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God’s Word for You

Luke 18:13 … and the tax collector

by Pastor Timothy Smith on Thursday, December 6, 2018

13 The tax collector stood some distance away. He did not even want to raise his eyes toward heaven, but he beat his breast and said, ‘O God, be merciful to me, the sinner.’

The Pharisee in the parable had claimed he wasn’t like this tax collector, and he was right. The Pharisee stood in the middle of the people in a conspicuous place, but the tax collector stood at a distance. The Pharisee looked up to heaven (the usual posture for prayer in those days), but the tax collector couldn’t bring himself to do the same. The Pharisee listed off his achievements, but the tax collector simply asked for mercy. Which one would you rather be like?

In his self-righteous faith in ‘me,’ the Pharisee lumped all of the Bible under a single doctrine: Law. For him, the Law was fulfilled in himself. He had no room in his faith for a Savior. He had nothing left to do but praise God for his own glorious self. The tax collector was all too aware of the role of the Law of God in his life. The Law pointed its finger at him and said, “sinner.” But the tax collector also understood that in God there is compassion, patience, grace, and mercy (Jonah 4:2). Crushed as he was by the Law, he could only ask God for mercy.

Both men found God to be great and glorious. But where one man thought that he helped God out and made God shine just a little more brightly, the other man fell down before God and begged for mercy. He knew that God’s glory is precisely in his mercy. As Augustine once said, “The man who truly understands God’s grace is the man who has sinned much.” He knows what he has to repent over, and he repents. He repents with his whole life.

I don’t think that my translation of the final phrase, “the sinner,” should replace all others. I only want to point out that when the tax collector said, ‘Have mercy on me, a sinner,’ he used the Greek article to say, ‘the sinner.’ This is something we should notice. The presence of the definite article in Greek serves as a kind of pointer. It answers the question, “Which one?” with “This one.” It shows a thing that is known or even well-known. So, when the tax collector begs, ‘Be merciful to me,’ he adds, ‘the sinner.’ He is saying, “I know who and what I am. I don’t deserve to ask this, but I’m asking, begging, because I have nowhere else to turn, no one else to turn to. I have no hope at all except in you, O God.”

The Pharisee in each one of us that looks down at sinners we think are worse than us needs to learn that one sin is not more shocking than another, or condemned more than another, but it is the lack of faith. It is unbelief that damns (Mark 16:16). On the other side of that coin, it isn’t the glorious appearance of a man, his life, or his clothes that matters to God, but the blood of Jesus that purifies us from all sin (1 John 1:7). Do not put your faith in yourself, but in your Savior. Jesus Christ “gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his own, eager to do what is good” (Titus 2:14). So be comforted by Jesus, and trust in him. “No one,” David sings, “will be condemned who takes refuge in him” (Psalm 34:22).

In Christ,
Pastor Timothy Smith

Pastor Tim SmithAbout Pastor Timothy Smith
Pastor Smith serves St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in New Ulm, Minnesota. His wife, Kathryn, attended the Chapel from 1987-1990 while studying Secondary Education (Theater and Math) at UW-Madison. Kathryn’s father, John Meyer, was also the first man to serve as a Vicar at Chapel.

To receive God’s Word for You via e-mail, please contact Pastor Smith.

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