Today, we once again hear the Christ speak to us, saying,
“But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’”
More faithful to the Greek, the Tax Collector says, “…atone for me, the sinner.” Not only is he asking for a sacrifice to be made in place of his sins, but that definite article back into the English does two things: 1) it suggests that the Tax Collector is not the only sinner he is praying for, but for all sinners and 2) it gives us the idea that there is someone out there with the title of “the sinner”.
In the first place, the Tax Collector places himself in the category of sinner. Meaning, he has heard the Word of God, has heard that there are such people who are sinners, and assumes that he falls into that group because of his actions in life.
He is right that he is a sinner, but he is also right in that there are lots of them. These people are the ones in need of atonement as opposed, maybe, to the righteous Pharisee.
And it is in one of our more loved hymns that we sing of this actuality. “Chief of sinners though I be” hints at these words of Jesus about atonement for sinners, but the hymn comes more directly from Jesus’ words in
letter to St. Timothy. For it’s there that we hear, “The saying is trustworthy and
deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save
sinners, of whom I am the chief.” 1 Tim. 1:15
Now, by all literary accounts, you assume
St. Paul is talking about himself. St. Paul, like the Tax
Collector, places himself under the category of “sinner”. And you are right. He
has set up all these churches, trained St. Timothy, and placed him in Ephesus
all the while being just as big a sinner as anyone else with all the anxiety
that goes with it. A humbling act on his part.
And he has ample reason to do so. In Romans, he says, “but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.” (
In order to be saved, then, the Tax Collector and
St. Paul see no choice
but to label themselves as sinners so as to be on the receiving end of
This is only half the story, however. The other half lies in the words
uses in that “chief of sinners” phrase. It could also be read this way: “the
Word is faithful and worthy of all reception, that Christ Jesus came into the
world to save sinners, of whom I AM is first.”
Note the use of The Word. It is the Word that is faithful and worthy. It is the Word that came into the world to save. It is the Word Who is the great I AM. I AM is the Name above all names, which Jesus proclaims is His own, but in this context, it means that the great I AM now becomes the chief of sinners.
“For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” Heb. 4:15-16
Now, it becomes clear that it is not just the Tax Collector and
who are “the sinners”, but as in all things, God is foremost and chief, even in
the area of sin. For, in order to atone, or make a perfect sacrifice in answer
to the Tax Collector’s prayer, God, the perfect being, must be that perfect
Though none of the sin was His own, God became man that He would then be subject to sin’s wages: death. In this death, He would be innocent and an innocent man dying demands justice. This we see in the Easter morning light.
I AM becomes the Chief Sinner so that you would become the Chief Saint. And yet, we see Jesus in both the Tax Collector AND the Pharisee. As the Almighty, Jesus is not like other men. He is wholly other. The word we use for that is holy. The phrase we use behind His back is holier-than-thou.
Thus, “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” 1 John 4:10. God the Perfectly holy and the perfectly sinful, offers this mystery upon the cross and makes not only the unlovable Tax Collector loveable, but makes a way for the self-righteous Pharisee as well.
And if these two can be given a way to forgiveness, so can we. All now fall under the love that dies on the cross and rises again. All now are categorized as sinner under The Sinner. All now are given the righteousness and perfection necessary to enter heaven, for free. All have all their prayers answered, now that the atonement for sin and death has been made in full, by Jesus on the cross.
So now as we present ourselves in the Divine Service as sinners, we receive everything Jesus has received. Not only His death, but His resurrection also. For He was made man in order to redeem His lost and condemned creatures and to continue to dwell among them in the same way, because Jesus sympathizes with us in His body. This then is the real comfort to Tax Collector and sinner alike: that Jesus has a body, still has a body, and still uses it to commune with you today all in order to bring you His salvation Himself.