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, NIV84)
The key theme of these verses is “righteousness.” So that begs the question, “What does it mean to be righteous?” From a worldly perspective it means to be a pretty good guy (like the Pharisees). Outwardly, the Pharisees were very legalistic and obedient to their beliefs. This is why it was so easy for the Pharisee in Jesus’ parable to compare himself to the tax collector and conclude, “God, thank you that I am not like … this tax collector.” The outward appearances between their two lives would have been glaringly obvious. But notice the perspective of the Pharisee’s petition. He thanked the Lord that He was a good man. He went to God with his own righteousness. And although it was a pretty good life, it certainly did not meet up with God’s requirement of perfection. The Pharisee’s righteousness meant nothing to God and was useless to him.
But the tax collector is a different story. He would readily admit a flawed life. He didn’t go to God with his own righteousness (he didn’t have any). He went to God with his sin, seeking from God His mercy and forgiveness. He was seeking to be cleansed by God. He was a “sick” man who went to the Great Physician for healing. And what did He receive? Exactly what he asked for! He received God’s love, mercy, grace, and forgiveness, because he went to the Lord with an honest heart. Jesus told the Pharisees, “I tell you, this man rather than the other [the Pharisee] went home justified [righteous] before God.” Our story, like that of the tax collector, is one of God’s hearing our honest plea for mercy, and although we are unworthy, God sees fit to honor us with His righteousness.