An Elephant, a Surgeon, and a Song
On Reformation Sunday you want to hear of Luther posting the 95 theses, of him standing before a king, of his dying words, "We are all beggars; this is true." We'll this year you'll hear of an elephant, a surgeon, and a song.
The parable in our text is told for elephant killers. There's a story in 1 Maccabees 6 though not Biblical is historical. The Seleucids were advancing on the forces of Judas Maccabeus atop elephants creating panic. A man named Eleazar saw one of the elephants decked in royal armor. He ran boldly to the elephant, got underneath it, and stabbed the beast from below and killed it. "It fell to the ground on top of him and there he died."
That is a noble elephant killer. Gregory the Great likened the Pharisee in our parable to the elephant killer in an ignoble way. The Pharisee really was not like others. He had killed the elephant that robbers, evildoers, adulterers or this tax collector had not. He really had overcome many temptations, but exalted with pride by these triumphs, he was like Eleazar who killed the elephant but was crushed by its falling body (Trench, 497, fn. 1).
This is who the parable is told for. People like us who have overcome outward and manifest sins. People who can say, "I don't do that anymore." This parable was not told to or for actual Pharisees. Check the context. Last week's parable on praying was told to the disciples and ended with Jesus asking when He returns will He find faith on earth? Some of the disciples would think, and maybe you're one of them, surely He'll find faith in me. Yes, we're the ones on Reformation Sunday who are confident that we have overcome all doctrinal errors and look down on everyone else. We're the ones who have stabbed the beast that on the one hand took away the Bible and on the other that took away the Sacraments, but if that beast has fallen on us and squeezed out pride we're no more saved than the Pharisee.
This parable is not just about elephant killing but about the proper way to see a surgeon, and the proper way to see a surgeon shows us what the Reformation is about. Augustine is the one who talks about this parable and the proper way to see a surgeon. He also sees that this parable is chiefly about repentance. He begins a sermon on it saying, "How useful and necessary a medicine is repentance" (ACC, NT, III, 279). The first of Luther's 95 Theses agrees saying, "When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, Repent' He willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance."
The Pharisee didn't live that way. He went before the Lord as a sick man goes to a surgeon yet foolishly hides his wound and has the nerve to point out the wounds of others (Ibid.). It's been my experience that people are always willing to confess the sins of others. Their own they think they have hidden from men and can hide from God. And they can be quite religious about it even as the Pharisee was. See how he starts by thanking God, and all that he says about himself was true. He really didn't do the bad things and did do the good.
But hidden wounds aren't harmless. David's dried up his bones; Judas' led to him killing himself. Ananias' and Sapphira's attempt to hide their sin led to God killing them. If you want to keep your sins to yourself the Great Surgeon of souls will let you do that. You can leave here with them. You can take them back home. You can die with them and then continue to die forever with your sins safe, secure, and all yours.
The tax collector went before the Great Surgeon of souls the right way showing his wounds. He doesn't confess, as the insert translates, to being "a" sinner. The Greek has the definite article. He calls himself "the" sinner as if there is no other sinner in the entire world. And he knows what so many modern people pretend not to know, that God is justly angry at him for his sins. That little lust, that little pride, that secret unbelief, that faithlessness in little things which Jesus says means faithlessness in big angers God. He is at least as angry as you are when someone cuts you off in traffic, treats you rudely, or hurts one of your kids. God is so angry that He hurt His only beloved Kid. Look, look what He was willing to do to His Son out of anger for your sins, and you think you will skate, walk, get away with them?
The tax collector didn't. He was the sinner before God and he knew God was enraged at Him. He knew God had to be propitiated. Something had to be offered to God to take away His wrath. How can I say the tax collector knew all this? Because he doesn't pray as the insert translates, "Have mercy upon me," but "be propitiated to me."
All the world knows in its heart of hearts that God Almighty is angry and must be appeased, propitiated. What do you think the Muslims are doing with their pilgrimages, their prayer postures, their five pillars? What do you think the Hindus are doing with the washings in the Ganges and Buddhists with their prayer wheels? What do you think the atheist is doing with his green living, the vegan doing with his strict diet, and the tolerant one who boasts how he can accept, embrace, defend any behavior?
