Luke 18_9-14 Polishing or being renewed.
Who loves shiny chrome? I went to the “Show and shine” car show here in Dubbo yesterday, and yes, there was plenty of chrome on display. Here are two ornaments that used to look shiny and bright, but are now tarnished.
Their appeal and beauty have faded as the metal beneath the chrome breaks down due to the effects of rust. It is simply dying from the inside out. Being the precious objects they are, we want to save don’t we? There are two options we have. Firstly, we could polish the outer chrome like this (polish), there! To everyone this now looks great. I can even see my face beaming in the Holden badge! But is polishing the outside chrome really the solution? What is going on underneath? Yes, the metal is still being eaten away by the rust. It looks good, but underneath, it is rotten.
The other option is to strip off the chrome, rub back the metal, so that all the rust is taken out (rub the metal back to reveal the new metal). This is a more difficult solution, its messy, it looks like we are wrecking the ornament, but it is the best option. We are removing the source of the rot, and we can then resurface the metal and it will last a lifetime.
Luke writes, Jesus observed people “were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else.” We are not told by Luke where Jesus saw such displays, but going by his parable, he most likely witnessed it within the context of worship. Jesus must have observed how some, when gathered together for worship, treated this time in the presence of God, as an opportunity to show and shine; to parade their polished religious lives for all to see and admire; to show and shine before God and others, just how morally good religion has made them. Jesus is angered by such polished behaviour, particularly in the temple, for it is his Father’s house, and as Jesus said a little later, while overturning the tables of the money changers, “It is written, ‘My house will be a house of prayer.’ ”
He begins a spiritual cleansing of his temple by telling a parable about a polished Pharisee praying in the temple for all to see. Note the amount of references to himself “God, I thank you that I am not like other men– robbers, evildoers, adulterers– or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.” Yes, he was a super shiny, sleek religious man, so much so, he could see himself reflected in everything he did.
Then Jesus turns the parable away from the bright and shiny, to a dull looking man, a tax collector, a sinner, whose life was far from polished, in fact you could say it was very religiously rusty. “The tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Yet, Jesus concludes that this man went away from God’s presence forgiven, while the Pharisee, even though he led a good life, went away unforgiven.
Both men desired to be accepted by God, but only one man, the rusty sinner, went away forgiven; Why? Why was Abel’s offering to God accepted, yet Cain’s wasn’t? Why was Peter forgiven for denying Jesus, but Judas wasn’t? Is God at fault for this abnormality, or does God simply arbitrarily predestine some to eternal damnation and others to eternal life? No, the problem is not with God, it is with us. Jesus tells this parable to show that being religiously nice and shiny, well-polished on the outside does not cover the rot that is going on in the inside; it is the rot that needs to be dealt with, and that can only happen by God’s doing.
The problem lies with us because we confuse law and gospel. We make the law into something that can save us and the gospel, that Christ died for our sins, into something we must do. Jesus’ depiction of the Pharisee praying about his polished obedience to God’s commandments, as something that would earn him favour before God, is a good example of how we wrongly use God’s commandments. He uses the commandments, particularly “you shall not steal, you shall not murder” and the sixth commandment “you shall not commit adultery”, to polish himself up, to make himself look squeaky clean before God and other worshippers. Like me polishing the outside of this ornament, it looks good, but underneath is where the problem really lies; it is the rusting metal causing the tarnish.
We are the same, we can look good by polishing ourselves with keeping the commandments, doing good and holy things, but underneath, our sinful nature taints all we do; everything, we do apart from Christ, God still sees as sinful, as King David declares “Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me.” And as Jesus says, “For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander.” Simply using the commandments to polish up on our morals, thinking our religious life merits God’s approval, only exacerbates our problem, only causes our sin to rage all the more under the guise of good deeds.
Had the Pharisee used the commandments as a tool to reveal the rot of sin underneath, like the tax collector obviously did, then he would have joined him, beating his breast, pleading ‘‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” He would have known that underneath his polished life was a robber, an evil doer and an adulterer. Had he have been humbled by the law, like the tax collector, he would have realised he was really the robber. What was he robbing? By boasting in his own glory, he was robbing God of all the glory that is due to him!
Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, shows us the right way to use the commandment, not to polish our works, but to reveal sin. Jesus applies the commandments in such a way that none of us could ever keep them. “”You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”
Luther called the unachievable demands of God, the proper use of the law, or the spiritual use and taught that rather than making us shining Christians, the law always accuses us. Applying the commandments to ourselves in this way, is the right way, because it cuts back our glossy exterior to reveal the rot inside; it causes us to cry out, as we do in the liturgy “Lord have mercy.” We should feel more sinful than ever before, and that’s good! Luther in his commentary on Galatians writes “But you say ‘How can I be holy when I have sin and am aware of it?’ “That you feel and acknowledge sin – this is good. Thank God, and do not despair. It is one step toward health when a sick man admits and confesses his disease.” “But how will I be liberated from sin?” Run to Christ, the Physician, who heals the contrite heart and saves sinners.”
The tax collector, beating his chest, ashamed of his sin, is the one who went home justified that day. He placed all hope on Christ who said “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost.” He knew that only the gospel of Jesus can save, the law has no place and no part in the justification of sinners before God. He knew that faith alone in Christ alone saves. The good news is that we now are in the right place. That Christ is hear, bidding us to come to him, to place our faith in these little words “your sins are forgiven.” No more is needed for salvation, if there was, it would not be the gospel, but the law.
The right distinction between law and gospel is of utmost importance for the comfort of our soul; to have the assurance of salvation and the certainty that we will be welcomed into heaven when we die. Yet to understand and to remember the right use of the commandments and the gospel is as easy as remembering the distinction between polishing and stripping. To polish ourselves with keeping the commandment, is only to cover up sin, and that is the wrong use, just as it is wrong to polish a rusting hubcap. To strip ourselves of all pride, by letting the commandments accuse us to reveal our sinful nature, is the right way; just as it is right to strip back a rusting cap to reveal the bare metal.
When this is done, then the ointment that cures the rust can be added. In the same way, once the law has done its work on us, Jesus pours on the healing ointment of the gospel, which cures us of the guilt of our sin. Jesus beckons you to hear and believe the ointment of his word, that heals, forgives and restores “I tell you the truth, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life.”