In Luke 18:9-14, Jesus taught a parable which contains the words that have developed into what is called the Sinner’s Prayer. This parable is in a series of lessons which Jesus boldly taught in the presence of Pharisees and other religious leaders, “…who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others…”
Earlier, in Luke 14:3, Jesus had asked them, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?” But they wouldn’t even answer Him. In 15:2, the Pharisees and scribes were aghast with Jesus, that He would stoop so low as to eat with sinners and tax collectors. Later, Jesus told the parable of the unjust steward, and taught that “No servant can serve two masters…You cannot serve God and mammon. Now the Pharisees, who were lovers of money, also heard all these things, and they derided Him.” (Luke 16:13, 14) The word “derided,” in the Greek, literally means that they turned up their noses and ridiculed Jesus. Since Jesus regularly taught in synagogues, or at the temple in Jerusalem, Pharisees and other religious leaders were always present. Although there were a handful of good-hearted men, many of these people were greedy and self-righteous. This never intimidated Jesus.
“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, ‘God, I thank You that I am not like other men—extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess.’”
The Pharisee prayed pompously with himself, reminding God of just how holy a man he was, not like other men, men like the tax collector standing nearby. Tax collectors were considered repugnant because they were employees of Rome, government workers who notoriously cheated their own people, overcharging and skimming off the top of the taxation money and pocketing it for themselves. The Pharisee also reminded God that he skipped breakfast twice a week, and gave ten percent of his assets and likely not a penny more.
“And the tax collector, standing afar off, would not so much as raise 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…”
The tax collector bowed his head, and beat his breast, perhaps in an expression like Paul’s in Romans 7:24, “O wretched man that I am!” He didn’t remind God of what God already knows, but simply exclaimed, “God, be merciful to me a sinner!” Jesus said that this man was more righteous in God’s sight than the proud and puffed-up Pharisee.
“… for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
Somehow the Pharisee, so well-versed in the Law of Moses, must have disregarded some of the Proverbs that condemn pride, such as 16:5: “Everyone proud in heart is an abomination to the Lord.” Proverbs 29:23: “A man’s pride will bring him low, But the humble in spirit will retain honor.” And Proverbs 3:34: “Surely He scorns the scornful, but gives grace to the humble.” James understood what Jesus taught, and so did Peter. “God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” (James 4:6) “Therefore humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you in due time.” (1 Peter 5:6)
Paul addressed this prevalent problem among the legalistic Jews, many of whom incessantly attempted to damage his ministry. Referring to Israel, Paul wrote, “For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge. For they being ignorant of God’s righteousness, and seeking to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted to the righteousness of God.” (Romans 10:2, 3) This is still a common difficulty today, certainly among people who follow false gods, but sometimes even among Christians.
Being inflated with what is really a false sense of worth is foolish and condemned in Scripture. To trust in ones own self-righteousness is deception. Humility is required to be submissive and obedient. Obedience to God is literally doing God’s Word with a heart of love and reverence for Him. In the Amplified Bible, Romans 12:16 teaches this lesson succinctly: “Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty (snobbish, high-minded, or exclusive)… Never overestimate yourself or be wise in your own conceits.”