You brush your teeth. You check your email. You eat your lunch. You open a door. Pick up a book, turn the page…What do all of these mundane activities have in common? Besides the fact that they are things people do every day, things that most of us have done already today, they are most often accomplished using our hands. In fact, it would be very difficult for most of us to even imagine performing any of these daily tasks without…hands.
Because hands are such an indispensable part of people’s lives, it should come as no surprise that human hands also figure prominently in the events surrounding our Savior’s suffering and death. That’s why the theme for our midweek Lenten sermons this year is “The Hands of the Passion.” But the hands we will examine this evening do not belong to Judas or Caiaphas or Peter or Pilate or even Jesus. Instead, we will focus our attention on the two men the Lord describes in the parable of the Pharisee and tax collector, our gospel lesson.
The setting for this story is the temple in Jerusalem. Two fictional—but very believable—people have come to this sacred place for the same purpose (to pray), and both men begin their prayers with the same word (“God”), but that is where the similarities end. The first man is a Pharisee. He prayed, “God, I thank you . . .” That’s a nice way to begin. You or I might start a prayer out that way. Parents often teach their children to pray that way, and, if only the Pharisee would have stopped there. If only he would have said, “Dear God, I thank you. Amen.” Unfortunately, he didn’t stop there, and as he continued, he revealed that his prayer was not a prayer of thanksgiving at all.
He said, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector.” Even if the Pharisee’s hands were folded together or lifted up to the heavens in prayer, what he was really doing was giving himself a verbal pat on the back. He wasn’t a robber. He had kept the Seventh Commandment. He was no adulterer. He had kept the Sixth Commandment. The way this Pharisee saw it, he had kept all of the commandments.
Actually, that wasn’t entirely true. The Pharisee thought he had kept more than just the law. And just in case God hadn’t noticed, he provided some specific examples at the end of his prayer, “I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.” The Law of Moses required faithful Jews fast one day out of the year. This guy? Twice a week. And on top of that, he gave God back ten percent of everything he received whether he had earned it or not. And so, sure, on the surface, the Pharisee looked very good. Because of his morality, because of his generosity, other people probably looked up to him. But what about beneath the surface? What was going on inside his head…his heart? Why did he feel compelled to pray that prayer?
Luke doesn’t provide any details about the Pharisee’s motivation. Maybe the guy was so impressed with himself, so full of himself, so blinded by sinful pride that he didn’t realize how arrogant he was. Or maybe he knew himself better than he was letting on. Perhaps, he was insecure, and his prayer was meant to draw attention to the good things he had done and deflect attention away from all the good things he hadn’t done. It’s possible he wasn’t trying to convince the other worshipers in the temple of his special relationship with God as much as he was trying to convince himself.
Ash Wednesday is about acknowledging our sinfulness. Ash Wednesday is about asking God for forgiveness. On Ash Wednesday sinners look to Jesus as our only hope for salvation. But because the Pharisee was unwilling to admit that he needed to be saved, because he failed to acknowledge and repent of his sins, it didn’t matter how many prayers he prayed or how many good deeds he did. He went home empty-handed. And, what about that other guy?
Most worshipers probably didn’t even take notice of the other man who was praying in the temple. He stood at a distance. His chin was buried in his chest. He was so ashamed that he clenched his hands into fists and beat his breast. He knew what he had done. He knew what he deserved. But instead of giving up hope, he offered up a simple prayer, verse 13, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”There were no comparisons in that prayer. There was no resume of awesomeness. This was simply a person looking in the mirror of God’s law and seeing the awful truth. That tax collector saw himself for the helpless sinner that he was, and he recognized that his only hope was to plead for mercy.
His prayer was short (only seven words in English), but it was powerful because it was genuine, it was heartfelt, it came from a heart of humble faith. And the faith of the tax collector was rewarded when Jesus declared at the end of our lesson, “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Now, did you notice to whom Jesus told this parable? Jesus didn’t share this story with a specific person or class of people. The parable wasn’t addressed exclusively to Pharisees or tax collectors or his disciples. Luke tells us that Jesus was talking to people “who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else.” Do you think you would have been one of those people in the crowd confident in your righteousness, looking down on everyone else? Is this you? You know, often it’s easy. It’s easy to look at that Pharisee and to say, “Shame on you.” It’s easy to look at that crowd of self-righteous people to whom Jesus was speaking and to say, “That wouldn’t be me.”
But the truth is, the truth is, we all love to think about sins we don’t commit, and we love to ignore the ones we do. We love to quote the passages that we do well with and skip those pages that convict us and ask us to change. So, we look at the Pharisee, the tax collector, and the crowd, and who immediately do we think we are most like? The tax collector. There is no way I am the Pharisee. There is no way, I am one of those in the crowd…but do we hear ourselves? We sure sound like that Pharisee – “Thank God, I’m not like those other people!” When we complain about people who think they are better than us, aren’t we making ourselves out to be better than them? When we criticize the people who look down on the rest of us, aren’t we in a way looking down on them?
It’s easy to be the Pharisee, but to be the tax collector…requires some humility. It requires some reflection – a gut check – “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” That is who I am. A sinner. On this day, Ash Wednesday, we especially take a moment to fold our hands and lay open our hearts and confess our many sins asking God with hands of repentance to have mercy. And how does he answer our cry? How does he respond to those repentant hands begging for mercy?
There is a third person in our story. We haven’t really talked about him yet – Jesus. To be fair, he’s the one telling the story, but if anyone had a legitimate reason to boast about himself, it was Jesus. He honored his parents. He obeyed the laws of the land. He kept every commandment of God perfectly. Not for his own benefit. Not so he could boast, no. Everything he did, he did for you.
And, if anyone had a legitimate reason to not be humble, it was Jesus. As true God, he knows all and sees all and rules all, and yet he made himself nothing. He took on human flesh. He took on the role of a servant. He allowed himself to be humiliated, he allowed his hands to be nailed to a tree, to be executed, not to pay for his own sins, he had none. Everything he did, he did for you.
Because of his mercy, Jesus took your place. He lived a sinless life in your place and died on the cross in your place, to make sure that you will have a place at his side in heaven. Because of his mercy, Jesus gives you the gift of prayer. So, that you can fold your hands and call on him, and praise him, and confess to him. He will hear you. Because of his mercy, Jesus gives you his true body and blood in Holy Communion, and today when you receive that sacrament, you will receive the personal assurance of free and full forgiveness.
Because of God’s great mercy, you don’t have to be weighed down by guilt. You have a Savior. You have a place in heaven. You have his mercy, and you can leave this house of worship with humble confidence knowing you are in good hands, the best hands, God’s hands. Amen.
Note: Portions of this sermon were used by permission from NPH’s Sermon Series: Hands of the Passion