When Jesus wanted to tell a parable about the condition of someone’s heart, he chose a story about two people praying: a Pharisee and a tax collector (Luke 18:9-14).
Pharisees were the religious elite. They fasted twice a week. They tithed. They prayed regularly. They were serious about their faith. Mothers wanted their children to be Pharisees.
On the other hand, a tax collector was known as a traitor of his people. They would tax their own people for Rome and hike up the rates to line their own pockets. They were despised.
And in Jesus’ story, the tax collector is the one who goes home justified.
The Pharisee celebrated his own goodness, boldly declaring what he was not and what he was before God. He never really prayed to God; He merely spoke about himself to himself and gave the impression that he was praying. Because he believed he could actually take his stand before God in his own merit, he looked down on others (verse 9). There is a deep connection between self-righteousness and a disdain for others. If we look down on others it is a good indication that we think something in us, of our own doing makes us better than someone else. Because he was filled with himself, he went home unjustified and unsatisfied.
The tax collector mourned his own sinfulness. He stood humbly outside the temple, placing himself in the Court of the Gentiles – though he was Jewish. He had a keen sense of his sinfulness in light of God’s holiness. Augustine wrote of this man, “because he regarded himself as far from God, the Lord regarded him as near.” He beat his chest and begged for God’s mercy, begged for God to turn his wrath from him. When he begs God for mercy, he uses the word hilaskomai, which is the word often translated propitiation. Propitiation speaks to God’s wrath being satisfied. He understands God’s holiness, his own sin, and he begs God for one of the sacrifices in the temple to bear God’s wrath instead of himself.
And he goes home justified. Jerry Bridges said, “Justified” is not “Just as if I’d never sinned.” That is a great truth. But it is actually better than that: “Just as if I’d always obeyed.” God has credited the very righteousness of Jesus Christ to every believer. He went home as if he had always obeyed every one of the commandments that were on the tablets inside the temple. He went home as if he had always lived perfectly.
Jesus is our lamb of propitiation. And He is the one who has declared us righteous. (Romans 3:25-26)
But we must wrestle with our own prayers and our own hearts. Are we more like the Pharisee or the tax collector? Do we think we can stand before God on our own merit? Or are we continually grateful for Jesus who absorbed God’s wrath in our place, removed our sins from us, and declared us perfect?