We think of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector is parable about hypocrisy, but this not quite right. Hypocrisy is pretending that you are better than you are. The Pharisee was not pretending. He thought he was better, but he was wrong about righteousness.
This parable is part of a series of parables about unrighteous wealth. Jesus directed it towards people who “trusted in themselves that they are righteous”. The Pharisee explains the basis for his righteousness. He tithed a tenth of “everything that he acquired”. Jesus said that he did not go home justified as righteous before God.
The reason is that tithing on wealth does not make it righteous. The righteousness of wealth depends on how it is acquired, not on how much is tithed. Acquisition of wealth must be consistent with God’s Instructions for Economic Life. The Pharisee failed to meet that standard, so he was benefiting from unrighteous wealth. It looked fine on the outside, but he was actually no better than a tax collector.
The tax collector was not an innocent bureaucrat. Tax collectors were instruments of the Roman Empire. They extracted as much wealth from the people as they could get. They paid what the owed to the Romans, and kept the rest for themselves. Being a tax collector was a good way to becomes rich, but it was unrighteous wealth. The tax collector in the parable know that and asked God for mercy.
The message of the parable is that the person who acquires unrighteous wealth is no better than the tax collector. They might do good things with their wealth, but that does not change their character.
This is a serious warning for modern Christians. They are easy about how the obtain their wealth, but they assume that tithing and other Christian activities makes it right. It does not.