The parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector going to the temple to pray was a way for Jesus to show that merely following the rules and going through the motions of righteousness as dictated by the (old) law does not stand up to sincere humility before God.
The Pharisee positions himself in a very visible spot, and his prayer is this: “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.”
Is this guy praying, or running for office?
On the other hand, the tax collector stands out of sight, and his prayer is as follows: “O God, be merciful to me a sinner.”
The Pharisee looks at himself, seeing greatness and righteousness, and believes God (and everyone else in the temple) must see him in the same way. He makes himself the center of his prayer.
But the tax collector knows that God sees him even if he stands in a corner, and most importantly, acknowledges God as the higher power capable of divine mercy and therefore the key to personal transformation to the better. He makes God the center of his prayer.
The Pharisee seems to say, “I am like God already.” The tax collector seems to say, “With God’s help, I will please Him one day.”
Who has a prayer perspective more grounded in reality – the Pharisee or the tax collector?
Above: The Pharisee and the Publican (Le pharisien et le publicain) by James Tissot, 1886-94, Opaque watercolor over graphite on gray wove paper, Brooklyn Museum