Two men walked toward the temple grounds to pray. Dust puffed from beneath the sandals of one, a Pharisee, who entered the temple holding his head high and smiling at those around him.
The other man, a tax collector, seemed to measure each step and stopped short of the temple.
While the Pharisee stood among the crowd of worshipers, he prayed aloud, “God, I thank you that I am not like other men—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector” (Luke 18:11).
The tax collector cast his eyes to the ground, beat his chest, and prayed, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner” (Luke 18:13).
Whom did God declare to be righteous?
The tax collector in this parable wasted no time disputing the Pharisee’s insult. Instead, the tax collector’s desire for God’s mercy consumed his focus and his prayer—and because of the spirit with which the sinner prayed, God declared him righteous.
If we do not understand God’s holiness or His grace, like the Pharisee, we may strut confidently into His presence, presuming ourselves to be righteous due to an inaccurate comparison of ourselves with others.
Dr. Lewis Sperry Chafer wrote a book in which he states three principles that cannot coexist with grace: human guilt, human obligation, and human merit. Human guilt demands the wrath of God, yet God cannot withhold grace because of human guilt. He does not extend grace to us with an expectation of repayment. Nor does His grace allow us to practice a formulaic faith. And if we rely on human merit to receive God’s grace, we overestimate the worth of our works apart from God, devalue the holiness of God, and underestimate God’s judicial pronouncement of imputed guilt against all sinners.
The parable found in Luke 18:9–14 is set within the context of the impending judgment of God. The Pharisee’s “culturally correct” religious position versus the tax collector’s prostrate position is one of polarities. Yet, as He did so often in His earthy ministry, Jesus inverted the two men’s positions by calling one righteous and the other unrighteous. We must compare ourselves only with God. In this way, then, we will always find ourselves humbled and absolutely dependent on God’s mercy.
Righteousness, as seen in this parable, is a gift free of struts and free of strings (Eph. 2:8–9; Rom. 6:23). With repentant faith in Jesus Christ we can receive God’s grace—and only on that ground may we approach His throne.
—Mark L. Bailey