This parable is tied to the preceding parable. The word “justice” occurs 6 times! Plus the parable opens with “righteousness” (the same root word as justice), and closes with “justified” (again, same root word). When Jesus talks in the previous story about persisting in prayer, it is not the pompous, self-righteous person and prayer he is talking about. God is always looking for self-humility over self-righteousness. Our best course of action is to recognize our own sinfulness and come to God not expecting that our own works achieve anything of worth for ourselves.
“To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else…” We tend to relegate these attitudes to the Pharisees and stuck-up people, but they are far more common than any of else would like to admit. One of humanity’s common ego-defense mechanisms is self-righteousness: we tend to see good in ourselves, and all but a few of us tend to think that we are at least better than others. It’s how we justify that we’ll get into heaven without Jesus: because “I’m not so bad, and at least I’m better than that guy.” Very few people see themselves as bad, so we all need to look at the log in our own eye regarding this teaching, and not be thinking that it applies to someone else. If that’s what you’re thinking, then you are who this parable is about! It’s sort of like the song, “You’re so vain, I bet you think this song is about you.” You’re so self-righteous and looking down on everyone else that you think this parable is for them and about them, and not for you. Guess what? You already qualified yourself.
“A Pharisee and a tax collector.” Both of these men would easily qualify for “self-righteous” and “looks down on others.” Both were powerful and influential, but probably well-to-do, and both successful in their own eyes and in the eyes of the people. The Pharisee, however, was respected and society, and the tax collector despised. In any case, it will be interesting to see where Jesus goes with this story.
So the Pharisee prays, “I’m glad I’m not a bad person, like THIS guy!” He fits the bill perfectly: full of himself and his own self-righteous goodness, and looking down on others, even someone who in many respects was his peer (though an easy target). He is pleased as punch with how spiritual he is.
But then comes the surprise element in the story. The tax collector is full of remorse, humility, and repentance. I would have expected this guy to think and act just as self-righteous as the Pharisee. As I said above, both of these men would easily qualify for “self-righteous” and “looks down on others.” Both were powerful and influential, but probably well-to-do, and both successful in their own eyes and in the eyes of the people. But what Jesus is creating in this character in the story is a reasonable self-recognition of vulnerability and inadequacy, yes, of sin. Despite one’s standing in society, power, influence, success, and means, he recognized a separation from God.
Verse 14: “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” Our justification comes from God’s mercy, not from our own good works or our own righteousness. Jesus also adds a new element to the teaching about persistently praying for justice: humility is a requirement. We have to see clearly that our good works don’t achieve anything for us. Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “Christianity preaches the unending worth of the apparently worthless and the unending worthlessness of that what is apparently so valuable.” I like that. I also like what Richard Foster said: “Humility is not a ‘less-than’ type of self-abasement, but an ability to live as close to the truth as possible: the truth about ourselves, the truth about others, and the truth about the world in which we live.”