The key word in today's Gospel is the word justified, but we will come back to that. If you or I had written this parable, it would surely have had a different conclusion from the one our Lord gave to it.
We would possibly have said that the Pharisee was justified and the Publican was rejected. The Pharisee was a thoroughly decent man. He was truly an asset to his community, the sort of man who would be welcome anywhere. We would surely be happy to have him in our church--a man who is there every time the doors are open and, most importantly a man who tithes.
Or we might have said, "there is room for both kinds in our temple." It is an important detail that these two men, who represent two diametrically opposite perspectives, two irreconcilable religions, were praying at the same time and in same place, supposedly to the same god. We are charmed by the notions of tolerance, inclusiveness, getting along and living together in one big tent. So we are tempted to say to the Pharisee, "Try to be more tolerant of the Publican," and then to the Publican, "Try to imitate the Pharisee." We like "both/and" thinking and get nervous with the Gospel's "either/or."
Or we might have said, "We like the Pharisee as he is, and will give the Publican a chance to reform himself." In other words, we would accept him
conditionally and put him on probation. The condition would be something like, "We will accept you for the time being, but you must reform yourself before you are truly welcome."
But the Lord who told this parable brought it to a radically different conclusion. The virtuous Pharisee, who had exalted himself, was abased in ways not divulged to us. The despicable Publican, who cried out in his despair, was exalted in his justification.
Now what does that word justification mean? St Paul devoted much of his writing and preaching to unpacking this truly difficult term. As much as we would like to turn this word into some sort of rehabilitation process, it is a legal term, simply the opposite of condemnation. The publican did not go down to his house to be justified later on. Then and there, he was pardoned, acquitted, vindicated, accepted as righteous in God's sight.
It is rightly said "God loves us enough to accept us as we are, but loves us too much not to leave us as we are." There are the two sides of the Gospel, Justification and Sanctification. But it can only happen when the sinner, in the temple, throws himself on the mercy of God and cries out, "God be merciful to me a sinner." LKW