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Ash Wednesday
Luke 18:9-14

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ! In the name of Jesus, dear friends in Christ, “It’s not my fault!” How often have you heard that one? If you’re a teacher, you’ve heard it from a student. If you’re a supervisor, you’ve heard it from an employee, if you’re a parent, you’ve heard it from a child. And what always follows a statement like that? What always follows is the person’s attempt to “justify” himself or herself. What does that mean? It means they try to make an excuse for whatever they did, they try to shift the blame to get out of whatever consequences are coming for their actions. It’s somewhat ironic that we use the term “justify” for that because “justify” is a really, really important word in the Bible. It means that God declares us innocent in his courtroom, he acquits us. But in everyday speech it almost always means to make an excuse for something. That example kind of illustrates what we’ll be looking at on Wednesday nights during lent. Irony. Irony is literally “a combination of circumstances or a result that is opposite of what we might expect.” There are all kinds of ironies in the accounts of Jesus’ passion. Tonight we’ll see one.

The outcome of this parable is something that was totally opposite of what anyone would expect. We’re told that Jesus told this parable to people who were confident of their own righteousness and who looked down on everyone else. Two men went to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee, the other a tax collector. The Pharisee prayed, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people – robbers, evildoers, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.” How do you feel about such a prayer? We think it’s ridiculous, we cringe at it. But Jesus’ first audience wouldn’t have. Jesus wouldn’t have told the parable if the people would dismiss it right away as a caricature.

You see, when we hear the word “Pharisee” we immediately think of someone who is proud, self-righteous, a hypocrite. But that’s not what a first century Jew would have thought. Pharisees were viewed as the ideal. The apostle Paul was proud of being called a Pharisee before he came to faith. Pharisees were the conservatives, they were strict, they taught that the Bible was God’s Word, that all the laws should be strictly followed, they weren’t like the Sadducees, the theological liberals of the day.

So when this man stood up and said that he wasn’t a robber, an evildoer, or an adulterer, that was true! He didn’t rob people, he didn’t shoplift, he didn’t do anything that landed him in jail, he didn’t sleep around, he didn’t even have a traffic ticket! And a first century Jew would have seen a clear difference between him and a tax collector. They collected taxes –bad enough! – but they also did so for the Roman – even worse! The Romans didn’t care how much extra “taxes” they collected to line their own pockets as long as big brother got his share. Tax collectors were often lumped into the same category as prostitutes and sinners, and probably fell into the same sins as the company they kept. But this Pharisee wasn’t any of that – he gave 10 percent offerings to the Lord, he fasted twice a week – over and above what the Law required. He was pleased with the kind of person he was.

So what was his problem? Pride. The pride of his heart. One of the great ironies we learn from God’s Word is that even though we might do the right thing, if it’s for the wrong reason, we’re guilty of sin. This man was confident of his own righteousness. He thought he earned points with God by his good behavior. He thought he was coming out ahead in God’s record book. But he wasn’t. He ignored everything God says about everyone being a sinner, everyone in desperate need of God’s mercy, how God looks for a humble and repentant heart.

There’s another irony. Anyone who thinks they can keep God’s law, has to rewrite God’s laws. You have to cut out the parts you can’t keep, cut out the part about having a pure heart, a humble spirit, avoiding lust, greed, coveting. No sinner can keep those laws. But he has to rewrite it to things he can keep like fasting or giving a 10th of his income. But the problem was, he thought he was fine, but he wasn’t justified by God, he was still guilty.

Can we do that? Are we ever confident in our own righteousness? Could we ever pray his prayer? “God, I thank you that I am not like other people in this pornographic and materialistic world. I avoid internet sites that no one should look at. I don’t beat my wife or sleep around. I don’t use drugs. I don’t abuse alcohol. I stay out of trouble. I do all kinds of things for my church, I never miss a Lenten service. Could we offer that prayer? If we did, what would be wrong with it? Doesn’t God command those things? Yes He does. He does expect us not to view things that lead to lust, he does command spouses to love and respect each other, he does call us to support the work of our church.

So what’s wrong? The same problem the Pharisee had: pride. You see, if we do what we do because we think that by those things that we do, God must like us, God must reward us, God must look favorable on us, we’re no different than the Pharisee. Or if we think we’re better Christians than others and ignore our own ugly hearts and our own sin, we’re no different from the Pharisee. Sin corrupts even the best things that we do. We’re all in desperate need of God’s mercy.

And that’s what we see in the other person in this parable. The Pharisee, the active church goer who had no clue of what it meant to repent, went home guilty, but the man who lived a sinful life, understood what it meant to repent and rely solely on God’s mercy, HE went home justified.

The tax collector stood at a distance, couldn’t even lift up his eyes, but prayed simply, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” He knew he had no defense in God’s courtroom. Interestingly, when I do my Jail Bible studies, one of the questions I always ask the inmates is, “If you died tonight and God asked you why should I let you into my heaven, what would you say?” Most people in America, try it, ask someone, will say, “Well, I’ve been pretty good, I’ve done this, never done that.” Totally relying on themselves. But it’s very difficult for an inmate to say that, because even society says they haven’t been good. But even the most notorious criminals can hire lawyers, can shift blame, can find a loop hole, but with God there are no loop holes, no technicalities, he knows all that we’ve done, said, thought, and felt.

The tax collector didn’t lie to himself about his righteousness. He knew he was guilty. So he threw himself on God’s mercy. What’s God’s mercy? God’s mercy is knowing that we deserve death and destruction and God’s heart goes out to us, his love reaches out to us and does something. In mercy he sent His own Son to suffer, die, and rise for us to wipe our dirty slate clean. He comes to us in His Word and tells us that good news. His Word touches our broken hearts and gives us faith and hope to stand before him confess our sins and plead for his forgiveness. That’s what repentance is: longing for God’s mercy. It begins with humility, brutal honesty about our own guilt and inability to earn anything from God. Then it clings to faith in Jesus.

We ask for mercy because we know our God. We know His mercy comes to us. He doesn’t overlook our sins, he doesn’t ignore our sins, he does something far better. He condemns our sins, he condemns them on His own Son Jesus who took the punishment of all of them and then in the gospel He declares each of us personally forgiven, personally not guilty, personally innocent, personally justified.

No one who clings in faith in Jesus can say, “I thank you, God, that I’m not like other people.” Faith is humble: “I thank you, God, that you don’t give me what I deserve. I thank you for your mercy. No one knows better how guilty I really am. But you declared me not guilty. You gave me love and forgiveness. Thank you Lord.”

Irony is when the result is opposite of what we expect. We’ll see it this Lent. Here it is today: We deserve God’s punishment for our sin. But because of Jesus, no matter how sinful you have been, you will life with Jesus forever. Go home today justified – declared not guilty. Amen.