Jesus’ parable in Luke 18:9­–14 contrasts the religious pride of a Pharisee with the contrite humility of a tax collector. Notice the Pharisee’s prayer:

“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 uses the word “I” five times. His standard of comparison is other people. He trusts in his religious rituals to justify himself before God. Contrast that with Jesus’ description of the tax collector:

“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!”

The tax collector readily admits that he is a sinner. His standard of comparison is God’s holiness as evidenced by his contrite actions. He realizes that his only option is to plead for God’s mercy.

Jesus’ pronouncement that God justified the tax collector and not the Pharisee was revolutionary to His audience. People viewed the Pharisees as the ones who were closest to God because of their religious rituals and tax collectors as far from God because of their dishonest ways.

What may we learn from this parable? First, religion without faith in Christ is useless and can actually prevent people from seeing their need of Christ. In light of this, when we share the gospel we need to be clear that God’s standard is not what we see in other people. It is God Himself. Because He is perfect, His standard is perfection. 

Second, we need to be clear about how we can meet this perfect standard. All the religion in the world cannot earn God’s approval. Only by coming to God as sinners and trusting in the person and work of Jesus Christ can we be declared righteous.

(Note: This article originally appeared in EvanTell's 2012 Spring issue of Toolbox. View our Toolbox archives!)