Finding a way to be right with God
Jesus said and did many things that can be deeply offensive to people. This is true not only in our own generation, but it was also true in the first century as well.
One area where we see this is with respect to how one can be right with God. In Luke 18:9-14, Jesus gives a parable of two people, a Pharisee and a tax collector, who went to the temple to worship.
In this parable, Jesus challenges our notions of righteousness. To his original hearers, the Pharisees were the very model of righteousness. They were zealous in their adherence to the law of God and they were confident that the Lord would accept them because of their obedience to it. But the same attitude depicted in the Pharisees can surface in many people’s beliefs about God today. It is popular to assume that as long as we follow the golden rule (as best we can), then the Lord will be pleased with us.
The second character that Jesus mentions is a tax collector. A tax collector was someone who was employed by a wealthy merchant to collect Roman taxes from his fellow Jews. He was regarded as a traitor and as a thief because once they had collected their required quota from their fellow Israelites, they were free to keep any surplus for themselves. For those listening to Jesus’ story, it was apparent who was right with the Lord and who was not.
As these two men assemble for corporate worship in the temple, Jesus describes how each of them prayed. The Pharisee prayed to the Lord, but it was prayer that reflected a heart of pride and self-righteousness. He thanked the Lord that he was not like other people, robbers, evildoers, adulterers or even the tax collector. In other words, God should be pleased with him because of what he had done in life.
But Jesus contrasts this prayer with the tax collector whose prayer is marked with confession and humility. He beats upon His chest because he knows that he is guilty before the Lord. He says, "be merciful to me, a sinner (Luke 18:13)." When he asks the Lord to be merciful, he is asking that the Lord’s anger be removed. He is saying these words in the temple at a time when an animal sacrifice would have been made for sin according to the Lord’s command. In essence, he is saying, "let that sacrifice cover my sins!" He was looking in dependence to the Lord to provide what He needed. These animal sacrifices, though, were but pictures that pointed forward to what Jesus, as the true lamb of God, would accomplish ( John 1:29; Heb. 9:26).
What’s so offensive about this parable that Jesus taught is that He says that the tax collector, not the Pharisee, went home with his guilt removed and right in God’s sight (Luke 18:14). Jesus teaches that my right standing before the Lord depends not on what I have done, but whether I have looked away from myself out of sense of my need to the Lord and His mercy in Jesus Christ. The good news is not that good people go to heaven, but that even though none of us are good, when we trust in Jesus Christ, we are righteous in God’s sight. Whereas so many religious faiths teach that the solution to our greatest problem is to look within, Christianity teaches that the solution to the evil within is to look outside ourselves to the work of the Lord in Jesus Christ.