Throughout His ministry, Jesus told parables to make a point or to explain what the Kingdom of God was like. Many of His parables were directed at the Pharisees and the teachers of the law who thought very highly of themselves and looked down on “sinners” — as if they had never sinned themselves. Scripture tells us that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Romans 3:23. In the eyes of God, none of us has done any better than any other to fulfill the law.
One of my favorite parables that highlights the problem of the self-righteous is recorded in Luke:
The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector
To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody 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 up and prayed about himself: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men—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 everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” Luke 18:9-14.
In Jesus’ day, tax collectors were the worst of the worst! They were considered dishonest and greedy. But in spite of that, or maybe because of it, the tax collector in this parable was humble. He may have been dishonest and greedy, but he knew it, and he knew he could not hide his sin from God. And so he comes to the temple humbly and seeks mercy he does not deserve from a God he worshipped.
The Pharisee, on the other hand, was unable to see his own sinful nature. He didn’t see his disdain for this wretched tax collector as a sin. He had no love for others, only for himself. I suspect that he did not even love God because he only understood rules and regulations. He didn’t understand the greatest commandments of all: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.'” Luke 10:27.
I think what I really love about this parable is that I can relate to the tax collector. I know that I have sinned and that I cannot hide my sin from my heavenly Father. I know that I do not deserve God’s mercy, but I also know that because of that humble spirit He is gracious to grant me the mercy I do not deserve. For that I will worship Him always.
If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word has no place in our lives. 1 John 1:8-10.
In the parable, the Pharisee claimed to be without sin, but he was deceiving himself. He did not deceive God, for God knew what was in his heart. The tax collector confessed his sin, and so God was faithful and just to forgive his sin. No matter how good we try to be or think we are, to be justified before God we must be like the tax collector. Mercy will be granted to the humble, but the proud and self-righteous will never know God.