However in Jesus; time it was a shock!
Tax collectors worked for the Roman Empire, and as such were seen as people who worked for the occupying forces. As we can read in many passages in the Gospels people counter tax collectors as sinner and Jesus is often rebuked for seeking association with them. It was well known that tax collectors had a set amount of revenue they had to bring in, and any surplus they kept themselves. They often charged people more then was due, and as such became very wealthy over the backs of others. The Pharisee, after his list of in-virtues behaviour of the rest of mankind, sees the tax collector as even worse.
And this is the move Jesus is addressing here when telling the parable about the pharisee and the tax collector. The pharisee is confident before God, he is telling God what to think at best, but probably more likely was talking to himself as the Gospel said. He was standing by himself, moving upfront. The temple was a public place, and he would have many eyes upon him, and that is where he showed off how good he was. But was his thanks to God a real thanks? Or was it a display of splendour of himself? It is this that Jesus warns us about elsewhere in the Gospel, not to parade your virtues before others, but instead seek the confines of ones room and pray in secret. That is much more in line with the tax collector, who stood back, possibly even in the court of the gentiles. Whereas the pharisee made an appearance, the publican made a request for Gods mercy.
He that humbles himself shall be exalted. The power of God's grace can bring good out of evil; the tax collector possibly had been a great sinner, and out of the greatness of his sin was brought the greatness of his repentance. See, on the contrary, the power of Satan's malice in bringing evil out of good. It was good that the pharisee was no extortioner, nor unjust; but the devil made him proud of this, with pride being the reason of the fall of Satan himself, and made the pharisee get absorbed with himself and this led to his ruin. It was not because he necessarily did anything wrong, leaving out the fact he was judging the tax collector, but the fact that he had no relationship with God, and no perception of the reality of the loving relationship God is calling us to.
Like the man we encountered a few weeks ago in the Gospel, the rich man, who didn’t notice Lazarus laying at the gate. Lazarus was taken up to heaven, while the rich man found himself in hell. That rich man was not by any means said to be a bad man either, but he didn’t have the love in him to notice his neighbour who was in need. As such he was a sinner, as he was divorced from the love of God and found himself after his death in the same situation in hell.
Our faith is supposed to be real. Our faith is not a faith of rules and regulations, it is a faith of action and communion. God is calling us into communion with him, he WANTS to share His divine life with us. Living as a Christian who is just following a set of regulations is like living as the Pharisee. At the end of the day it is only good for outward appearance, but not much good for the inner development of the soul. The tax collector who realised that he is falling short however sought out God, he came to the temple. God is always waiting for us, here in the church, especially in the sacrament of confession. The tax collector opened his heart to God, and allows God to give him the strength and grace to grow little by little towards the eternal destiny for which we are all made.