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....
The Pharisee in Jesus' parable, ostensibly speaking to God but heard only by himself, tells himself the big lie.
Every culture has at least one big lie. We tell ourselves these falsehoods because, without grace, we cannot bear the truth. They begin with untruths that are supposed to be harmless and cute: the Tooth Fairy, Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny. That sort of thing.
But they progress: We're not racist; Anyone can become president of the United States; There are no limits to what you can become; It's a free country; Our enemies are stupid, evil people who believe nonsense; Smoking won't hurt you; We can fix our problems with education, or technology, or a better system. The nations of the world want to be democratic republics like ours, if only the powerful would let them; Our religion is the one true religion; etc.
Since all our friends and acquaintances seem to believe these things, they must be true. We often repeat them incessantly in the face of unkind reality.
This Pharisee was not alone in the temple. He didn't count the publican but he had a crowd of people to reassure him of his essential righteousness. "They" were continually present in his mind. If he suffered any moment of anxiety he had only to call upon "them" to reassure him.
In the back of the temple knelt the publican. He was overwhelmed with something else. He could not live the lie any longer. For whatever reason reality had crashed down upon his house of cards, leaving him defenseless in God's presence.
He didn't know it at the time, but he was not alone. The Lord was standing with him, equally guilty and defenseless. As Saint Peter said of Jesus:
He bore our sins in his body upon the cross, so that, free from sin, we might live for righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed.This is the truth the Pharisee could not imagine, the truth the publican would find. Embracing this truth, we begin to live in the real world, without illusion or pretension.