The prayer of the Pharisee went like this: “I thank you, God, that I am not grasping, unjust, adulterous like the rest of mankind, and particularly that I am not like this Tax Collector here. I fast twice a week; I pay tithes on all I get.”
The prayer of the Tax-Collector might well have gone like this: “Lord, look at the Pharisee standing up there so that everybody can see him praying. He thinks he’s better than everybody else. He despises people like me. See the long robes he’s wearing so as to make himself feel holy and attract attention to himself.
“Everything he does is done, not to bring honor to you, but to win the esteem of others, and thus bring honor to himself. He makes sure to get the seats of honor at banquets and in the synagogue. He loves it when people salute him in the marketplace and call him “Rabbi”.
“He gets all hot and bothered about silly little rules of his own making, while neglecting the things that really matter – the practice of justice and mercy. He’s good at laying down the law for others. He ought to practice what he preaches. He lives off the contributions of widows.
“Ah, Lord, don’t be taken in by him. It’s all an act, it’s all a show. He’s not genuine. He may look clean on the outside, like a whitewashed tomb, but inside he’s full of corruption. He’s the biggest hypocrite on two feet.”
All this and more the Tax-Collector could have said. And the Lord might have added, “I agree with every word you’ve said,” because the Lord himself said all these things about the Pharisees. But the Tax-Collector said nothing of the sort. Instead, he simply said, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”
What the Pharisee did was confess the sins of others, while at the same time parading his own good deeds. The Tax-Collector did the exact opposite. He confessed his own sins, and left the sins of others between them and God. As a result the Tax-Collector went home at rights with God, whereas the Pharisee did not. We have Jesus’ word for this.
It’s easy to get into the habit of confessing the sins of others. But it’s dangerous because it prevents us from looking at our own sins. Besides, it’s impossible to weigh the sins of others without putting our own finger on the scales.
The successful are always tempted to regard their success as a sort of blessing from God or a reward for righteousness. This leads to judgments being made about the unsuccessful, which are both uncharitable and untrue.
We may have been brought up to believe that we had to be dressed up, both outwardly and inwardly, before daring to show our faces in “His” church. But we have to come before God as we are. Because, as Francis of Assisi said: “I am what I am before God. Nothing else. Nothing more. Nothing less.”