The One Who Comes Before God as a Beggar Goes Home Justified
“But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat 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 everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 18:13-14).
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
A couple of years ago, a friend of mine was on the news. Perhaps you saw the story. It was about the man in Rapid City who wanted to get his smile back. A succession of financial setbacks had prevented him from fixing his teeth. Finally, he decided to set up an account on the internet to ask people to help. “The hardest thing I've ever had to do is to do this, you know, to swallow my pride and ask for help," he said on Keloland News. In a short period of time, he raised about $3,000.
That’s not to say everyone was happy with his efforts. Along the way, he wrote, “I was feeling pretty beaten up today after talking to someone I know. He said, ‘Panhandling seems to be a good way to get a new set of teeth for yourself.’” My friend admitted he was having some doubts about the process. But then he received an encouraging message on Facebook. That was enough to keep him going. He had the procedure completed and his new smile looks great!
I’m happy for my friend. He got what he wanted, and it has certainly raised his spirits. But I must confess I was somewhat conflicted. Part of my dilemma was ethical. I wondered, “Is it even right to ask someone for help to pay for a medical procedure that would have be classified as elective rather than emergency?” But I’ve come to realize that most of my hesitancy is a matter of pride: I don’t think I could do it. I’m generally too self-reliant, too prideful to ask for help—and often I’m the poorer for it. And so I decided to help my friend.
So, what would it take to get you to beg? What would it take for you to swallow your pride and ask for help from a total stranger, a passing acquaintance, even a close friend or family member? I submit that it takes at least two things to make such a bold request. First, it takes a sense of desperation, at the very least, recognition of a great need that you are unable to fulfill yourself. And second, it takes confidence that the one you are asking is able to fulfill that need.
Streets in the ancient world were filled with beggars that accosted those who passed by. These beggars had no assured livelihood; most of them had no family network of support and could not work due to a disability. There was no government-funded social safety net. They depended upon the mercy of the well-to-do for their livelihood. There was an art to begging. From bitter experience beggars knew that they were far more likely to receive a handout if they approached people and appealed to their better nature than if they were aggressive and demanding. So they usually appealed for help by saying, “Lord, have mercy!”
It was, of course, considered shameful to beg. Respectable citizens took pride in earning a living and in having enough money to support their family. Apart from some unscrupulous con men, no one chose to become a beggar. Desperation alone drove them to seek charity from others in public—and they begged only if they had no other option.
Therefore, it’s quite surprising how Jesus describes the life of a disciple in the first beatitude of His Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3). Notice how Jesus commends spiritual poverty. The Greek word for “poor” is also the term for a beggar. Those who are poor in spirit have no spiritual assets. They have nothing to offer to God the Father; rather, they receive everything from Him. They receive the Holy Spirit as beggars who ask for what they do not have. They receive the Father’s kingdom as a gift for the sake of Jesus Christ.
This contradicts conventional wisdom. Popular piety presupposes our unrealized spiritual potential, which can be developed through spiritual disciplines. In contrast to this desire for spiritual self-improvement, Jesus teaches that we begin, continue, and end our spiritual journey with Him as beggars. We do not, as we follow Jesus, become increasingly self-sufficient. Rather, we learn, bit by bit, the art of begging. Christ teaches us to become beggars together with Him, until at our death we can do nothing but say, “Lord, have mercy on me!”
Martin Luther knew all about begging. On the evening before he died, he penned a short meditation how he had learned to understand the Scriptures through trial. His short reflection ends with the words, “We are beggars. That is true.”
Elsewhere, Luther writes that before God, we are beggars with empty sacks. We have nothing for ourselves—everything is a gift from God. This is especially true when it comes to righteousness; it’s not just that we’re generally good people who need a little more righteousness to put us over the top, but rather that we are by nature unrighteous, unholy, sinful, and enemies of God. We’ve got nothing to show, nothing to give in order to make God give us even the time of day.
But for Jesus’ sake, God fills up our empty sack. He fills us full of grace and faith, life and salvation. He fills us to overflowing. It is undeserved. It is all because Christ has died in our place, suffering the condemnation for our sin. We’re always in need of grace. In that sense, we’re always beggars.
Our Lord teaches this truth by way of a parable in our Gospel lesson for today—the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector. But as you meditate on this text, keep in mind that beggars don’t always look or feel like beggars.
Traditionally, we hear the Pharisee’s prayer as boastful, especially since Jesus tells the parable against those who treat others with contempt. We hear, “God, I thank You that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.”
Now, this Pharisee may be pompous; but he might also be earnest and sincere: “God, I’m working hard at pleasing You. It isn’t easy—it’s tough to keep Your laws! Deep down inside, I’d rather keep a little more for myself than tithe. It’s not easy to think on holy things when my eyes would rather lust and my mind think adulterous thoughts. It’s tough to fast twice a week because I’d rather be a glutton. Sometimes I envy those tax collectors who just do what they do and don’t worry. But it’s wrong—I know that it’s wrong, so I thank You that I’m not like that. I don’t want to be like him. I’m working on it, Lord.”
That’s not a pompous-sounding prayer. That’s the prayer of somebody who’s struggling with sin, who’s trying to do the right thing, trying to keep the Law. You can probably identify with the temptations he’s talking about, with the struggle he’s having. This is a good guy. He’s trying to do the right thing.
