Luke 18 gives us a parable of two men praying, one a Pharisee, the other a Publican. Publicans were looked down upon by everyone, and term "sinners and publicans" was used frequently, closing linking the two together. Pharisees, on the other hand, were holy religious men. They were showy in their devotion to their sect, and made sure everyone knew just how spiritual they were. The parable reads: Two men went up into the temple to pray; the one a Pharisee, and the other a publican. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican. I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess. And the publican, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon 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 every one that exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.
I love the mental image this parable paints. I can just see the Pharisee, clothed in fine clothing, standing tall and proud, with a look of smug satisfaction on his face, looking towards the heaven and proclaiming his superiority, and thanking God for his selfish doings. Then, off to the side, probably even behind the Pharisee, stands the Publican. I picture him as a working man, hardened by physical labor, his hands calloused and dirty, his clothing humble and worn, his demeanor that of sorrow and remorse as he reflects on what he's done. He can't even lift his eyes up to Heaven, fearing the possibility of an upset Lord looking back at him, ashamed of the deeds he's done. He pounds his chest, showing his grief, and in pure humility, not justifying his actions, not glazing over his shortcomings, but begging for mercy. Asking the God of all, a perfect, exalted man, to look down on him, a lowly, despised sinner, made filthy in the eyes of the Lord by the ways of the world, with compassion and sympathy. To show forth mercy undeserved to this man. He recognizes his sin, he feels great distress, and he wants to be cleansed of the dirt the sin has smudged on him. It's different from the dirt that gets on his clothes from walking, or from working. It's a dirt that can't be seen by anyone but himself and the Lord, and it's a dirt that can't be cleaned with merely soap and water. It's a dirt that can only come off through the blood of the Lamb. He cries unto the Lord for forgiveness. He recognizes his fallibility as a human, knowing that he's far, far from perfect, and he goes to the only one who can make him whole again, his Heavenly Father. "God, be merciful to me, a sinner." In his humility, the Lord states, he will be exalted. Let us be as this Publican, this sinner: let us always go to our Heavenly Father and say to him "God, be merciful to me, a sinner."