Chief of Sinners
Saint Luke 18:9–14
“Chief of sinners, though I be, Jesus shed His blood for me.” This is what Jesus has done for sinners like you and like me. He shed His blood; He suffered and died on the altar of Calvary’s cross for us, to atone for our sins and for the sins of the whole world. Jesus is indeed the sinner’s dearest friend.
But there are some sinners who would disagree that He is a friend at all. However, these are sinners who deny their sinfulness, who chafe and bristle at even the suggestion that they are in some way lacking or at fault. Chief of sinners? “Oh, no, not me. Not even in the slightest,” they say.
Perhaps you aren’t acquainted with anyone who thinks this way about themselves, and you wonder how on earth they could ever imagine that they have no sin, when it’s something that you see so clearly in yourself. Well, Saint John tells us how it is. He says, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” In other words, those who imagine that they have no sin are just lying to themselves. They’re deceiving themselves in order to satisfy their sinful pride and feel good about themselves. Therefore, even should they violate a law of the land and commit a crime, what is it that they will likely say? “Oh, I just made a mistake. It was an accident that does not change the fact that I’m a good person.” Or the new one that I’m hearing a lot these days goes like this, “It’s not my fault. The one to blame is that terrible person who doesn’t agree with me. He’s the sinner, not me!”
Self-deception, passing the blame, making excuses—none of that changes the objective reality of their sin before God, and the fact that God justly requires payment in full for that sin, the payment of death through an eternity of pain and suffering in hell’s prison house. But while God is absolute and terrifyingly severe in His justice, His mercy and grace abounds even more, for He offers and gives His own dear Son as substitute, to pay that terrible price for all sinners. However, sinners who deny their sin, in effect, reject the blood of Jesus shed for them, seeing no need of it. Their refusal of God’s gift of redemption will, accordingly, leave them fully accountable for their sins, and they will pay.
This morning in today’s Holy Gospel, our Lord Jesus makes this truth abundantly clear. He tells a parable to “some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous,” meaning that they saw themselves as blameless before God. And not only did they live in the fantasy of thinking that they had no sin, they also, as Jesus says, “treated others with contempt.” This is how it is with those arrogant in their pride. They berate and denigrate others in order to look superior—in order to prop up and support the deceit of their self-appraisal of sinlessness. Therefore, with our Lord’s parable directed precisely at such people—religious leaders of the time called Pharisees—it’s not surprising that Jesus includes one of them in His story, along with another man who is a tax collector. Jesus tells us that the two of them went up to the temple to pray.
Now, the two of them are truly an odd couple. Felix and Oscar in Neil Simon’s play of that name have nothing on them in being dissimilar. One is a morally upright and respected member of the community; the other a moral reprobate who lives and associates with other degenerates in the corrupt underbelly of Jerusalem society. Furthermore, the reason why each of the two dissimilar men go to the temple that day is also quite different. Jesus says that they both go there to pray, but to whom does each pray? We might think that the Pharisee prays to God, for it is God whom he addresses at the start of his prayer. What he says after that, however, tells us that his words are directed primarily to those others who are also in the temple that day. What he says is no prayer, but rather a song of praise, and the praise is all for himself.
Jesus relates that, “the Pharisee, standing by himself,” that is, in the most prominent place, where everyone can see and hear him, “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.’” Wow! Get a load of that guy! And perhaps the most extraordinary thing about this is that our Lord is not exaggerating things here, nor is he highlighting atypical behaviour. On a whole, this is the way the Pharisees were. For example, we’re told that when they gave their tithes—their offerings to the church—they would have someone play a trumpet fanfare so that no one would miss seeing their generous giving. And when they would fast, supposedly for religious purposes, they would put on makeup to lead people to think that they were on the verge of starving to death.
