TRINITY XI – Deus in loco sancto
Introit: (Ps 68) God in his holy habitation: he is the God that maketh men to be of one mind in an house: he will give strength and power unto his people. Ps. Let God arise, and let his enemies be scattered: let them also that hate him flee before him. Glory be … God in his holy habitation …
Collect: O God, who declarest thy almighty power most chiefly in shewing mercy and pity: mercifully grant unto us such a measure of thy grace, that we, running the way of thy commandments, may obtain thy gracious promises, and be made partakers of thy heavenly treasure; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
OT Lesson: David spake unto the Lord the words of this song: The Lord rewarded me according to my righteousness: according to the cleanness of my hands hath he recompensed me. For I have kept the ways of the Lord: and have not wickedly departed from my God. For all his judgements were before me: and as for his statutes, I did not depart from them. I was also upright before him: and have kept myself from mine iniquity. Therefore the Lord hath recompensed me according to my righteousness: according to my cleanness in his eye sight. With the merciful thou wilt shew thyself merciful: and with the upright man thou wilt shew thyself upright. With the pure thou wilt shew thyself pure: and with the froward thou wilt shew thyself unsavoury. And the afflicted people thou wilt save: but thine eyes are upon the haughty, that thou mayest bring them down. For thou art my lamp, O Lord: and the Lord will lighten my darkness. (II Samuel 22.21-29)
Gradual: (Ps 28) My heart hath trusted in God, and I am helped: therefore my heart danceth for joy, and in my song will I praise him. V. Unto thee will I cry, O Lord: be not silent, O my God, nor depart from me.
Epistle: Brethren: I declare unto you the Gospel which I preached unto you, which also ye have received, and wherein ye stand; by which also ye are saved, if ye keep in memory what I preached unto you, unless ye have believed in vain. For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; and that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures: and that he was seen of Cephas, then of the twelve: after that, he was seen of above five hundred brethren at once; of whom the greater part remain unto this present, but some are fallen asleep. After that, he was seen of James; then of all the apostles. And last of all he was seen of me also, as of one born out of due time. For I am the least of the apostles, that am not meet to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am: and his grace which wasbestowed upon me was not in vain. (I Corinthians 15.1-11)
Alleluia. Lord, thou hast been our refuge: from one generation to another. Alleluia.
The Holy Gospel: At that time: Jesus spake this parable unto certain which trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others: Two men went up into the temple to pray; the one a Pharisee, and the other a publican. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican. I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess. And the publican, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner. I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other: for every one that exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted. (St Luke 18.9-14)
“But by the grace of God I am what I am:
and his grace which was bestowed upon me was not in vain.”
Three men went up to the temple to pray. One was self-righteous and holier-than-thou. The second was a notorious blackguard. The third was a sincere, well-intentioned, all-around good guy. Sure, he slipped up occasionally, he made mistakes—everyone does—but he did his best. This third man is surely the one in whom we see ourselves in the story. Nobody wants to be the Pharisee, trusting in his own righteousness, looking down on everybody else. And nobody wants to be known as the wicked sinner, the one who stands near the back door and doesn’t even dare lift his eyes up to heaven, whose only prayer is, “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.” No, we would all like to be the third man, who falters, but keeps an even keel. His life is pretty much in order, and so he has the respect of all his neighbours and friends. All in all, he’s a pretty good fellow. Three men went up to the temple to pray. Which one are you?
The obvious problem with this story, of course, is that it is not the one that Jesus told. There are only two men in His story, and you are either one or the other. The third guy, who takes the middle road between the self-righteous Pharisee and the grovelling sinner, doesn’t actually exist. In the Lord’s eyes, there are only two positions: either the proud man who brings his own righteousness to church to display before God, or the miserable sinner, who pleads for undeserved mercy. Which one are you? There is no third option; there is no middle way where we can still retain some of our own pride and righteousness. There are only two kinds of people in this world: those who parade their good works before others (and God), and those who cast themselves upon God’s mercy. But does the publican accurately describe me? Surely, it’s not quite as bad as that, is it? Am I really, to speak in worldly terms, that much of a “loser” that I must come to Jesus as a beggar? Don’t I have at least something, some accomplishment, some measure of self-respect, to put myself in a higher class than this poor, miserable tax collector? These questions are temptations to pride, and they are deadly. Pride is the chief of the seven deadly sins, and the father of them all. Pride is what led Adam and Eve to abandon their dependency upon God and try to make their own way. Pride is the sin of the devil himself. There are only two men: the miserable sinner who cries out to God for salvation, and the respectable sinner who is too proud to admit his wretched state. And only the one who calls on the Name of the Lord Jesus Christ will be saved (Acts 2.21).
