20th Sunday After Pentecost
20th Pentecost 20.22 Extra Nos Luke 18:9-14
Our lectionary readings—and BTW: I do not choose these readings. Real Lutheran pastors do not preach “sermon series” on the popular issues of the moment, on what they feel like talking about, or what they think they church should hear. No. Evangelical-catholics (the term Dr. Luther and his friends apply to themselves) are guided by the universal (catholic) tradition our Lord Christ handed on through his prophets and apostles, never the whims of our own hearts.
And speaking of the whims of our hearts: in the Gospel today, we are warned in a parable of our Lord’s that trusting in ourselves that we are righteous is deadly because faith is not something in us—a quality we can discover and be confident in. No. Faith is, as Luther said: extra nos (“outside us”). Now; what does this mean?
Our lectionary-appointed readings for the previous 3 Sundays have also focused on faith. We heard how faith—like a grain of mustard seed—is enough to uproot mulberry trees and make them fly into the sea with a word and (perhaps?) a wave of the hand. We heard how a leper’s faith in the small good thing of physical health—bestowed by Jesus—put him in line for a far greater Good than he could imagine. Then, we heard about a widow seeking justice from a judge who appeared unrighteous from whom she sought justice anyway—because, she believed (with Jacob) that what we conquer are the small things, and victory itself makes us small; better to be profoundly vanquished by ever greater things—an elusive faith, our Lord says, illustrating the elusiveness with a story…
Two guys walk into a big cathedral in New York City, on a fair, fall day, to pray. One is a 1984 graduate of Concordia Seminary St. Louis, a Missouri Synod District President. He’s in NYC for a Tim Keller Growing Church Conference, and is an authority on the theology of CFW Walther. The other guy is a hedge fund manager. The District President stands up at the high altar, as Presider, and prays:
“Dear, grown-up, 6 ft. 2 in., 200 pound, six pack ab’d, super-ripped Jesus (who will judge the world in righteousness). I want to make it clear here, at the start, that I am not praying with but for the wretches of NYC—like that hedge fund manager, over yonder. I would never sully myself—as one of my colleagues in ministry did, in 2001, at a joint prayer service in Yankee Stadium—by praying with mainline Protestant liberals, or Roman Catholics, and certainly not with Jews or Muslims! Not gonna do it! And I thank you, dear, sweet Jesus, that I am not like these New Yorkers: pro-choice, Democrats, Marxists, opponents of traditional marriage, or like this hedge fund manager over in the corner, who makes unrighteous Mammon his God…(!)
“No, mighty Lord Christ! I can [like CFW Walther of blessed memory] properly distinguish law from gospel (even in the most difficult cases of casuistry) so that the faith in my heart is pure and clear Gospel Faith, which, I am certain, has made me righteous and holy, bound for heaven; which faith also makes me highly missional, which faith I seek, as your called and ordained servant, to put into the hearts of the lost and unchurched—like this poor hedge fund manager, if only he would open his heart to You and accept your saving Gospel… In the powerful Name of Jesus. Amen.”
The hedge fund manager, standing far away from the central altar, huddled in the corner of a side chapel, fetal position, on his knees on the hard stone floor, won’t even look up at the beautiful stained glass, or magnificent altar; just beats his breast saying “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”
Jesus says he went home… justified, not the LCMS DP. In Jesus’ Name. Amen.
Wait. Maybe I need to say more about this? You will reproach me, perhaps, that I have taken NIV style liberties with the text? Well, I would argue they are exegetically necessary and not liberties at all, but contextualizing so that we can hear this little story the way the original audience of Jesus would have heard it.
For us, the Pharisees are the bad guys of the bible, while tax collectors (like Matthew and Zacchaeus) we know to be good and faithful. So, this story, told as our Lord first told it, would put us in a kind of opposite land from his original audience. For them, Pharisees are the super-orthodox hyper-Waltherian LCMS District Presidents of their day—the ones we modern Lutherans would judge to be the highly pious; while the tax collectors were the lowest of the low, collaborators and profiteers off a globalist system that oppressed the working folks and rewarded those rent-seeking, scum-bag, Ponzi-scheme crooked elites.
I made the Pharisee a CFW Walther-loving LCMS District President because both make the same theological move: they trust in themselves that they are righteous. How? Well; they each find something in themselves on account of which God must do their bidding. Whether you call it “faith”, “holiness”, or “the Force” doesn’t really matter. It makes you Master and Bossgirl over God—makes you Lord, and God your servant. And that’s bassackwards; because the Eternal and Uncommon won’t be shaped by us…(!)
In the 17th century, renegade Lutherans launched a movement called Pietism that is essentially faith in our faith. It sees faith as a decision, a feeling, a way of life, a quality in our hearts which puts God in our debt and makes him do stuff for us—like saving us.
CFW Walther, the first president of the LCMS, grew up in just that kind of revival-friendly pietism. But he tweaked it, reverse-imaged it. He made “faith” the ability to distinguish law from gospel and by believing there is nothing holy in us, voila! We become holy thereby…
This is just what the Pharisee in Jesus’ parable does! He rejoices that God made him a Pharisee, helped him tithe, follow the law of Moses, etc. Many Lutherans think as long as we attribute our saving faith to God’s grace, it’s all good. No. Such “faith” is an imaginary friend. It finds something deep in our hearts that is good, on account of which God must save us. It’s trusting in ourselves that we are righteous. Jesus warns against this…(!)
Luther teaches quite forcefully against such inward-looking faith. He says faith is extra nos, outside of us. Faith never looks inward, never takes its own temperature, blessedly assured by itself. Faith looks desperately to Jesus and sees a friend of sinners, a rescuer, a redeemer…
You can look inward or outward, but not at the same time. Faith never looks inward; it isn’t self-aware, never finds goodness dwelling inside ourselves. Faith looks always, only, desperately outward—to Jesus who promises mercy to sinners. St. Paul says in I Corinthians 4—surprisingly, to many ears!—that he does not judge whether he has faith, whether he is “saved” or not.” He answers the “if you died tonight would you go to heaven?” question With “Hope so!” Not “know-so”. Only God knows, not Paul.
Wait. Did Pastor Martin just preach a sermon with a hedge fund manager as the good guy?! Well… Fr. Kev preached about a desperate guy—a guy who has looked inward and found nothing there but sin and death—a guy who shudders, looks outward, comes to church (Calvary’s Holy Mountain—metaphysically, the world’s highest!) and, from that vantage, sees… Christ, crucified.
And in that darkness, in that magnificent defeat, he glimpses… light, forgiveness, mercy. So, he cries: “God have mercy on me a sinner!”—the “Jesus Prayer” which makes him a Jesus guy—less interested in Wall Street wins than in being profoundly vanquished by God’s ever greater things. A happy guy. For Christ’s sake, Amen.