He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and looked down on everyone else: “Two men went up to the temple complex to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee took his stand and was praying like this: ‘God, I thank You that I’m not like other people —greedy, unrighteous, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of everything I get.’“But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even raise his eyes to heaven but kept striking his chest and saying, ‘God, turn Your wrath from me—a sinner!’ I tell you, this one went down to his house justified rather than the other; because everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” Luke 18:9-14 (HCSB)
I knew this parable. I knew for a long time. I heard and read this passage many times. But until today, my understanding of this parable was quite off the mark. All this time, I thought the meaning of this parable was about condemning religious hypocrisy. But today, I was privileged to listen to two different sermons by two different men from my church on this same passage. And both corrected my faulty understanding and hammered in the gospel of grace into me through this passage. You see, Jesus was telling this parable to those who trusted in their own good works (v.9). Those who tried to earn a good standing with God by their own efforts. Those who were confident that they were righteous before God because they were doing so many good things. By this parable, Jesus was turning their world upside down. He was saying, and He is saying to all of us even today, that we can never be right with God by our own efforts, yet, at the same time, that God is happy to declare us righteous when we recognise our sins and appeal to Him for mercy.
How does or can God forgive a sinner when even a morally upright person like the Pharisee isn’t good enough for Him? You may or may not be clear on how this works, but if you are wondering, you should keep on listening to this man, Jesus who told the parable.