The overall theme for the 2021 Lenten sermons is “The Hands of the Passion.” When we consider Jesus and the people around him in his Passion, we can’t help but think of their hands—the hands that beat their breast, accepted money for betrayal, petulantly swung swords, pointed in accusation, beat and disavowed, praised, washed, were pierced, and offered eternal life. In short, we can’t help but think about how we sinners have had the same sinful hands of those who surrounded Jesus in his Passion, and how Jesus our Savior has touched us with his hands of grace.
Worship is in person and online: 7pm Wednesdays February 17-March 24
NOTE: NO LIVE INPERSON OR ONLINE WORSHIP FOR WEDNESDAY, FEBRUARY 17
February 17: Hands of Repentance (Tax Collector)
Sermon Text: Luke 18:9-14
9 To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: 10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’
13 “But 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.’
14 “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.”
Brushing your teeth. Checking your e-mail. Eating your lunch. Opening a door. Picking up a book. Turning a 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 them.
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 gospel lesson for Ash Wednesday.
The parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector is a familiar story, but as we study this account again, as we imagine what these men looked like and what their prayers sounded like, I want you to do something you have probably never done before. I want you to picture their hands. I want you to make a connection between the actions of their hands and the attitudes of their hearts. And based on what you see, I want you to apply what you observe to your own life, to appreciate and embrace what it means to have . . .
Hands of Repentance
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. Pharisees were the spiritual elite of Jewish society. Pharisees were always quick to seize the moral high ground. They were more reverent and more obedient than their fellow Jews, and this particular Pharisee wanted everyone else in the temple to know it.
He prayed, “God, I thank you . . .” (v. 11). It was such a beautiful beginning. You or I might start a prayer that way. Christian parents teach their children to pray that way. 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” (v. 11). Even if the Pharisee’s hands were folded together or lifted up to the heavens (1 Ti 2:8) 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 the Pharisee saw it, he had kept all of the commandments.
Actually, that wasn’t entirely true. The Pharisee didn’t believe he had merely kept the law. He was convinced that his obedience went above and beyond the requirements of 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” (v. 12). The Law of Moses required faithful Jews to fast one day out of the year. He fasted two days out of every week. And on top of that, he gave God back ten percent of everything he received whether he had earned it or not.
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? What was in his heart? Why did he feel compelled to pray that prayer?
Luke doesn’t provide any details about the Pharisee’s motivation, so anything we come up with will be speculation. It is possible that he was so impressed with himself, so full of himself, so blinded by sinful pride that he didn’t realize how arrogant he was. Or perhaps he knew himself better than he was letting on. Maybe he prayed that proud prayer to mask his insecurity. Maybe he drew attention to the good things he had done to deflect attention away from all the good things he hadn’t done. Maybe 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.
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, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner” (v. 13).
The tax collector didn’t try to compare himself to the really bad people to make himself look good. He didn’t put together a resume of all the good things he had done to make himself look and feel better. Instead he stared at himself in the mirror of God’s law. He saw himself for the helpless sinner that he was, and he recognized that his only hope was to plead for mercy.
It wasn’t a long prayer (only seven words in English), but it was powerful because it was genuine, because it was heartfelt, because it came from a heart of humble faith. And the faith of the tax collector was rewarded when Jesus declared, “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” (v. 14).
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” (v. 9).
As you look out into that crowd of people, can you identify anyone who fits that description? Maybe the classmate in school who is always talking about how great she is. Maybe the coworker who is constantly trying to tell you how to do your job. Maybe the friend whose annual Christmas letter feels like an excuse to brag about his family. Or when you examine the faces in the crowd more closely, do you see someone who looks a lot like you?
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 our noses at them? We would never stand up in the front of church and call out another worshiper like the Pharisee did, but would God have the right to judge us for the way we pass judgment on each other in our hearts?
Because it is so easy for us to think and act like the Pharisee, we need to imitate the example of the tax collector. We need to fold our hands and lay open our hearts. Not just on Ash Wednesday, but every day we need to confess, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
And then we need to take one more look at this story and remember that there is actually a third person in this parable, the person who told it. 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 that he would have something to boast about. Everything he did, he did for you.
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 the Creator of all things made himself nothing. He took on human flesh. He took on the role of a servant. He allowed himself to be humiliated and ultimately executed, not to pay for his own sins, because he had no sin. 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. You can talk to him anywhere, anytime, about anything. And you have his promise that when you pray he will hear you and answer you and always, always do what is best for you.
Because of his mercy, Jesus gives you his true body and blood in Holy Communion, and when you receive the sacrament, you 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. Because of his mercy, you have absolutely nothing to fear. Your Savior will be with you as long as you live. You know where you are going when you die. You can leave this house of worship with humble confidence because you are in good hands. You are in God’s hands. Amen.
NEXT MESSAGE THEMES:
February 24: Hands of Betrayal (Judas)
March 3: Hands of Misguided Zeal (Peter)
March 10: Hands of Hypocrisy (Caiaphas)
March 17: Hands of Brutality (Soldiers)
March 24: Hands of Self-Preservation (Pilate)
April 1 (Maundy Thursday – 7pm): Hands of Humility (Jesus)
April 2 (Good Friday – 7pm): Nail-Pierced Hands (Jesus)