He then addressed this parable to those who were convinced of their own righteousness and despised everyone else. "Two people went up to the temple area to pray; one was a Pharisee and the other was a tax collector. The Pharisee took up his position and spoke this prayer to himself, 'O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity - greedy, dishonest, adulterous - or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week, and I pay tithes on my whole income.' But the tax collector stood off at a distance and would not even raise his eyes to heaven but beat his breast and prayed, 'O God, be merciful to me a sinner.' I tell you, the latter went home justified, not the former; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted."
"He then addressed this parable to those who were convinced of their own righteousness and despised everyone else." (cf. verse 9)
It is interesting that in the various gospels Jesus always brings us back to this particular fundamental attitude, which is also expressed here: that we must and can expect everything only from God. In this gospel, therefore, Jesus addresses those who trust in themselves. In Greek, the word "perfect" is used here, which means that these people have always trusted only themselves in their lives, now and in the future: their works are their guarantee that God will give them the great reward they deserve.
But this attitude, this "bacillus", is in all of us. We, too, always expect eternal reward from our own works and do not ask for it as a gift from God. In us, too, there is this secret tendency to present our own activities, our own actions, to God, like the Pharisee. We constantly reproach God for our good deeds and want to compel him - as a sort of quid pro quo for what he owes us - to act in a certain way. Even in our prayers to God, we often invoke our own performance and thus feel ourselves to be, as it were, equal negotiating partners, equal to God.
This is obviously a totally wrong view of our relationship with God. The one who thinks like this despises the one who cannot show the same qualities as him. It goes very fast. If we try to live seriously as Christians, we will notice how quickly we are in danger of despising others who apparently do not "do" the same as we do before God. We then take our own presumed righteousness as the standard for others. But in so condemning others, we ultimately condemn ourselves. Therefore, we should always examine ourselves very carefully in our hearts about this!
"Two people went up to the temple area to pray; one was a Pharisee and the other was a tax collector. The Pharisee took up his position and spoke this prayer to himself, 'O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity - greedy, dishonest, adulterous - or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week, and I pay tithes on my whole income.'" (cf. verse 10-12)
So Jesus takes the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector as an example here. They both have the same goal, namely the temple; they both have the same will - they want to pray there - and they both even have the same desire, to be able to exist before God. And both are convinced of their prayer before the God who knows. The Pharisee, prays:
"God, you know what I do for you, so please take it into account in your final judgment"; the tax collector also prays: "God, you know, how pathetic I am. Have mercy on me. They both stand in their own way, full of conviction, before the eternal God.
By what he says, the Pharisee betrays his inner attitude, his own righteousness and contempt. These two things, self-righteousness and contempt, are in a way microbes that are also in our hearts. If we do not admit it, it is because we have not yet recognised ourselves. Without self-knowledge, there is no path to holiness. We must be honest with ourselves.
The Pharisee in the parable even performs works of supererogation, that is, not only what he has to do according to the law. The law requires fasting on the day of atonement, but he fasts twice a week. In this passage from the prayer, it is very clear that he has already forgotten God in his prayer and that only his self is still in the foreground. We too should examine our own prayer life: morning prayer, evening prayer, during the day, worship, etc. Who is in the foreground in our prayer? Is it God or is it my own self?
"But the tax collector stood off at a distance and would not even raise his eyes to heaven but beat his breast and prayed, 'O God, be merciful to me a sinner.'" (cf. verse 13)
In Jesus' Judaism, a publican was considered a public sinner, because he worked for the Gentiles, i.e., for the Romans. Moreover, he swindled people, often adding to the amount actually due in order to make a profit.
The publican in the parable knows that he is excluded from the Jewish community. He does not even look up to heaven and bemoan his fault. He repents of his evil deeds, but humanly speaking, his situation is hopeless. For according to the teaching of the Pharisees, if he wants to repent, he must return everything he has wrongfully acquired in order to obtain forgiveness. But most of these things he has of course spent to live on. How then can he return all that he has asked for too much? Where can he take it without cheating again? According to the teaching of the Pharisees, a return to the worshipping community was therefore practically impossible for him. He could only hope for God's mercy so that everything would be given to him. He had no other hope.
This is the extreme difference between the two prayers: the Pharisee almost makes a case to God for all that he has done and how good he is. The publican, on the other hand, is completely desperate. He cannot repair any of his misdeeds by himself. He is totally dependent on God's mercy. And that is the crucial point.
"I tell you, the latter went home justified, not the former; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted." (cf. verse 14)
In Jesus' formulation, "I tell you...", it is clear that he is now defending a position that runs counter to the opinion of his hearers: it is not the Pharisee, who scrupulously follows the law from A to Z and beyond, and does good works, but the sinful publican, who stands hopelessly outside the Jewish worship community, who is justified. For justification comes from God. The publican was totally dependent on God, expected everything from God and also received everything from him. This righteousness is a gift from God - justification, forgiveness, mercy - and cannot be earned by one's own efforts.
This idea runs through the whole of Scripture. What we do is an expression of our love. However, in our love for God, we can never do enough, for God is infinitely merciful. Love is the only thing that, humanly speaking, corresponds to what God gives us. Only those who understand this, that righteousness, justification and salvation are gifts from God and not personal efforts, stop despising others, because they know that if they repent, God will offer them everything too. He knows that he too is absolutely dependent on God's mercy. On the other hand, he who places his trust in himself alone elevates himself. He makes himself God, because he considers his works to be as valuable as God's works.
But he who recognises his own inadequacy and puts himself on the level of others will be exalted, says Jesus. This is in principle the content of Mary's Magnificat, and it is what is very clearly palpable in the lives of all those who have followed Christ seriously - whether they have been canonised or not. They have deeply and totally recognised their own inability and expected everything from God, so that St Vincent Pallotti can say, "I am nothing and sinful, but now that I am the greatest sinner, you can make me the greatest miracle of your mercy." This is the fundamental attitude we encounter again and again in the Gospel, and it is the quickest path to holiness, this gift of God. ∎