Now, if you’ve ever turned on the TV to find certain televangelists in the midst of their broadcast, and you’ve seen their crocodile tears and heard their self-promoting spiels, you might have wondered if anyone could possibly take such con men seriously, that is, until the camera pans out and shows the thousands sitting there locked in rapt attention, falling for all of it. Well, it was largely that way with the Pharisees. They did their boasting because it worked. People fell for it, believing that the Pharisees were just as righteous and without sin as they claimed to be. In this, they proved the point made by the prophet Samuel when he said, “the LORD sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart.” Jesus called the Pharisees “white-washed sepulchres,” because they looked all good and clean on the outside, but on the inside were filled with nothing but rot and decay. They had the look of righteousness, but were filled with the corruption of sin. They may have fooled other people; they may have even convinced themselves of the lie, but as Saint Paul warns, “Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap.” God knows exactly what is going on with each one of you; you can’t hide it from Him.
The tax collector makes no effort to try hiding the truth, but freely acknowledges and confesses his great sin to God. While the Pharisee’s grand show and display of self-righteousness is playing out center stage in the temple, the tax collector is off by himself, perhaps in some shadow-laden corner, with his head lowered in an attitude of abject humility and shame. He beats his breast and prays most earnestly, but yet so that only God can hear, saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” Actually, dear friends, a more literal translation of what he prayed is “God be merciful to me, THE sinner!” There’s no shifting of blame in his confession—no trying to lessen his guilt by suggesting that there are others in the world who are worse sinners than he is. As far as he is concerned, there is no greater sinner than he. He is the sinner.
This, dear friends, is how Saint Paul also considered himself. Now, I know some of you might think: “Saint Paul? Really? He’s one of the big holy guys—one of the really super heroes in the history of the Christian faith.” And yes, he is, but not because of anything that he does, not even the faithful confession that he makes of himself when, in 1st Timothy he says, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost.” Saint Paul is a hero of the faith because of what God worked in and through the apostle’s life. He confesses his sin, as he does, only because God has given him faith. It’s only through faith that one may set aside the pride that naturally rises up in each of us and keeps us from being truthful about our sins. It’s only through faith that God works repentance in you and brings you to the forgiveness that He freely offers and gives in Christ.
At the end of the story, our Lord Jesus provides His listeners with a weighty epilogue. “I tell you,” Jesus says, “this man,” that is, the tax collector, “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.” With this, Jesus speaks of the reckoning of sin, of which we touched upon earlier, and of which Saint Paul speaks in Romans when he declares, “So then each of us will give an account of himself to God.” That day of reckoning will come, of course, when our risen and ascended Saviour returns to judge both the living and the dead. Then He will proclaim the verdict that is established now, in each person’s life. And it’s not those who rely on their own good works, and trust in themselves that they are righteous, who are justified, but all those who rely solely upon Jesus, in His blood shed for them. This is why the tax collector, and not the Pharisee, goes down to his house from the temple that day justified. He acknowledges his sins and lays them on Jesus—on God’s own sacrificial Lamb who takes away the sin of the world.
But what happens then—after the tax collector is once again at home? His true repentance at the temple would certainly indicate a holy desire to amend his sinful life, and with God’s help, let’s say he does. What then? Would he join us in singing, “Chief of sinners though I be,” and mean it? You bet he would. He would still confess to being THE sinner, for this is what is faith brings a redeemed child of God to acknowledge and confess. As well, you can be certain that he would continue regularly to make his way back to the temple, to that same place out of the spotlight where, in humility and true repentance, he brings his sins to Jesus and prays for mercy and grace.
Faith, dear friends, does not free you from sin; Christ, however, does with His blood shed for you—with His innocent suffering and death—with the forgiveness that this atoning sacrifice freely provides for you. What faith does is open your heart and mind to this truth, so that you cling to Him and His cross alone, so that you trust in Jesus and not yourself, so that, in this earthly life, you judge nothing to be more important or of higher good to you than to hear Your blessed Saviour say to you through His Word and Sacrament, “You are forgiven all your sins.” So it is in Christ Jesus, our Lord, that for His sake you go home this day forgiven and justified, with the sure and certain hope of salvation and life without end. Rejoice always, dear friends; rejoice in His goodness and mercy for you. Amen.