To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’
“But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’
“I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Luke sets this parable up in an interesting way, because he mentions no particular scene change, and has Jesus talking to people who are “confident in their own righteousness”; has he turned back to those Pharisees and teachers of the law, or has another group come along? Recall that we are on the road heading for Jerusalem…
Whoever it was, He tells a short parable that goes right at the attitudes of their day, that some people are “better” than others because they have achieved righteousness through their observance of a form of worship. The Pharisee in the parable is praying a prayer of thanksgiving in which he is thanking God for making him better than other people. Honestly, I cannot imagine such a thing as this; such audacity…
But this is a parable after all.
The tax collector humbles himself, acknowledges his sin and asks for God’s mercy, as well he should, as well as we all should. It is the tax collector who is “justified” before God, not the righteous Pharisee, for the tax collector humbled himself and put his trust in God, while the Pharisee exalted himself and trusted his own ability to keep the law.
All God wants from us is that we humble ourselves and trust Him. When we do so, His grace is sufficient for salvation. Yet should we exalt ourselves and consider ourselves better than others for our ability to keep the law, we will be condemned by the law and our own excessive pride. Quite frankly, to thank God for making us “better” than everyone else is to bear false witness right to God’s face.