As Jesus taught, he confronted a common misconception about how a person becomes right with God:
"[Jesus] also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: 'Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: 'God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.' But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up 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. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.'" (Luke 18:9-14)
The fact that an irreligious tax collector would be justified in the sight of God and not the religious Pharisee would have shocked those who listened intently to Jesus' words. This would be outrageous, incomprehensible and even shameful in their sight. The truth that Jesus taught had no place in the way they viewed the world. You see, they embraced a human achievement view of salvation. They believed that they could be saved through their many religious works and moral behavior. Jesus, instead, insists that one is not justified before God by good works, but by faith in the saving work of God. Salvation comes from Divine Accomplishment, not Human Achievement.
When we read this parable in the Bible, we, too, are quick to point out the arrogance of the Pharisee. But, so many of us view our relationship with God in the same way the Pharisee did. We trust in our own moral behavior, our good deeds, even our religious actions to save us. We compare ourselves to others. I'm not as bad as so-and-so. How is this attitude any different than that of the self-righteousness of the Pharisee. We simply cannot save ourselves. We must recognize our great need for a Savior.
This is where the tax collector got it right. He recognized that his only hope for salvation was in the mercy and grace of God. He saw his own sin and was repulsed. He beat his chest and could not even bring himself to gaze into heaven. He recognized his need and begged God for mercy. May we be so wise.