9 Then Jesus told this story to some who had great confidence in their own righteousness and scorned everyone else: 10 “Two men went to the Temple to pray. One was a Pharisee, and the other was a despised tax collector. 11 The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed this prayer[b]: ‘I thank you, God, that I am not like other people—cheaters, sinners, adulterers. I’m certainly not like that tax collector! 12 I fast twice a week, and I give you a tenth of my income.’
13 “But the tax collector stood at a distance and dared not even lift his eyes to heaven as he prayed. Instead, he beat his chest in sorrow, saying, ‘O God, be merciful to me, for I am a sinner.’ 14 I tell you, this sinner, not the Pharisee, returned home justified before God. For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Tax collectors were among the most hated members of society in the time and place Jesus told this story. They worked for the occupying Roman government that oppressed their freedoms. Even worse, they frequently over collected and pocketed the differences for themselves. They were despised, rejected, and certainly not on anyone’s “most spiritual” list.
The Pharisees were the religious experts of the day, and had been for generations. They wielded incredible power and influence. They knew their Scriptures inside and out, but missed the point. Jesus so threatened their world view and control that they eventually called for his death. He aimed this parable at “some who had great confidence in their own righteousness and scorned everyone else”–people just like them.
The tax collector in the story understood his deep need; he got it. The only thing he could truly bring to a perfect and holy God was his own sin and need for mercy. He was too ashamed to even look up toward heaven when he prayed. No one in the temple or even the country would have picked him as God’s favorite over the Pharisee.
But he was the winner in the only contest that mattered. He was the one that went home justified. God rejected the arrogance, false piety, and works done for show of the Pharisee, and justified an outcast of society who had enough spiritual sense to recognize his own need.
The word justified is a legal term that implies one was guilty as charged, but then viewed as if they had never even committed a crime. J.I. Packer described justification as “the truly dramatic transition from the status of a condemned criminal awaiting a terrible sentence to that of an heir awaiting a fabulous inheritance.”
The tax collector went home broken and humble but completely accepted by God.
The Pharisee went home entirely convinced of his right status before God. But he was completely wrong. His good works didn’t impress God. His misplaced confidence and self-delusion blinded him and endangered his very soul.
God was moved by the humble heart of the tax collector. The Pharisee knew the Scriptures, but the tax collector (without even realizing it) lived them out. And that was better.
“God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (I Peter 5:5/James 4:6)
Who are the modern day “tax collectors” of our society?
Who are our modern day “Pharisees”?
Are you overconfident or not confident enough of your own righteousness before God?