The canon from the Lenten Triodion for Matins for the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee uses athletic imagery to contrast the two men in prayer and to help explain Christ’s parable.
The righteousness of the Pharisee proved to be vanity, and was condemned, for it was yoked to pride; but the Publican gained humility, which goes with the virtue exalting men on high.
The Pharisee thought to drive swiftly in the chariot of the virtues; but the Publican on foot outran him, for he yoked humility with compassion. Pondering with our minds the parable of the Publican, let us all emulate him with tears, offering God a contrite spirit and seeking the remission of our sins.
The Publican and Pharisee both ran in the race of life, but the one was overcome by foolish pride: He was brought to a shameful shipwreck, while the other was saved by humility.
Changing to a righteous course of life, let us emulate the wisdom of the Publican: Let us run from the hateful conceit of the Pharisee, so letting ourselves attain to life.
St. John Chrysostom offers a comment on the parable of the Publican and Pharisee which brings to the forefront of spiritual thinking what is really important in our struggle to follow Christ:
To learn how good it is not to imagine that you are something great picture to yourself two chariots. For one, yoke together a team consisting of justice and arrogance; for the other, a team of sin and humility. You will see that the chariot pulled by the team which includes sin outstrips the team which includes justice. Sin does not win the race because of its own power, but because of the strength of its yokemate, humility.
The losing team is not beaten because justice is weak, but because of the weight and mass of arrogance. So, humility, by its surpassing loftiness, overcomes the heaviness of sin and is the first to rise up to God. In the same manner, because of its great weight and mass, pride can overcome the lightness of justice and easily drag it down to earth. (Homily V, The Fathers of the Church, p. 158-160)
It is not being a sinner or our sins which will prevent us from attaining the Kingdom of God. Rather, it is our pride and arrogance, judgmentalism, which will prevent us from being with Christ. It is not God’s justice which will deny our entry into heaven, but our lack of mercy, humility and love.
See also my post: A Chariot Race: The Publican vs The Pharisee