In the time of Jesus, people hated tax collectors. Admittedly, tax collectors can be unpopular today, but nothing like what it was back then.

The Jews saw tax collectors as collaborators, for these men worked with the Roman occupiers of the Jewish homeland. In addition, the tax system left plenty of room for corruption, and tax collectors had earned a reputation for dishonesty.

Because of this, taxmen couldn't testify in Jewish court. They couldn't participate in the synagogues. Because of their constant contact with non-Jews, they were considered to be unclean; even their money was seen as tainted and couldn't be used for charity work.

There was a group of people at the other extreme of Jewish society. They were religious leaders known as the Pharisees. They were strict adherents to God's Law, zealously studying the Scriptures to see what God wanted them to do. They looked down on everyone who didn't do what they did.

Jesus told a story about a Pharisee and a tax collector. It goes like this:

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 18:10-14)

Sometimes I hear people describing others and saying, "They are faithful Christians." What they mean is, those people regularly attend church services and don't commit obvious, public sins.

The Pharisee in this story would fit that description. Yet Jesus wants to remind us that performing a series of religious acts doesn't make us right with God. Our attitude matters. What the Bible calls "the heart." While men look at the outside, God looks at the heart.

Performing a series of religious acts doesn't make us right with God
So even if we're what the world considers "sinners," we can be right with God. We need to go to him with faith and humility. We must recognize our sin and accept his forgiveness. We participate in a symbolic death, burial, and resurrection through baptism. And we let God's Spirit lead us as we live our new life in Christ.

Now here's a secret… even Pharisees can do the same! Whether we're living a moral lifestyle or a sin-filled life, God's offer of salvation is available to us all. I'd love to share more with you. Just write to me at tarcher@heraldoftruth.org.

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