Today’s parable presents us with two men whose position in society would be very different. The Pharisee would be admired as someone who lived a virtuous life, scrupulous in keeping to the demands of the Law. The tax collector, meanwhile, would be despised: a collaborator with the Roman occupation, and probably dishonest and corrupt. Faithful Jews might wonder how the tax collector had the nerve even to enter God’s Temple.
But Jesus shows us what is in the two men’s hearts. The Pharisee is puffed up with pride; he believes himself better than the tax collector, and indeed, better than the rest of humanity. Even his prayer is addressed ‘to himself.’ The tax collector, on the other hand, has a strong sense of his sinfulness, and he begs for God’s mercy without any pride or pretence. This is true humility. In our prayer, we stand naked before God, utterly dependent on God’s love and forgiveness. We can never earn our salvation – we can only receive it as God’s gift.