Today, Christ presents us with two men who, to a casual observer, might appear almost identical for they are in the same place doing the same thing, as both «went up to the Temple to pray» (Lk 18:10). But beyond appearances, at the deepest level of their personal consciences, both men differ radically: one, the Pharisee, has an easy conscience while the other, the tax collector, is racked by feelings of guilt.
Nowadays we tend to see guilt feelings as close to a psychological aberration: ‘beating oneself up over something’. Nevertheless the ‘guilt-racked’ tax-collector leaves the Temple in the better state for, «when this man went down to his house, he had been set right with God, but not the other» (Lk 18:14). «This feeling of guilt», writes Benedict XVI when he was still Cardinal Ratzinger ("Conscience and truth"), «disturbs the false calm of conscience and could be called conscience's complaint against my self-satisfied existence. It is as necessary for man as the physical pain which signifies disturbances of normal bodily functioning».
Jesus doesn’t lead us to believe that the Pharisee is not telling the truth when he says that he is not «grasping, crooked, adulterous» (Lk 18:11) and that he fasts and gives money to the Temple, nor that the tax-collector is delusional in thinking himself a sinner. This is not the question. Rather it is that «the Pharisee no longer knows that he too has guilt. He has a completely clear conscience. But this silence of conscience makes him impenetrable to God and men, while the cry of conscience which plagues the tax collector makes him capable of truth and love. Jesus can move sinners» (Benedict XVI).