To some who were confident of their own righteousness
and looked down on everybody 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 up and prayed about himself:
'God, I thank you that I am not like other men-- 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
For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted."
This parable is about the relationship between the character qualities of humility, contriteness, the fear of God, and obtaining righteousness which is from God.
These are the three essential characteristics a person must have before God will listen to him.
Of these three, Humility is most essential. If a person is humble in spirit, after honestly evaluating what the Bible says, he will be convinced that God has spoken and since he realizes that he is created by God, it would seem reasonable to the humble person to take God's word very seriously and even fearfully in light of the coming judgment. But when he evaluates himself against what the Bible says, he is convicted of sin for we know that "all have sinned an come short of the glory of God" Rom 3:23. This is the process through which God leads the humble to become righteous through the blood of Christ.
The Pharisee in this parable is characterized as one who is confident of his own righteousness and looks down on others. One application of this is that those who are confident of their own righteouness lack the humility necessary to obtain the righteousness which is from God, which Jesus offered. This lack of humility is often evident by the condescending attitude of the Pharisee while he fails to make an honest evaluation of himself. Jesus said "It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners." Mark 2:17 Not that there are people who are righteous of themselves, but there are plenty who think they are. (Notice Luke 18:18-23)
Paul teaches extensively on this subject, particularly with respect to self-righteous Jews as in this parable.
"What then shall we say? That the Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, have obtained it, a righteousness that is by faith; but Israel, who pursued a law of righteousness, has not attained it. Why not? Because they pursued it not by faith but as if it were by works. They stumbled over the "stumbling stone." As it is written: "See, I lay in Zion a stone that causes men to stumble and a rock that makes them fall, and the one who trusts in him will never be put to shame."
Brothers, my heart's desire and prayer to God for the Israelites is that they may be saved. For I can testify about them that they are zealous for God, but their zeal is not based on knowledge. Since they did not know the righteousness that comes from God and sought to establish their own, they did not submit to God's righteousness. Christ is the end of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes." Romans 9:30-10:4
His writings in Romans chapters 2 and 3 also deal extensively with this subject.
Jesus' teachings dealt with this subject quite a bit. For example, notice the next two incidents that occur in Luke 18 after he taught this parable. They deal with humility and contriteness again.
Another way of looking at this parable is to consider what it teaches about what effect the presence of God has on people who approach Him.
If a person lacks humility, the presence of God has no effect on the person.
The humble will most commonly be convicted of sin.
"In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord seated on a throne, high and exalted, and the train of his robe filled the temple." Isaiah 6:1
"Woe to me!" I cried. "I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty." Isaiah 6:5
But if one lacks humility, or you know someone who lacks this essential characteristic, how can it be obtained?
The most common way God develops humility in a person in by putting him through humiliating circumstances.
The Old Testament is full of such examples. Consider Moses, for example, who was reckoned the most humble of his time. Consider what God put him through to get him to that point. And God commonly disciplines Israel in various ways as they sin in order that they may humble themselves and admit their sin.
De 8:3 He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your fathers had known, to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD.
Another way to humiliate people is by pointing out their sin. God also does this by sending prophets. And this is what Jesus was doing when he taught this parable. However, realize that if you teach the way Jesus did, you may end of being crucified. It seems that Jesus was quite causal and unrestrained when it came to putting down the proud by pointing out their sin and even making fun of them in their hypocrisy as in this parable and very extensively in Matthew 23:13+. So it appears it's not always appropriate to "be polite" to the proud if we are to minister as Jesus did.
Edition: Jul 29,2015