offered the appropriate sacrifices. That was part of being faithful to the law, too. They took part in the atonement for sins offered through the temple. They were righteous. And they were the opposite of the tax collector. He was sort of a Jew in name only. He was unclean because of his job and his association with gentiles. And if he observed torah at all, it probably didn’t amount to much. This was probably the first time he’d been to the temple in a long time. But most of all, tax collectors were simply corrupt and they collaborated with the Romans. An honest tax collector was pretty much an oxymoron. His job was to steal from the Jews and give to the Romans. Again, he was the polar opposite of the Pharisee. The Pharisee loved God’s law; the tax collector trampled all over it.
And yet, at the end of the story, Jesus says, it’s not the righteous or the just man who goes away justified—declared by God to be in the right. It’s the scummy, unrighteous tax collector. Why? Well, to answer that we need to ask what Jesus meant that he went home justified. To be justified is to be found or to be declared to be “in the right”.
Think of a courtroom. Plaintiff and a defendant bring their case before a judge, they explain the circumstances and present their evidence, and the judge makes a ruling. The judge declares one of them to be in the right. The judge vindicates one of them. Maybe it’s the defendant, who proves his innocence to the judge. Or maybe it’s the plaintiff, who proves to the judge that he is truly the victim. One of them goes home vindicated by the judge. He goes home declared to be in the right. He goes home justified.
But when Jesus talks about “justification” what we really have to do is go back to the Old Testament. Think about Abraham in Genesis 15. That’s where this got started. The Lord made a promise to Abraham—to give him a land and to give him a son and to make him a great nation. And it was nonsense. Abraham went to the promised land and lived there—but he was just one man and even as rich as he was, with flocks and herds and servants, he only ever occupied the smallest corner of that land. And there he was, almost one hundred and his wife ninety—long past child-bearing years. How could he, a childless man ever become a great nation? But the Lord made a promise to him and Abraham believed. And, we’re told, the Lord counted that belief, that faith, as righteousness. Because Abraham believed that the Lord not only could, but somehow would pull off this crazy promise, he was counted as being in the right. There was no way any of it could happen, but Abraham trust in the faithfulness of the Lord. And in that, Abraham set the standard by which the Lord recognised his people: faith. Later the torah would mark them out as a special people, visibly different from everyone else, but long before the torah there was faith, and faith was ultimately what it always was and always would be that marks out the people of God—faith in the God who promises crazy things and then never fails to do them.
And this theme echoes all the way through Israel’s story. It was the message of the Prophet Habakkuk who lived during the last decades of the kingdom of Judah, in the years before Jerusalem was defeated and destroyed by the Babylonians and the people taken off into exile. Habakkuk looked around him and saw the wickedness and idolatry of his own people and, very much like the psalmists, he cried out to the Lord. This is the opening of his lament.
O Lord, how long shall I cry for help,
and you will not hear?
Or cry to you “Violence!”
and you will not save?
Why do you make me see iniquity,
and why do you idly look at wrong?
Destruction and violence are before me;
strife and contention arise.
So the law is paralyzed,
and justice never goes forth.
For the wicked surround the righteous;
so justice goes forth perverted. (Habakkuk 1:1-4)
Habakkuk knew that things weren’t the way they were supposed to be and he knew the promises of the Lord to his people and he and so many others had cried out and cried out—for centuries—and things only got worse. Wickedness and idolatry multiplied and from their perspective it seemed like the Lord wasn’t listening and that he was refusing to act. Judah’s situation seemed as hopeless to Habakkuk as Abraham’s situation must have once seemed to him. But that was just it. Habakkuk knew that the Lord is faithful and so he continued to cry out. He trusted the Lord. He had faith.
But then the Lord responds. He tells Habakkuk that he has seen the state of his people and that he is going to visit them, but that he will be dealing with their problem by sending the Babylonians to defeat them. That wasn’t what Habakkuk wanted to hear. He argues with the Lord. The Babylonians are even more wicked and idolatrous than the people of Judah. How can defeat by them possibly be the Lord’s solution? And the Lord responds and assures Habakkuk that while Babylon may be his instrument of justice against Judah, Babylon herself—and all the nations—will be held accountable and will one day be judged. The cycle of violence will be broken and everything will be set to rights. One day, he says, the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea. It’s another one of those impossible promises—even more impossible than the promise he made to Abraham. But what do the Lord’s people do in the meantime?
Here's the Lord’s answer—and Jesus’ parable points us right back to these words. The Lord says to Habakkuk in 2:4:
Look at the proud!
His spirit is presumptuous and is not right
But the righteous shall live by faith.
The world is falling apart. Everything is wrong. The wicked prosper and are proud and presume on the Lord’s faithfulness and the righteous are oppressed. By all human appearances it doesn’t sound like the Lord is even listening. But those who continue to live by faith in the midst of tribulation, those who remember the Lord’s promises in the midst of persecution, those who steep themselves in the story of the Lord and his people and remember his faithfulness, those who continue to trust in him, they are the ones that will be vindicated by the Lord when he does come in judgement on the wicked. They are the ones who will remain faithful to the Lord and to his covenant, even when all the proud people around them do evil and bow to idols, they will remain faithful, because they know and because they trust that the Lord is always faithful. I hope that’s an encouraging word for you already, but first we need to go back to Jesus’ story about the two men in the temple.
