Turn in your Bible to Luke 18:9-14. This is one of the best known stories that Jesus ever told, but there is no possible way that I could convey this story to you with the same effect that Jesus conveyed to His original audience. When we hear Jesus talk about two men going up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and one a tax collector, we immediately think that the Pharisee is the bad guy. That's true, but Jesus’s original audience would have thought the opposite. Pharisees were highly respected in their day. If I were to begin telling you a story about a pastor and a lawyer for Planned Parenthood, you would know who the good guy was in that story and who the bad guy was. Jesus is doing something like that with this crowd. He knows that they will view the Pharisee as the hero of the story, but they've got it upside down.

Jesus tells this shocking story to drive home a hugely important truth: God's mercy is the basis on which we are forgiven, accepted, and declared just. Not even the righteousness that we do by His grace is the basis of His accepting us. I'd like to look with you at these two men and their two prayers to see two things that Jesus wants us to understand.

First let's look at the Pharisee and his prayer. This Pharisee is a man who is moral and religious, and he is grateful to God for his morality and his religion. Now, when we read this prayer, we immediately smell self-righteousness in it, and we are right to do that. But Jesus knew that His original audience would not have immediately recoiled with repugnance at this prayer of the Pharisee because there were qualities in this prayer that they would admire. They were also predisposed to admire the Pharisee, who was a layman who was part of a “back-to-God” movement that had been going on in Israel for five hundred years. He was good in his dealings with other people, faithful to his wife and family, involved in his community—an upstanding man of respect. Jesus knew that His audience would be predisposed to say, “That's a good man.” Notice three things in his prayer that they would have admired.

First of all, they would have admired his morality. Look at verse 11. He thanks God that he is not an “extortioner, unjust, an adulterer, or like the tax collector.” He doesn't rip people off in business, he doesn't cheat on his taxes, he doesn't cheat on his wife, and he hasn't betrayed his country like this tax collector who is working for the Romans and probably skimming some off of the top. Then he says, “I'm not only a moral man, but I'm a religious man.” Look at what he says. “I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.” The Pharisees fasted more often and more dramatically than many other people in Israel. Furthermore, they had gone through the Torah and discovered every tithe, and they gave over twenty-percent of their income to the Lord! Then notice how he gives credit to God when he prays. “God, I thank You that I am not like other men.” This man is not saying, “God, You saved me because I am good.” In other words, he is not saying that his salvation is by his works. We know that Pharisees prayed like this because we have other prayers like this. They gave God credit that they were moral people.

But notice two things that are wrong with this prayer. There is no sense of sin or need whatsoever in this prayer. Jesus wants that to be screaming in your eardrums. The Pharisee’s thanks to God is all about what a great guy he is. There is no sense of need for forgiveness of sins. Secondly, there is a colossal egotism in this prayer. After he thanks God, he says, “I am not like other men…I fast twice a week…I give tithes of all that I get.” This is a celebration of me! The prayer lacks a sense of a need for forgiveness and has the presence of pride all through it.

Contrast this with the tax collector’s prayer. The tax collector stands far off and, verse 13, “will not even lift his eyes up to heaven.” The normal stance for prayer in the Old Testament is eyes open, head turned to heaven, and arms outstretched. This is exactly how the Pharisee prays. But this tax collector bows his head and beats his breast, an action of penitence that would have been understood commonly to people in Israel, and he prays, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”

Notice two qualities about that prayer. First of all, there is the presence of humility and God-focused trust. Even before he opens his mouth, his head is bowed. He can't even bear to look up to heaven because he knows that he doesn't deserve heaven's blessing, but he has a great need. He's a sinner, and he needs to be forgiven of his sins if he's going to be declared just by God. So he prays, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” He recognizes his need for forgiveness of sin, and he begs God for mercy. Notice secondly that he does not ground his hope for acceptance with God on anything in him. It is turned to God. “God, have mercy on me, a sinner!”

The Pharisee was trusting in his own God-enabled righteousness, but he had no sense of sin and need in his prayer. In contrast to that, you have this tax collector who is looking away from himself and to God. It's a little ironic. When it comes to the issue of being accepted by God, the Pharisee believes that he is right with God in himself, whereas the tax collector looks into himself and says, “If that's what I am, I'm in trouble.” So he looks away from Himself to God.

What's Jesus’ point? His point is that nothing that we do is the basis for God's acceptance of us. Jesus alone is the basis for God's acceptance of us. Now you’re wondering, “You’re reading a lot into this, aren't you?” No, I'm not. Go right back to the beginning of the passage, verse 9. What is this parable about? It is about “some who trust in themselves that they were righteous and treat others with contempt.” If you think the thing that separates you from other people is that there is some goodness in you that is not in them, you will be prideful and contemptuous and arrogant. But if you think that the only thing that separates you from those who are justly under the judgment of God is in God's mercy, it will make you tender. It will make you humble. You’ll look at other sinners plunging their own lives into self-destruction, and your response will not be, “I cannot imagine someone so depraved as to do that.” You’ll say, “That's me! O God, save him, save her, just like You did me, because I was heading down that road of destruction!” There won't be any imperious contempt. There will be sympathy and mercy and a desire that others would be brought to saving faith in Christ. That's what this story is about.