Everyone knows in the dim reaches of their souls that God is justly angry and needs to be propitiated. Certainly all Christians do, but even we can go astray here. Catholicism teaches God is propitiated by a daily re-sacrificing of Christ by the priest in the Mass. Some Protestants think, and you may be one of them, that God can be propitiated by their faith.
Scripture teaches that there is only one thing that ever propitiated God. There is only one thing that ever caused God to put away His wrath against sins and sinners. There is only one sacrifice that ever paid for sins, removed them from God's sight, blotted them up, carried them away. That was the sacrifice of His only beloved Son, Jesus, on the cross. St. John says Jesus was not only the wrath removing sacrifice for our sins but for the sins of the whole world. Another John declared Jesus was the Lamb of God who carried away sins from the world. The tax collector knew he had nothing to propitiate God with. That's why his plea is in the passive. "God be propitiated to me."
And Jesus says He was right that very moment. The tax collector went down to His house justified, forgiven, with a God not angry at Him but smiling upon Him as upon an only beloved Son. You can go home that way too this Reformation Sunday. Repent of the pride over having killed elephantine sins in your life; show your wounds to the Surgeon of Souls, and you may leave here with a new "fixed song" in your heart.
"Fixed Song" is the English translation for the Latin cantus firmus. A cantus firmus is the repeated melody that forms the basis of a symphony. We all have a "fixed song" in the symphony of our lives. This is an aside but it's true; one of the functions of the liturgy is to impart a godly fixed song. All liturgy, even the contemporary non-liturgy, is doing that. It's embedding some sort of cantus firmus, some sort of repeated fixed song.
Back to the issue at hand. We all have a cantus firmus. They come not only from the liturgy but from the Devil, the World, and our fallen Flesh. We will all go to our deathbed with a "fixed song" playing and replaying in the chambers of our hearts and minds. Some will be humming, "I'm not that bad;" or, "I did my best;" or, "I'm not like other men;" or, "I've said I was sorry;" or, "I've asked Jesus into my heart;" or, "I go to church." You know what these are? The bright, glittering objects that trap the raccoon's hand in a hollow log.
Grandpa tells young Billy in Where the Red Fern Grows to place some bright objects the coon will want in a log that has a hole in it. Then he's to drive nails into the log so they slant into the hole halfway down. The coon's open hand can easily slip past the nails and reach what he wants. But his fist clenched around the object can't get past the nails. And the coon won't let that object go, so he's trapped there (56-57). If the "fixed song" you're humming attaches your salvation to what you are or aren't, have or haven't done and you don't let it go you're as trapped at that raccoon. Billy's trapped coon is to be used to train dogs. Souls trapped in judgment are lost.
Let me give you a new cantus firmus or remind you of the old "fixed song" of genuine Lutheranism. The certainty that God is at peace with you, that God is not angry with you, disappointed in you, dismayed by you is the cantus firmus that constantly echoes and reechoes everywhere in true Lutheran theology (Koberle, 61).
You hear the song in the teaching of infant Baptism. If a baby who has nothing to offer God but original sin - no good works, no good thoughts, no promises to do better, no choice to live for God - can be cleansed by the blood of Christ that the Word attaches to the Waters of Baptism, then your Baptism can save you too. You hear our cantus firmus ofpeace with God in every Absolution. Think of it. God puts in a man's mouth today the forgiveness His Son paid for on the cross 2,000 years ago. A Word of Absolution sends your sins way, way over there far from you. Hear the sweet fixed song of forgiven, restored, redeemed at every Communion service. God can't be angry with you if He willingly gives you His Son's Body and Blood to eat, to drink, to live.
Let go of that bright bauble of sin that you treasure so; let go of that bright jewel of self that pleases you so. Reveal your wound to the Great Surgeon of Souls and grab hold of the propitiating, wrath removing Body and Blood of Christ that are there for you in Baptism, Absolution, or Communion. Then go down to your house today with this cantus firmus playing and replaying in your head and heart. "I am forever justified because Jesus died to pay for my sins and rose 3 days later without them." That's what Jesus says you can hear. He says the tax collector who exposed his wound to the Great Surgeon got out from under the elephant of pride and went down to his house having been forever justified. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Reformation Sunday (20131027); Luke 18: 9-14