“We have erred and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep; we have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts … and there is no health in us. But thou, O Lord, have mercy upon us, miserable offenders.” “We acknowledge and confess [in older versions, bewail] our manifold sins and wickedness, which we from time to time most grievously have committed, by thought, word, and deed, against thy Divine Majesty [provoking most justly thy wrath and indignation against us] …” Upon hearing this for the first time, one might be a bit shocked. Why would anyone confess that? You Anglicans need to lighten up a bit. You ought to build some self-esteem, and learn the power of positive thinking. Isn’t the church supposed to make you feel better about yourself? Well actually, no. We don’t go to church to be affirmed or to get a pat on the back. We go to church to get Jesus, and to receive His gifts. We go to church acknowledging our emptiness, in order to be filled with God’s grace and forgiveness, with the Word of salvation and with the Bread of Life. And Jesus promises that every poor, miserable, sinner who comes to Him will be received. God “fills the hungry with good things, but the rich he sends empty away.”
So if you are not that tax collector, then who are you? The Pharisee. There is no third option. And “God resisteth the proud, but giveth grace unto the humble.” (James 4.6) He casts down the mighty from their thrones, and exalts those of humble estate (Lk 1.52). Our Lord tells us that the miserable tax collector went home “justified,” rather than the Pharisee. No doubt the Pharisee went home full of self-esteem, feeling good about himself and his place in the world, but the publican went home forgiven, and that is the objective reality before God that actually matters, in this world and the next. In short, there are two ways whereby people think they can get into heaven: by our own effort and work, or by faith in the work of Jesus. From the time of the first recorded sacrifice (Genesis 4), people have been trying to be reconciled to God by what they do. Cain and Abel were both brought up in the faith and fear of God. Each of the brothers knew that a sacrifice for sin was necessary. Abel’s offering was filled with the sweet-smelling fragrance of faith. Cain’s sacrifice, on the other hand, reeked of his own sweaty self-righteousness.
Our Gospel lesson begins with the introduction: “Jesus told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt.” Surely, nobody wants to be known as “self-righteous,” but what exactly does it mean? Merriam-Webster defines it as being “convinced of one’s own righteousness especially in contrast with the actions and beliefs of others.” In other words, it does not mean that one’s behaviour is objectively good; it simply means that one thinks one’s own behaviour is better than others. Self-righteousness always goes hand in hand with looking for evil in others. This is the very opposite of loving one’s neighbour. Self-righteousness uses the sins of others as a twisted form of currency to try to buy God’s favour. But since God requires that we love our neighbours, self-righteousness, which treats others with contempt, can never improve our standing before God, but only adds to our guilt. Driven by this increasing sense of guilt, self-righteousness has taken a bizarre new expression. Mainline churches are each scrambling to prove that they are more tolerant of sin than the next. “We are so much more loving and tolerant than those other churches who still believe in outdated things like sin and repentance.” Guilty people will try to find self-righteousness in a host of strange places: “I only drink from paper straws. I drive an electric car. I never go out in public without a mask. I wear a specific-coloured shirt on a given day. I support this cause. Wait! I don’t support this cause, because social media just told me it’s not ‘cool’ anymore.” Without faith in Christ, the whole world is caught up in virtue-signaling, pretending to be good, upright, tolerant, loving individuals, when it is merely a façade. According to God’s holy Law, there is none righteous, no, not one. Self-righteousness, which comes from putting others down in order to build ourselves up, can never make us righteous before God.
Consider again the words of the Pharisee: “I am not like other men. I fast twice a week. I give tithes of all that I possess.” His faith is in himself, and his prayer is all about what he has done. He mistakenly believes that righteousness before God can come from within. But any honest look at the human heart will reveal that we have all fallen far short of the glory of God. Theoretically, one could earn heaven by living a perfect life in thought, word, and deed, from conception until death. But in reality, no one born of a human mother and father has ever done this. All have sinned. So self-righteousness tries to throw its neighbour under the bus. “I may not be perfect, but at least I’m not really wicked like those other people … especially this detestable tax collector over here.” But God’s holiness and righteousness demand absolute perfection. Self-righteousness might make you feel better about yourself, or get you a “like” or “thumbs-up” from the world, but pointing out your neighbour’s sins will not excuse your own. Self-righteousness is a snare, and a downward vortex, that can never make one truly righteous.
No sane person would claim to be perfect, but we would all like to think that we are better than average. Self-righteousness assumes that God grades on a curve. If you received a D on an exam but your teacher uses a curved grading scale, you would be happy to learn that everyone else in the class got an F, because your D has now become an A. This is exactly how self-righteousness works—it is always on the lookout for sins in others, hoping thereby to improve its own score. Deep down, we all know that nobody can measure up to the requirements of God’s Law. No one is perfect. No one can actually score an A+. Hence, the sinful nature in each of us secretly takes great pleasure in discovering the faults of others. This is why tabloid magazines continue to sell even when everyone knows they’re full of lies and manufactured scandal, or while TV “reality shows” remain so popular. It is also why gossip is such a beloved and enjoyable sin, because every time a truly wicked sinner is unmasked, our own standing improves—or so we think.