But his prayer is all wrong, whichever way he means it. It’s just that the error is far more subtle in one case than the other. If the Pharisee’s prayer is “God, you’ve got to love me more than this tax collector because I’m better than him,” the sin is obvious. We say, “He’s no better than the tax collector. He’s sinful, too. He’s not saved by his works of fasting and tithing because no one is saved by works; and he shows his pride and his lack of love by how poorly he regards the tax collector. It’s obvious why he doesn’t go home justified.”
But what if the Pharisee’s prayer is the one of the earnest, sincere guy who wants to do the right thing, who struggles with temptation and works hard to be righteous? What if it’s the good-guy-neighbor next door who’s working hard to set a good example of what it is to be a follower of God? The answer is that he still doesn’t go home justified. Why? Because as sincere and earnest as he is, he still believes that he is earning God’s love by trying hard to do the right thing. He might be a nice guy and great neighbor, but he’s still an unjustified neighbor going to hell.
Whether the prayers sounds boastful or earnest, it treats others with contempt. Blatantly or subtly, it says, “God loves me more because of what I’m doing, or at least what I’m trying to do.” Worse, though, it treats Christ with contempt. It says, “I may have needed forgiveness at the beginning, but I need less and less of Jesus’ righteousness because I’m getting better myself.”
The tax collector in Jesus’ parable has no such assumptions about himself. He’s convicted of the truth that he’s got nothing at all to make holy God help him out. He knows he’s a beggar with the empty sack. He doesn’t even lift his eyes toward heaven, but prays, “God be merciful to me, a sinner!” It’s a great, God-pleasing prayer of faith. Of himself, the tax collector says, “Here’s the sum total of who I am: I’m a sinner. There is nothing about me that deserves Your help.” Of God, the tax collector says, “Although You are righteous, you are also merciful; and so I ask that You would be merciful to me.” What a prayer of faith! The tax collector says, “I’m a beggar who’s got nothing and deserves nothing. So don’t help me because of who I am—help me because of who You are, God.”
The tax collector comes before God as a beggar, he goes home justified.
The problem with the Pharisee is his misplaced, proud reliance on his own righteousness (Luke 18:9). He is guilty of self-delusion, refusing to acknowledge his status as a beggar before God and a recipient of His gifts.
We face the same danger in our spiritual lives. It is easy for us to imagine that we are actors performing before God to gain His applause rather than beggars receiving His gifts. Nothing excites us more than the desire to do something great, achieve something extraordinary. Of course, we try to convince ourselves that we don’t do this for us but only for God! In truth, we often seek to use God’s gifts to gain spiritual kingship, power, and glory for ourselves, even as we try to say we use them for God and the growth of the Church! In the process, we become blind to the depths of our sin and the extent of God’s grace.
All too quickly our spirituality becomes an exercise in blatant self-deception and shameless self-promotion. We cover up before God and advertise ourselves as our own creation. We avoid full exposure to the scrutiny of God’s Law. We dismiss the call to repentance. We protect the old Adam from demolition and reconstruction by Christ. And all this because, like the Pharisees, we want to be approved, admired, and praised by those around us, rather than by God.
But we’ve got it all backwards. God always wants us to start where we are, rather than where we would like to be, on our spiritual journey. And where is that? Where do we begin? We are poor, miserable sinners who are justified by God’s grace. Our justification does not depend on our spiritual performance but on Christ and His performance. We can therefore admit our recurring failure to live as His holy people and people of prayer. In fact, our failure is meant to teach us to ask for what we lack and receive everything from Christ. The one who comes before God as a beggar goes home justified. And that is Good News!
You see, you came here this morning a beggar. You confessed before almighty God, your merciful Father, that you are a poor miserable sinner who justly deserves God’s temporal and eternal punishment. You repented of your sins and appealed to God’s boundless mercy for the sake of the holy, innocent, bitter sufferings and death of His beloved Son, Jesus Christ. And then Christ’s called and ordained servant announced the grace of God unto you and spoke Christ’s absolution to you in the triune name into which you were baptized.
With your fellow sinners you begged the Kyrie: “Lord, have mercy upon us. Christ, have mercy upon us. Lord, have mercy upon us.” You asked: “O Lord God, Lamb of God, Son of the Father, that takest away the sin of the world, have mercy upon us. Thou that takest away the sin of the world receive our prayer. Thou that sittest at the right hand of God the Father, have mercy upon us.” And God had mercy as He spoke His Word to you in the assigned readings for today.
Following this message, you will beg some more: That God’s name would be hallowed; that His kingdom would come among us; that God’s will would be done by us; that God would continue to give us our daily bread, that He would forgive our trespasses and enable us to forgive others their sins against us; that He would deliver us from temptation and the power of the evil one.
And the Lord starts answering that prayer immediately as He invites you to His Table: “Take, eat; this is My body, which is given for you… Drink of it, all of you; this cup is the new testament in My blood, which is shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.”
You beg some more: “O Christ, Thou Lamb of God, that takest away the sin of the world, have mercy upon us. O Christ, Thou Lamb of God, that takest away the sin of the world, have mercy upon us. O Christ, Thou Lamb of God, that takest away the sin of the world, grant us Thy peace.”
And then you come forward to receive the very body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ that strengthens and preserves you in body and soul to life everlasting. And you depart in peace according to God’s Word, having seen with your own eyes God’s salvation, which He has prepared before the face of all people.
You come here before God as a beggar; you go home justified. For Jesus’ sake, you are forgiven for all of your sins.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.