After reading this parable, it is easy to say, “Thank God I’m not like the Pharisee. It’s good that I’m humble like the tax collector.” But, the Pharisee didn’t do anything wrong. He was a righteous man. He prayed. He didn’t knowingly sin. He gave a proper tithe. He wasn’t like thieves, evildoers, and adulterers, or tax collectors who knowingly sinned. He was a devout Jew and righteous by his practices. It is very tempting to say that we are righteous because we go to church, pray, and study our Bible, we are good members of society, we don’t knowingly sin, and we tithe. Then, we begin to think of ourselves as righteous by our works, no different than the Pharisee.
Works is not a sin. The letter of James Chapter 2 addresses works in relation to faith. James asks, “What good is it to have faith without works?” James continues saying, “Faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.” James goes on to say this: “But someone will say, ‘you have faith and I have works.’ Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith…You see that faith was active along with [the] works, and faith was brought to completion by the works. You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is also dead.” The Pharisee was righteous which showed by his works which were an outpouring of his faith. So, too, we are righteous by our works which are an outpouring of our faith.
If righteous acts are not the point of this parable, we would be tempted to say that this parable is about humility perhaps even that righteous acts should be done with humility. It would be true to say that the tax collector’s prayer showed his humility while the Pharisee’s prayer was self-serving and self-righteous. But, there is still a problem with that argument. Both men went to the Temple. Both men prayed. But, neither man repented of sin. The tax collector acknowledged that he was a sinner, but he did not vow to change his ways or make restitution for his practice of cheating others by collecting extra taxes for his own pocket. If we say that this parable is about humility, we could say that being humble is better than being righteous. But humility and righteousness are not the point of this parable.
The challenge of this parable is our desire for exaltation. We can say we’re righteous or we can say that we are humble; in either way, we seek to be exalted by our faith and its works. We want to get to Heaven and receive the riches of eternal reward hearing the words, “well done, good and faithful servant.” No matter our works or our faithfulness, we don’t earn our way into Heaven. We could become prisoners to our good deeds or our humility or even our faith. We will never be humble enough or righteous enough or faithful enough to earn God’s grace.
The point of this parable is justification. The parable says that the tax collector went home “justified.” Justified in Greek is the same root as righteous. To be justified is to be counted righteous. The tax collector is deemed righteous by God while the Pharisee argues his righteousness by being a faithful Jew. The parable doesn’t say that the Pharisee is not righteous before God. The parable infers that he is not justified. The difference between the Pharisee and the tax collector is between one who trusts his works to be justified and one who trusts God to be justified.
Can we honestly say that if faced by God we would not argue our faith by listing our deeds?
Do we really trust in God’s grace alone to justify us?
In the life of the Church, today is called Reformation Sunday. It is a day set aside each year that the Church can remember the reforming work started by Martin Luther. In Protestant churches, like the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), we can reflect on the ways the Church has been transformed by the work of the 16th century. It is fitting for this parable to be the lectionary text on Reformation Sunday, because the main premise of the Reformation is the justification by faith alone.
The Challengers class is going to get another answer to their question raised about purgatory.
In the 16th century, the Church was quite corrupt. At that point in the church’s history, the Church was Catholic. There was no Methodist, Presbyterian, Disciples of Christ. It was all just Catholic. Catholic means universal, so Catholic was the universal Church, one Church.
The whole Church believed in Heaven, Hell, Saints, creeds, and confession. The idea of purgatory was developing. It was believed that purgatory was a place that one prepared for Heaven for the sins that repentance on Earth had not covered. Basically, all believers would eventually go to Heaven, but some spent time in purgatory being further cleansed of their sins before they could be received into Heaven.
There was a classification of sin at that time. There were venial sins which were minor infractions that could be forgiven by saying the Lord’s prayer a couple times. Then, there were mortal sins or grave sins. Mortal sins were the ones that sent you to purgatory, because there wasn’t enough time on Earth to do penance for those sins.
Penance was what helped wash away sins. First, one had to be truly sorry for the sin and a priest could absolve you of sin by God’s forgiveness. But, even with God’s forgiveness, one had to make restitution for sin because his or her neighbor had been dishonored, as well as God. One could make restitution by fasting on bread and water or giving alms to the poor or some other penance assigned by a priest. But, if one died in a state of unrepentant mortal sin, he or she was lost forever.
The system of indulgences was added to possible acts of penance, a means of restitution for the debt owed to God created by sin. It was like an extra financial gift to the church as an act of penance. Indulgences could be used for your own sin or could be given for an already deceased loved one as a means of buying their way out of purgatory. The money was used for good things like, roads and churches. Unfortunately, people were given indulgences in lieu of any other penance and came to rely on indulgences for their ticket out of purgatory and a life bound for Heaven. People were told that their indulgences were a promise of forgiveness of all past and future sins so they were no longer required to repent of sin.
The Catholic monk, Martin Luther, had a real problem with indulgences. He believed we were justified by faith alone, not by acts of penance or indulgences. His basis for this tenet of faith was Romans 1: 17 in which Paul writes, “For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, ‘The one who is righteous will live by faith.’”
By Luther’s conviction, he nailed to the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg, Saxony a document known as the 95 thesis which is a list of issues he has with Church practice, including baptism and absolution of sin, especially indulgences. We celebrate Reformation Sunday on the Sunday before All Saints’ Day because Luther sent his 95 Thesis to another church leader on All Hallows’ Eve, the night before All Saints’ Day. Luther thought that indulgences had become a financial transaction of penance rather than a practice of true contrition. Luther sought to have an academic debate on the practices of the Church, instead started a revolution that would transform, but split the Church.
Luther’s belief in the justification by faith alone developed from Scripture. He wanted the authority of Scripture to take precedence over Church doctrine. He wanted practices like indulgences, which aren’t in the Bible, to be stopped. He wanted the word of God to be available to all Christians. The printing press was developed to copy the Bible in German for all people to read. He put the Bible into the people’s hands which had been read in Latin only by the priests and monks. His reforms changed the Church into what we know today.
The Reformation and Martin Luther are best known for the doctrine of justification by faith alone. I’ve presented a whole lot of scripture about works and faith and their relationship to one another. Scripture in one place argues that we are saved by faith alone and in another place we are told faith without works is dead. Ultimately, the Bible says that we are justified by faith alone.
Justification is the point of the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector. We cannot rely on our righteous acts like the Pharisee. We cannot hope in humility like the tax collector. We cannot expect that our righteousness or humility will be exalted by God. We can only rely on God’s saving grace through the work of our Lord Jesus Christ. We can do nothing but accept His grace. “Luther realized first and foremost that if anything about his salvation rested on his ability, character, or faith…he was lost. He could claim nothing other than God’s good favor.”