If you died right now, would you go to heaven or hell? Most would say, “Heaven.” And many would say it was because they were a generally good person: They tried to be as nice as they could. They fed homeless people. They didn’t kill anybody. So, yeah, they deserve to go to Heaven.
But Jesus disagrees. While He walked the earth, there also was a group of people who trusted in their own righteousness. And to them, He told a parable:
10 “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.
11 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.
12 I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’
13 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!’ – Luke 18:10-13
In this parable, we see the stark contrast of two different kinds of people. First, you have the proud, legalistic person who is so self-centered and boastful that he says the word “I” five times in such a short prayer. And you have a tax collector–a man reviled among the Jews because he would overtax them and skim from the top–who was genuinely contrite over his sin. One trusts in his own righteousness; the other trusts in God’s mercy.
Who is the one who will be saved? The tax collector. Not the religious ruler.
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 18:14
This isn’t primarily a lesson on humility. It’s a lesson on righteousness and repentance. Those who exalt themselves, thinking that they’re good enough to be saved “if God exists” are misled in their thinking. The truth is, no one is good enough. All are like the tax collector, and the only remedy to our sin is Jesus Christ. Turn from your sin and trust in His mercy, and you will be saved.