Two men went to Church to pray. One a Missouri Synod Lutheran and the other an ELCA Lutheran. The Missouri Synod Lutheran stood and prayed thus with himself: “I thank you God that you made a Missouri Synod Lutheran and not one of those crazy ELCA Lutherans with their faithless rejection of Your Word; with their treatment of sin as virtue; with their ecumenical agreements with those who deny the real presence of Christ's body and blood in the Lord's Supper.” The ELCA Lutheran, however, standing far off, did not even dare to raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” This man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.
Unless you’ve had your head in the sand for the last few days, you can't have missed the headlines about what “the Lutherans” are up to now. Yes, at the ELCA’s churchwide assembly that concluded yesterday in Minneapolis, our fellow Lutherans have announced that gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered relationships are a-okay with them; that their pastors may be in such relationships without prejudice; that the church needs a liturgy for divorce; that they are in full communion fellowship now with those who say that the bread and wine in the Eucharist are most certainly NOT Christ’s body and blood, given and shed for the forgiveness of sins. Like one death knell after the next, the decisions boomed out this week, effectively setting aside God’s Word (which many faithful pastors and laity spoke with clarity on the floor of the assembly only to have that Word rejected).
And newspapers and TV reporters, being rather ill-informed about the Christian faith in general and the Lutheran Church in particular, plaster the name “Lutheran” across these changes in the ELCA. The Lutherans have done this, they announce! The Lutherans are getting with it and joining the Episcopal Church in being culturally relevant!
And here we sit. I confess that I WANTED to put up on our Church sign this week: “We’re not THOSE Lutherans!” But God in His grace has given us our Lord’s words about the Pharisee and the Tax-collector to keep us from the pride that would look down on our brothers and sisters in their suffering.
You see, it is a small step from condemning the ELCA’s condemnable actions to priding ourselves that we in the Missouri Synod, for all our problems, at least are not LIKE THEM. But that IS what the Pharisee did, isn’t it? He thanked God that HE took God’s Word seriously and let that Word shape his life: he wasn’t like other men. And there you see the problem, you see where his gaze was directed. He was busy comparing himself to others, and the result was that he ended up puffed up about himself. Compared to THEM, he was a rather decent chap. God was lucky to have such a one on His side, and he didn’t mind reminding God of that in prayer.
Whenever the standard is THEM – whoever them may be – we will way too often land ourselves in the folly of the Pharisee, pridefully exalting ourselves. But here the tax-collector is the man with the penetrating insight. For he does not fall into the easy trap of comparing himself to other people – where there’s always somebody at hand who makes you good. No, he will not lift his eyes because there is only One whose standard counts. And His standard is gold and never changes, never devalues, always the same: total and complete love, love without any self-interest in it, love that does the good not to win a reward or to curry favor, but simply because the good is what it desires to do.
Against that gold standard of the Law of the God of Israel – love your God with your all; love your neighbor as yourself – the tax-collector had to hang his head in shame. He was a failure at it. Down to the depths of his being. He knew that he had nothing good inside of him that was untouched by pride and evil. He knew that if he finally had any standing with God it depended entirely upon God not on himself. So his plea: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”
Jesus says that the one who utters such a prayer goes to his home justified, that is, with the prayer granted. Mercy given. Sins covered. Declared righteous in the eyes of the Only One who matters.
Jesus can say this because He is the answer to every prayer for mercy. He came and did in our flesh what we could never do. He lived that perfect gold standard of unfailing love that the Law demands. He loved His Father above all and His neighbor as Himself even to the point of carrying all His neighbor’s sin to death on His cross at the Father’s bidding, becoming that sin and its curse, letting the judgment against all our pride, our ridiculous self-delusion and self-interest come crashing down upon Him. He bore it all so that as the Crucified One who was raised from the dead, He might bring a whole new world into existence. A world that hangs solely on mercy, on God giving what we DON’T deserve and handing it out to sinners so that they might indeed, go to their home, their heavenly home, justified, mercied, forgiven, declared righteous because Christ’s perfect righteousness has been given to them. That's the gift borne in the water of Baptism; sealed in your ears by the words of Absolution; and put into your mouth by the Body and Blood that bore your sin and are your righteousness.
When we remember that, there can be no Pharisee prayer, thanking God we’re not ELCA Lutherans. Rather, as fellow sinners, we join the many ELCA Lutherans who will be praying this Sunday and for many days to come: O God, have mercy on us for we have failed You! Even as we condemn without hesitation what their Chuchwide Assembly has done, we let them know that we, too, are condemned sinners who live only from the mercy of God in Jesus Christ, and we’ll join them in pleading with God for the mercy that none of us deserve but from which all of us can live. And live forever!