Like the Pharisee, we are quick to notice when others don’t measure up. And we are equally quick to hold them in contempt and puff out our own chest because we don’t do the disgusting and irresponsible things they do. How shiny our petty good works become in comparison! We may have our problems, but those folks are terrible! Thank God I’m better than that! But when we stand on our laurels and comfort ourselves with the good we do and the evil we don’t, we are, in effect, trying to prove to God just how much we don’t need Him, and we will receive our just reward. There is no room for boasting before the cross of Christ. When we seek to gain God’s favour by appearing to be more holy and righteous than other sinners, we deny God’s grace, and our own need for mercy and forgiveness. Our contempt for others is nothing less than contempt for Christ our Lord, who came in weakness and humility for the express purpose of seeking out sinners – tax collectors, prostitutes, blasphemers – in order to lift them up out of the dunghill (Ps 113), to raise them from death and give them life. The benefits of the cross are enjoyed by repentant publicans and sinners, not the unrepentant and self-righteous Pharisees who work so hard to prove how much they don’t need it. The great temptation is to believe that I am responsible for my own salvation. “As long as I’m doing everything that I am supposed to do, I’ll be OK.” That was the error of the Pharisee, whereas Our Lord warns us, “When ye shall have done all those things which are commanded you, say, We are unprofitable servants: we have done [only] that which was our duty to do.” (Lk 17.10) It is only by the grace of God that we are saved. Unless we will number ourselves among the sinners, we cannot be numbered among the redeemed.
“But the just shall live by faith.” (Rom 1.17; Gal 3.11; Heb 10.38) Only Jesus possesses the perfect righteousness which God requires. When the tax collector prayed, he made no mention of his own works at all. His only prayer was, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” Notice who is doing the work in that sentence. The only action is “be merciful,” and it is God who is doing it. The publican’s faith is placed solely in what God has done and will do, that is, in the perfect life and propitiatory death of Jesus Christ. Only on that basis can anyone hope to become righteous before God. We can have no need for false self-righteousness when we have already been given the true righteousness of Christ. We can never earn it. We can only receive this precious gift by faith. God declares us righteous on account of Christ’s sacrifice. And this is Good News—this is the Gospel. There is no longer any need to try to prove that we are better than our neighbour or be seen as righteous at another’s expense. We were made righteous at Christ’s expense, and knowing this enables us actually and truly to love our neighbour as only He can do. The Christian cries out in faith, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner,” and God hears our prayer and declares us righteous and worthy of His heavenly Kingdom for the sake of Jesus Christ.
How do you come before God today? Do you come as the Pharisee, trusting in your righteousness, thanking God that you’re really not that bad, with no desperate need to be forgiven? Or do you come as that poor, miserable sinner, who doesn’t even deserve to stand before God or look up to heaven, crying out, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”? I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. Jesus assures us, “Whosoever cometh to me, I will in no wise cast out.”(Jn 6.37) This is His promise to every desperate sinner who cries out for mercy. You will never be turned away. Instead, your prayer will be answered, and you will be filled with every good gift that our gracious and loving Lord desires to give you. But only the sick are healed; only the hungry are filled; only sinners are forgiven and invited to His Table. In the eloquent words of David Curry:
This is not about grovelling in the dust and wallowing in self-pity and piteous self-recriminations. Paradoxically, there is nothing so magnanimous, so great-souled, as the exemplar of humility, Mary, the virgin mother of our Lord. No. Humility belongs to our freedom and our ultimate dignity. We are the dust which God has shaped and into which he has breathed his spirit. It belongs to the dignified dust of our humanity to offer prayers and praises together to Almighty God. We are raised up only because we can acknowledge what we are by the grace of God. We acknowledge his mercy. Sinners, yes, so we are, you and I, but in such an acknowledgement we are something more. We are in the company of Christ and we are with one another in the purpose of his good will for us. You see, “his grace was not bestowed in vain.” In ourselves we are vain and empty – our prayers but the meaningless prattle of our own self-affirmations. In Christ we are alive and fully ourselves.
“By the grace of God, I am what I am.”
Collect: Remember, O Lord, what thou hast wrought in us, and not what we deserve; and, as thou hast called us to thy service, make us worthy of our calling; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
And may the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge and love of God, and of his Son Jesus Christ our Lord: and the blessing of God Almighty, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, be amongst you and remain with you always. Amen.
Please note: Today is also the festival of the Assumption of Our Lady. This Feast will be celebrated, with available solemnity, on Thursday within the Octave (19th). Sign-up is required.
+Sancta Maria, ora pro nobis.+