He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: "Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Parisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, 'God I thank you that I am not like the other people: theives, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.' But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, 'God, be merciful to me, a sinner!' I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.
The real point is...that there are two ways of relating to God and to oneself. The Pharisee does not really look at God at all, but only at himself; he does not really need God, because he does everything right by himself. He has no real relation to God, who is ultimately superfluous - what he does himself is enough. Man makes himself righteous. The tax collector, by contrast, sees himself in the light of God. He has looked toward God, and in the process his eyes have been opened to see himself. So he knows that he needs God and that he lives by God's goodness, which he cannot force God to give him and which he cannot procure for himself. He knows that he needs mercy and so he will learn from God's mercy to become merciful himself, and thereby to become like God. He draws life from being-in-relation, from receiving all as gift; he will always need the gift of goodness, of forgiveness, but in receiving it he will always learn to pass the gift on to others. The grace for which he prays does not dispense him from ethics. It is what makes him truly good in the first place. He needs God, and because he recognizes that, he begins through God's goodness to become good himself.How often to we who call ourselves believers walk around in our daily lives looking outwardly at others, subtly (or not so subtly) judging them by our standards, all the while thinking like the Pharisee and thanking God that we are not "like them"? For the rest of Lent - and beyond - I for one know that I need to focus more inwardly on returning to the humility of the tax collector. It will not be a one-time, 180-degree turn. If we think that we can turn toward Christ and then march through life and approach the throne of grace because we are "good enough," we grossly deceive ourselves and are in a freefall directly into Satan's trap. Instead, we need to fall on our faces in shame and daily - even hourly and in every encounter with others - remind ourselves that it was for us, not just for them, that he had to hang there and die. This is what our Lenten sacrifices should be about, not giving something up for the sake of making ourselves better, but rather emptying ourselves of our own temporal comfort and satisfaction to remember how desperately we need to approach the cross. Approaching and embracing that cross will inevitably shake us out of any false sense of material comfort and self-righteousness, but is the only way for us to share in the gift of resurrection that comes at Easter.