9 To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable: 10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 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. 12 I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’13 “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.’
14 “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.”
We have come to know the Pharisees as the religious elite of that day. They were really sticklers about following all of the law, including their traditions, and were quick to judge those who swayed in one iota. On the other hand, the tax-collector, also known in some translations as the Publican, was a person despised by almost all his countrymen. His responsibility was to collect the Roman taxes, and he made his living by charging more than the necessary tax. The tax-collectors were notorious for being cheats, liars, and swindlers.
Thus the stage is set for the Pharisee and the tax-collector who were both at the temple to pray. Jesus, in telling the parable, says the Pharisee stood and prayed about himself, thanking God that he was not like other men. He even mentioned several groups, including robbers, evildoers and adulterers. Then his self-righteousness led him to continue in his prayer, "Lord, I am even glad I am not like this tax -collector." The Pharisee's prayer ended with him assuring God how good he was, by fasting and giving.
The Pharisee in his prayer reminds me of the parable of the lost son that Jesus had told. After he had wasted his inheritance and was living with the pigs, he came to himself and returned home. His older brother expressed jealousy over the rejoicing of the father which welcomed home his lost son. Like the Pharisees, the older brother considered himself the loyal son, not like his brother that had left home and ruined his life. The older brother was faithful, kept the rules of home, and worked harder for the father.
Are we like the Pharisees at times?....reminding God how faithful we are, how good we are, how hard we work for him? We are so glad we are not like the sinners that surround us. Those who in disobedience are the guilty ones are the ones we want to keep at a distance.
The tax collector, realizing his sinfulness, unable to even glance toward heaven, prayed, "God, have mercy on me, a sinner." Jesus teaching went on in Luke 18 to inform his listeners that even more than rule keeping and adherence to religious laws, I want you to be people of love and mercy. Those who recognize their need for God, are also those who are confessing they cannot make it alone. That's why Jesus said that day, it was the tax-collector who when home justified.