He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”
Luke 18:9-14 (ESV)
Here we see Jesus laying out a parable with a specific audience in mind. This story is for those who trust in themselves that they are righteous, and treat other with contempt. The contrast that Jesus uses in this parable is striking to say the least.
We see two men at the temple to pray. The first man is a Pharisee. Pharisees were Jewish religious leaders of Jesus' day. They were very intelligent and memorized large portions of Scripture. They felt that Israel did not pay enough attention to God's laws, and that was the reason why they were in bondage to Rome. Over time, they constructed new commandments that they built as a hedge around the law of God to make sure they were obedient. Through this obedience, they received their standing and power. They would avoid anybody they considered unclean, such as Gentiles, or sinful Jews. They would especially stay away from the second man in our parable.
This other man is a tax collector. He is a Jew, but is considered traitorous by his own people. When Rome conquered a nation, they would impose a tax on the people. They would find people of that subdued nation to collect the taxes for them. These tax collectors were often greedy people, collecting more money than they should. A man could get rich off being a tax collector, but in return for these riches, he would be shunned by the community for his wicked ways.
Pharisees and tax collectors are clear opposites. Pharisees desired to follow God through obedience. Tax collectors followed their own greedy desires. Pharisees opposed Rome and hoped that by teaching their fellow Jews to obey God's laws, God would bring salvation to their nation. Tax collectors worked for Rome and cared nothing about their nation's freedom.
With all this being said, let us look at how the Pharisee prays. First, notice his posture. He is standing before God, and he is alone, most likely as close as he can get to the Holy of Holies. He then thanks God that he isn't like the sinful people of this world. Here we see the contempt he has towards others. Finally, he displays his works before God. He fasts twice a week and tithes everything he earns. I'm sure he really did do these things. I'm sure this man lived a more righteous life than either you or me.
Now how about the tax collector's prayer? His stance is much different. He is standing far off. He doesn't even lift his eyes to look to God, but he beats his breast. This is the posture of a broken spirit. His prayer is honest and simple, "God, be merciful to me, a sinner!" He knows he is wicked and needs to rely on God's mercy for forgiveness.
Then Jesus shocks His audience by declaring that the wicked tax collector will be justified, while the obedient Pharisee will not. Why is this the case? Why would a man who uses people for his own selfish gain go away justified, while the man who tirelessly works to obey God's laws does not receive justification? The answer is in Jesus' last sentence, "For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted."
This is what happens when you use the law improperly. God's law is there to point out your sinfulness. (Romans 7:7-12) But when you think you can earn God's approval by being obedient to the law, that is where you fail. This is where the Pharisee failed. You cannot earn God's approval. It has to be earned for you.
Jesus is the only one who is fully obedient to God's law. Only by the imputation of His righteousness will you be justified. When a person humbles himself, he is saying that he is low and God is high. He is saying that he is sinful and God's law is perfect. He is looking for a perfect God to show mercy to a terrible sinner.
If this Pharisee saw himself in the true mirror of the law, he would have stood further back by the tax collector and prayed the same as him. Even though that Pharisee probably sinned less than the other man, he did not look for the mercy of God. Instead he relied on his own works to save him. Any who rely on their own merit will ultimately fall short. But any who rely on Christ and His righteous work done for us will be exulted.