There’s the proud Pharisee. By the standard of the law, he is in the right. And there’s the scummy tax collector. By the standard of the law, he’s in the wrong. And yet in the end, it’s the tax collector who goes home and is found to be in the right. If this were one of Jesus’ “kingdom stories” it would be the tax collector who is welcomed into the kingdom, while the Pharisee is left in the outer darkness, weeping and gnashing his teeth. The tax collector would escape the coming judgement and know the life of the kingdom, while the coming judgement would fall on the Pharisee right along with all the other wicked in Israel. Why? Because the tax collector humbled himself, while the Pharisee was proud and was confident in his righteousness. But what does that mean?
Well, Jesus has told this story before. Over and over. Jesus was clear. He came not to the righteous, but to seek out the lost sheep of the house of Israel. At least in theory, the righteous were fine. They should have been expecting this all along. They were the ones who knew the scriptures so well, after all. But, ironically, they got angry when Jesus went to the lost sheep. And so Jesus told them stories to explain the joy in heaven over sinners who repent. The Lord is like the widow who seeks and eventually finds her lost coin. He’s like the shepherd who goes to great lengths to find his lost sheep. He’s like the father, rejoicing and throwing a party when his prodigal son returns home. And the Pharisees—or a lot of them, at any rate—the Pharisees are like the proud and resentful older brother. They’d been doing the right thing all along. Why wasn’t Jesus throwing a party for them? And so, in their pride, they refused to enter the house and were left out in the dark gnashing their teeth. The older brother out in the darkness. And it would be like that, only much, much worse when judgement came. Not because they weren’t righteous, but because righteousness wasn’t enough. Because in Jesus, the Lord was doing something new—he was making a new people who would be finally and truly fit for the kingdom, a people forgiven once and for all and a people filled with God’s own Spirit, a people with his law of love written on their hearts—a people fit for God’s new creation. When Jesus told people they needed a righteousness greater than the Pharisees if they wanted to take part in the kingdom, that’s what he was getting at. The Lord was finally giving something better than the law written on stone tablets. He was about to make a people with his law of love written on their hearts. But that people was centred in Jesus. So only those who trusted in this Messiah—this Messiah who was so different from their expectations—on those humble enough to recognise the new thing the Lord was doing in Jesus and to live by faith, trusting that Jesus really is the Lord’s answer to all the problems of the world, only they will go home justified. Only they will be able to be part of the kingdom—forgiven and filled with the Spirit, because of their faith in Jesus.
This is what St. Paul is getting at in our Epistle from 1 Corinthians 15. He declares once again the good news about Jesus the Messiah who died and was buried and who rose again according to the scriptures. And he talks about the twelve who saw him and believed and about the five hundred who saw him and believed. And then there was Paul. He heard the message, but he was one of those proud Pharisees, confident that he already had the right answers, confident that he knew how the Lord was going to deliver his people—and, most of all, confident that it wasn’t through Jesus. The gospel was blasphemy as far as he was concerned. And so, he writes, he persecuted the church. And yet there’s hope. Paul was stuck. He had a mountain of faith, but it wasn’t in Jesus. The torah had been preparing Israel for Jesus all those centuries, but Paul and so many others just couldn’t see it, couldn’t make the leap. But even as he persecuted the church, the Lord was at work to transform Paul. “But by the grace of God I am what I am,” he writes, “and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.”
Brothers and Sisters, there’s that righteousness greater than that of the Pharisees. There’s the faith that humbles the proud and brings even the greatest sinner into the kingdom. Not because the faith is so great, but because it’s in Jesus the Messiah. It’s a faith that brings forgiveness and the life of the Spirit. Habakkuk wrote that the just shall live by faith and that’s precisely what Jesus’ people do. He gives us the very life of God, because we trust in him. And that life he gives—the law of love written on our hearts, the experience of God’s love and faithfulness revealed so dramatically in our Saviour—that life fills our hearts with a faith that overflows. And that, Brothers and Sisters, is how we live in this in-between time. It’s how those first Christians lived through the devastation of Jerusalem’s destruction. It’s how the next generation lived through Rome’s persecution. It’s how the saints lived, even as they were thrown to the lions. It’s how the saints still live in many parts of the world, imprisoned because they live by faith, tortured because they live by faith, martyred because they live by faith. And it’s how the saints have lived in the midst of a world that still isn’t right, that still anticipates the final consummation of the Lord’s new creation. We live by faith as we struggle in our work—maybe because of broken supply chains, or bad economies, or because Facebook throws a wrench in our marketing. We live by faith as we struggle with illness or frailty or cancer. We live by faith as we struggle to bring justice and mercy to a world that is so unmerciful and lacking in justice. We live by faith as we face droughts and floods and forest fires. And we live by faith as we live out our calling to proclaim the good news about Jesus in a world that thinks us fools; faithful to our calling to holiness in a world filled with idolatry and sin. It’s how we live in hope, like Habakkuk, like the Apostles, like they martyrs, looking past this broken world and the evils of our time, and knowing that the Lord is faithful to his promises, that he will set this world to rights, and that in Jesus, he will surely finish what he has begun—we know he will, because he always has.
Let’s pray: Lord God, you declare your almighty power most chiefly in showing mercy and pity: mercifully grant to us such a measure of your grace, that we, running the way of your commandments, may receive your gracious promises, and be made partakers of your heavenly treasure; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.