And He also told this parable to some people who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and viewed others with contempt: "Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and was praying this to himself: 'God, I thank You that I am not like other people: swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all that I get.' But the tax collector, standing some distance away, was even unwilling to lift up his eyes to heaven, but was beating his breast, saying, 'God, be merciful to me, the sinner!' I tell you, this man went to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted" (Luke 18:9-12). Emphasis mine.
In Luke's gospel, we have the best and the worst of Jewish citizens praying in the temple. The Pharisee was the appointed religious leader of Israel and the tax collector was the most despised. The tax collector's in Israel were the pond scum of society because they were agents for the Roman Empire in the taxation of their own people. They were particularly loathed because in the elaborate Roman taxation system, the tax collector could keep whatever he could collect above Caesar's tax rate, and did so . . . leading to a lucrative career but further alienating themselves from others! Contempt for the Jewish tax collectors for Rome is well documented in the New Testament and in rabbinic literature. In Jewish religious life they were ritually unclean and regarded as robbers and thieves (note in the NT how often you see the phrase "tax collectors and sinners" . . . tax collector and sinner were synonymous terms).
Before we come down too hard on the Pharisee of the parable, we need to be careful and consider ourselves in this account. Note the Pharisee is crediting God's grace and thanking God for both his avoidance of unrighteous behavior and for his righteous deeds according to Jewish tradition. In the Pharisee's mind, God's grace was making him righteous in himself, which made him view others with disdain. The tax collector's presence in the temple is interesting in and of itself. He wouldn't have been allowed in the inner court of the temple where the Jewish leaders presided and where priests offered animal sacrifices to God for the sins of Israel. But the tax collector was obviously under the conviction of his sin, and went desperately to the temple appealing to God. Out of respect for the Pharisee and in acknowledgment of his own unrighteousness, he stood at a distance repenting of his sin and pleading to God for mercy. In Jesus' words, "I tell you, this man went down to his house justified (declared righteous by God) rather than the other . . . " (Luke 18:14a). Also interestingly (and wonderfully so) is the tax collector would have been seeing firsthand animals being slain for sin in the temple. In just a short time the Author of this parable would become the final sacrifice for sin as He lay down His life as the "lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!"
Essentially the Reformers stood with the tax collector, while Rome stood with the Pharisee. The Reformers called the righteous that God accepts through faith an alien or foreign righteousness. Righteousness that does not originate in us or is perfected in us, but the righteousness of Jesus Christ imputed to those who have faith in Him. The gospel is that . . . "while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will hardly die for a righteous man; though perhaps for the good man someone would dare even to die. But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us" (Romans 5:6-8). Emphasis mine.
Here's the deal: we need a perfect record of law-keeping in order to be justified by God. Despite our self improvements and growth, do we have a perfect moral record before God? The good news is that Jesus loves and justifies tax collectors and sinners, the helpless, ungodly, one's who are led to cry out to him for mercy in trusting faith. Our first NT gospel was written by a former tax collector named "Levi" who became Matthew at Jesus' calling. An inevitable question of application is: how do we view God's act of justification? Is is something that begins or is developed in us through performance? Or is it the gift of Christ's righteousness given to us through faith alone in Him? The Reformers argued the latter against Rome. Let's listen to R. C. Sproul to get further insight on sola fide.
Great blog post by Tullian Tchividjian on the infinite merit of Christ vs. self-performance
Short blog post by Martin Downes . . . note the tax collector calls himself the sinner in Jesus' parable