Jesus addressed the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector to those who were convinced of their own righteousness and despised everyone else. In the parable, the Pharisee was portrayed as being self-righteous, while on the other hand, the tax collector was portrayed as humble and contrite. In the Gospel of Luke, it is evident that some Pharisees were present when Jesus told this parable, but we shouldn’t presume that all Pharisees were convinced of their own righteousness and that they despised everyone else, while all tax collectors were humble and contrite.
Two people went up to the temple to pray, one was a Pharisee and the other was a tax collector. The Pharisee went to his place in the temple and as the parable relates, 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.” (Luke 18: 11-12) The way in which the Pharisee prayed is significant: he prayed to himself. He did not pray to God, but he prayed to himself. He praised himself and despised others. Even though the Pharisee began his prayer by saying, “O God, I thank you…”, his real intention was to praise himself in front of God, and not to thank God for his blessings.
At the same time, the tax collector stood off at a distance and would not even dare to raise his eyes to heaven. He beat his breast as a sign of real sorrow for his sins and prayed, “O God, be merciful to me a sinner.” (Luke 18:13) The tax collector acknowledged himself as a sinner and begged God for mercy.
Jesus concluded this parable by saying that “the tax collector went home justified, but not the Pharisee; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Luke 18:14) Once again, we see a reversal of fortune in the Gospels: the tax collector, who was a sinner, was justified in the eyes of God, while the Pharisee, who fasted twice a week and tithed over and above what was required by the Law, was not justified in the eyes of God. What was the difference between the two of them? The big difference between them was the manner in which they prayed to God. The Pharisee exalted himself and therefore was humbled by God. On the other hand, the tax collector humbled himself and therefore was exalted by God. This parable teaches us how to pray to God. We should pray with humility and (1) humble ourselves before God, (2) never despise others in our prayers.