Doesn't it seem strange how incredibly frustrating 'virtuous' people can be?
In reality, of course, it is not their virtue that frustrates us, but rather their self-satisfaction at being so virtuous, their feeling of superiority over the rest of mankind! Perhaps there is also an element of our own inadequacy which we are not always willing to admit.
In Luke's Gospel, Jesus addresses his remarks to 'people who prided themselves on being virtuous and despised everyone else'! There doesn't seem to be much point in feeling virtuous if, at the same time, you are despising, (or 'are contemptuous of', in Nicholas King's translation) the rest of mankind. More than that, those who feel so virtuous, perhaps, are failing to notice their own human shortcomings and sinfulness, thereby neglecting the need for God's forgiveness. We can become blinkered by our own self-righteousness, failing, very often, to see the good in others.
The tax collector, on the other hand, simply turns to God for mercy and forgiveness, recognizing his own sinfulness.
This gospel passage reminds me of the story of a little girl who was having dancing lessons, accompanied by her mother. The mother very proudly proclaimed to a person nearby, 'That's my daughter - and she's the only one dancing in step!'
Sometimes we can under the illusion that we are better than others or, even worse, that we are the only ones who are virtuous - the only ones really in step.
Christians in our society are more and more being made to feel that they are out of step with the rest of the world. Our moral, social teaching on issues like abortion, euthanasia, social justice etc., can indeed set us apart. So should we merely be like the tax collector and stand back, declaring our unworthiness? Surely not!
But equally we should beware of too much self-satisfaction in our lives, even in our own teaching and preaching. The preacher may sometimes come across to his hearers as appearing to be morally superior. Most of us like to think of ourselves as being righteous; but Jesus, in the paragraph prior to the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector, asks of his hearers the question 'When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?'
This continues to be a serious question and one that needs to be addressed in our own time. It is not sufficient, like the Pharisee, just to 'accommodate' God by turning up at the church, or synagogue or temple, fulfilling the ritual, outwardly performing the prayers, but inwardly lacking the faith and simplicity of the child.
What Jesus also tells us in this part of Luke's gospel is that 'whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a little child' will never enter it'.
And so we learn from Christ's teaching that there are two essential elements required, faith and humility - child like; for which child is so lacking in faith and trust that a natural humility does not derive from that? 'I give you thanks, Lord, that I am not like the rest of humanity'; ... this Pharisee's prayer is one that I, hopefully, may never feel called to say.
But just in case I do, let me recall that I would be beginning to sound like the mother in the story, so I guess it's time to stop praying and start believing!