It was time to go to the Temple if he wanted an unhurried walk through the streets of Jerusalem before arriving at the time of sacrifice. Of course there was a shorter route, but this way he could stroll through the main thoroughfare and see and be seen by as many people as possible. And though his own secret pride in his superior holiness was a great source of pleasure to him, the public acknowledgements of others were even sweeter. And, after all, he was offering a public service. Might not a glimpse of his shining righteousness inspire others and condemn sinners?
It was a good and honourable thing to be a Pharisee. The pedigree of their movement dated back to the return from the Babylonian exile, when a group of Jewish leaders, determined that Israel should never be forced out of the Promised Land again, decided that they would live such holy lives that God would never be displeased with them again. So they studied the Law and decided that since Israel was called to be a nation of priests and a holy nation, then that was the way that should live, following all the commandments that were given especially to the priesthood, and urging others to do the same. It was an unfortunate fact of life that only the wealthy (or those who, like the priests, were supported by other means) could possibly live by these rules, since those who must labour to survive had neither the means nor the leisure to follow every prescription of the priestly laws. This meant, by his calculation, that the Pharisees were the true saviours of Israel!
As he strolled through the streets of Jerusalem, he felt so thankful to be who he was. These others – the hated Roman soldiers, the self-important merchants, the craftsmen with their wares, the beggars in their filth and poverty – should be so thankful that men like him existed to please God on their behalf. He was worth so much more than they were!
He wandered into the temple and found himself an appropriate place to stand, where the light reflected on him in a very pleasing way. In order to edify people and show his superiority, it was necessary that he should be as noticeable as possible. He commenced his prayer, as loudly as possible, so that the maximum number could hear him amidst the general hubbub:
“Lord, I thank you that I am not like other men! Look at this riff raff: thieves, adulterers, probably murderers some of them, they certainly look the part! And then Lord, look at me: I’m exemplary. I fast twice a week and I give you back a tithe of absolutely everything. See, look at that tax collector over there – the worst kind of Israelite there is! Thank you that I am so much better than he is!”
The tax collector meanwhile had slipped into the temple as unobtrusively as possible, wrapping his guilt and misery around him like a shielding cloak. The burden of who he was and who he had failed to be was intolerable. The shame was all engulfing. But the more he grew aware of the holiness of the God whom he had come to seek, the more it weighed him down, almost to the point of obliteration. So, while the Pharisee prayed his self-congratulations, he cowered in the corner and cried out aloud his despair, “Lord, have mercy on me a sinner!”