“Jesus addressed this parable to those who were convinced of their own righteousness and despised everyone else. ‘Two people went up to the temple area to pray; one was a Pharisee and the other was a tax collector. The Pharisee took up his position and 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. I fast twice a week, and I pay tithes on my whole income.’ But the tax collector stood off at a distance and would not even raise his eyes to heaven but beat his breast and prayed, ‘O God, be merciful to me a sinner.’ I tell you, the latter went home justified, not the former; for whoever exalts himself will be humbled and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” [Luke 18:9-14]
Besides constancy, prayer requires humility. That is the message of the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector: “When we pray, do we speak from the height of our pride and will, or ‘out of the depths’ (Ps 130:1) of a humble and contrite heart? He who humbles himself will be exalted; humility is the foundation of prayer. Only when we humble acknowledge that ‘we do not know how to pray as we ought’ (Rom 8:26), are we ready to receive freely the gift of prayer. ‘Man is a beggar before God’ (St Augustine, Sermo, 56, 6, 9)” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2559).
The parable shows us contrasting types of prayer. The Pharisee is very self-satisfied: he prays standing up, boast to God about all the good he does, considers himself to be without sin, and therefore, feels no need to repent. He performs all his religious duties, going beyond what is laid down, fasting twice a week, whereas rabbis said once was enough, and paying tithes on everything, not just items that the Law said should be tithed. His words are not true prayer because they are not addressed to God: he prays “with himself” and despises others. The tax collector is the exact opposite. He recognizes his unworthiness and is sincerely sorry for his sins; he puts all his trust in divine mercy. His prayer is genuine and he has all the right dispositions for approaching God. And he, this tax collector, goes home justified: ”[It is not without reason that some have said that prayer justifies;] for repentant prayer or supplicant repentance, raising up the soul to God and re-uniting it to his goodness, without doubt obtains pardon in virtue of the holy love which gives it this sacred movement” (St Francis de Sales, Treatise on the Love of God, 2,20).