To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone 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 by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—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 all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” –Luke 18:9-14
Every good story needs a bad guy, and the story of Jesus is the best story in the history of the world. So of course it makes sense that we’ve got some great bad guys. The bad guys in Jesus’ story were the Pharisees. But (and this is what makes them such good bad guys) they didn’t seem like bad guys on the outside. In fact, most people would have thought they were the good guys. The Pharisees were the people who were really serious about obeying God; they tried really hard to dress the right way, and eat the right way, and hang out with all the right people, and follow all the rules. That doesn’t sound bad, right? So what was so bad about these Pharisees?
Well, just like a lot of things in the story of Jesus, we’ve got things upside-down and backwards. You see, the Pharisees thought that because they followed all the rules, that was what made them “good.” In fact, they thought following all the rules made them better than everyone else. They didn’t realize that you could follow all the rules on the outside, but still be arrogant and angry and hateful on the inside. People just saw their outsides—how good they seemed—and were impressed. But Jesus could see into their hearts, and he was not impressed. Over and over again, Jesus called them out on their hypocrisy (hypocrisy means acting good on the outside while being bad on the inside).
One time, Jesus told them a story to try to get them to see how bad they really were. (Jesus wasn’t trying to be mean; he was trying to help them, and show them how much they needed a Savior). He told them a story about a Pharisee who was so full of himself that even his prayers were braggy, and a tax collector (remember, tax collectors were traitors and everyone hated them). Unlike the Pharisee, this tax collector knew he was a sinner who needed a Savior. So, when the tax collector prayed, he wouldn’t even lift his eyes to heaven. On his knees, with tears in his eyes, all he could pray was, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
When Jesus was done with his story, he looked the Pharisees right in the eye. “God accepted that tax collector, and rejected that Pharisee,” he said. (People probably gasped when they heard that). “Because that tax collector knew he needed a Savior, and the only kind of people God saves are the ones who know they need saving.”
Well, you can imagine how that went over with the Pharisees. They should have realized how wrong they were and begged for forgiveness like the tax collector. Instead, they got all offended. Who was this Jesus guy, they thought, to say all these mean things about them? Didn’t he realize how awesome they were? He kept exposing them for the cheap phonies they were, and they hated it. And so, instead of humbling themselves and asking for mercy, they started plotting… plotting to get rid of Jesus.