He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: “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 18:9-14)
Just before this passage, Jesus has urged us to have faithful patience in prayer and laid before us the parable of the Persistent Widow. He then goes on to speak about the way in which we approach the Throne Room of Heaven.
In this parable we have two characters, and of course we instantly think of the Pharisee as the baddie in the tale, the cowboy in the black hat. To those hearing Jesus, though, they wouldn’t have understood things in quite the same way. The Pharisees were those who sought to be obedient to God in every particular. In fact, they even came up with some new rules to make sure they didn’t break God’s rules. They would have been seen as righteous and holy people.
In contrast we have a man who collected taxes from the Jews and passed them on to their imperial overlords, the Romans. Not a lot to like there.
The issue here is how you see yourself. The Pharisees seems to think he has it cracked: “I am not like other men”. The Tax Collector had a better understanding of himself: “God be merciful to me, a sinner”. When we approach God we should be well aware that God is holy, and that we are not. We might be better than the rotten so-and-so down the road, but in comparison to God we cannot but see our shortcomings.
This is, in fact, a liberation. We don’t have to pretend with God. We can come to him as we are. The mask can be taken off, and we can face God knowing “the one who humbles himself will be exalted”.