He spoke also this parable to certain people who were convinced of their own righteousness, and who despised all others. “Two men went up into the temple to pray; one was a Pharisee, and the other was a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed to himself like this: ‘God, I thank you, that I am not like the rest of men, extortioners, unrighteous, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week. I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far away, wouldn’t even lift up 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, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
There are those who try to become “Religious” by turning Christianity into a system of rules. Although, in this verse, Jesus is talking to the Jews about Judaism, this concept applies every bit as much to Christians. The Jews really did live in a merit system called The Law of Moses. Christianity, however, is not based on merit (except for the rewards we get for serving God on earth and receive once we get to Heaven). The Jews did have righteous acts that existed to bring them merit before God on earth but they only served to expose the sins of the people because everyone failed. There were those, however, who convinced themselves that they really deserved God’s blessing because of the righteous acts they did compared to others. Christianity has also had this problem since its earliest days.
The problem is that sometimes we fail to see ourselves as God sees us. We attempt to justify our own sin and despise all others. God sees us all as sinful and in need of special help. The apostle Paul tells us that the reason that God gave the law was to expose sin, not to teach people how to solve their own sin problem or to compare with others:
Now we know that whatever things the law says, it speaks to those who are under the law, that every mouth may be closed, and all the world may be brought under the judgment of God. Because by the works of the law, no flesh will be justified in his sight. For through the law comes the knowledge of sin.
For some, the law becomes a comparison tool that can be used to demonstrate an advantage over others instead of a way of seeing the true, sinful condition of their own souls. When the law is used properly, it causes us to realize that we are far more like the tax collector than anyone else. We are swindlers (like tax collectors), unrighteous, and adulterers in need of serious help in order to even be allowed to talk to God at all. When we come to God, we must realize that we really are bad people and depend entirely on His mercy and favor (grace) to save us. We have nothing good to offer because we have been spoiled by sin according to God.
The wonderful thing that Jesus makes clear in this story that God is ready to forgive us if we come to Him in humility. If we don’t, we can expect that God will continue humble us until we do see things correctly. It is very important for us to see things His way while we are still alive on earth so that we avoid Hell. Looking good on earth isn’t going to be worth it.