Jesus said, “Also He spoke this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, ‘God, I thank You that I am not like other men—extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess.’ And the tax collector, standing afar off, would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 18:9-14).
The Pharisee represented those who have faith “in themselves” rather than in God (Luke 18:8, 9). This group of people felt righteous because of the scrupulous way they lived, or at least pretended to live. The Pharisaic standard of righteousness consisted in strict observance of the laws of Moses and of rabbinical traditions. It was, essentially, righteousness by works.
The Pharisees prided themselves on fasting and tithing more than the letter of the law required, thinking that God would be pleased by their voluntary efforts (Matthew 23:23). According to Pharisaic theology, a sufficient credit of claimed meritorious works would cancel out evil works. Consequently, they looked down on others and despised all those who did not acknowledge their definition of “righteousness.”
These religious leaders paid no attention to the necessity of heart love to God. They didn’t see the need to change man’s motives and goals in life. They stressed the letter of the law, ignoring the spirit of it.
Repeatedly, Jesus had warned His disciples and followers against this formalistic approach to salvation. He said, “unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20 also 16:6; Luke 12:1).
The Tax Collector
The Tax Collector represented the lowest level of individuals in the Jewish social scale. He looked upon himself as a sinner, and “went up” to confess his sins before God, to beg for His mercy, and to obtain forgiveness. He had a spirit of true humility before God and men which is one of the best proofs of conversion (Micah 6:8).
The Tax Collector’s actions testified to the sincerity of his words and gave a clear expression of his unworthiness. He felt himself unworthy even to pray. He prayed as if there were no other sinners. He was aware of his many wrong actions and like the apostle Paul, he knew himself to be in desperate need for God’s grace (1 Timothy 1:15).
Who Was Justified?
Jesus declared that the Tax Collector was accepted by God and declared righteous before Him. But the Pharisee disqualified himself from receiving the divine mercy and grace. Self-satisfaction closed the door of his heart to God’s love and robbed him from peace and forgiveness. The prayer of the Pharisee was unacceptable before God, for it was not accompanied with the worthy merits of the Redeemer (John 14:13). The Pharisee thought himself righteous but God did not think so.
On the other hand, the Tax Collector knew himself to be a sinner (v. 13), and this realization opened the way for God to pronounce him sinless—a sinner justified by divine mercy (Romans 5:1). It was the attitudes of the two men toward themselves and toward God that decided their destiny.
In His service,