Luke 18:9-14 is well known parable of Jesus, in which a Pharisee and a tax collector go to the temple to pray. Luke records,
9He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: 10“Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ 13But 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!’ 14I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”
I’ll be preaching on this passage this weekend. I won’t give you my whole sermon here, but only offer what I think is Jesus’ main point. Recognizing his audience is key in determining this.
Jesus is talking to religious people who count themselves pretty holy and look down on those who, in their judgment, are not as holy (v9). Take note, Jesus is not speaking to tax collectors, prostitutes, and sinners in order to give them hope that they too can be saved just like this tax collector (that would be a nice message, but it’s not his present audience). He is rather speaking to proud religious people, in order to show them 1) that God’s grace extends to those whom they think are outside of God’s reach, and 2) that they themselves are perhaps not on as good a footing in their relationship with God as they might imagine.
What Jesus, thus, explains via the parable is this: those who justify themselves will be condemned, but those who admit their guilt will be saved. The shocking conclusion of the parable reveals it’s not the proud Pharisee who finds God’s favor, but the admittedly depraved tax collector who obtains God’s mercy. The former receives justice because he thinks himself just, but the latter receives mercy because he knows he doesn’t have a case in God’s court. As it turns out, Jesus’ message is actually quite similar to what he said on another occasion, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mark 2:17).
So, ask yourself, are you a Pharisee or a tax collector? Are you well or are you sick? Are you proud of your virtue and trust in it to merit God’s approval, or do you acknowledge your sin and throw yourself upon God’s mercy? Answer judiciously. For, as Jesus said, everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.