Commentary on the Gospel of
For the Jewish people listening to Jesus, the Pharisees are the good guys who try to do everything right. The tax collectors are the bad guys who have aligned with the Roman Empire and are taking money from their own Jewish people to give to the empire. So no one likes the tax collectors, and everyone looks up to the Pharisees. This opinion of others about Pharisees and tax collectors reflected word for word in their monologue with God.
Reflecting on the Pharisee and tax collector, St. Teresa of Child Jesus speaks about a spirituality of powerlessness and imperfection. It comes from her own experience of a conversion by turning from striving to be good to accepting her imperfections and trusting God to remove them in God's time. The tax collector admits his powerlessness. That's why Jesus says he goes home “justified.” On the other hand, the Pharisee, who has followed the rules and done it right, is too filled with himself to have any room inside for God. “The religion of the tax collector is religion as receptivity, rather than religion as self-assertion and willpower. Perfection is not the exclusion of the contaminating element--the enemy, to use Jesus' language--but, in fact, perfection is the ability to include imperfection” (Richard Rohr).
Manifestation of self-righteousness obsessed by one’s own virtues, and vain display of religiosity can appear to be genuine spirituality. With a scorecard good enough to give him a false sense of security, the Pharisee thought he could put himself right with God. It can be also a way of hiding one’s own spiritual maladies and resist God’s grace that heals and justifies. Moreover, to gain superiority one can resort to comparing oneself with others and end up in despising the other. Our only standard for comparison is God himself: “Be merciful just as your heavenly Father is merciful” (Lk 6:36).