The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. Difficult to read and even more difficult to preach.
The Pharisee: Fastidious keeper of the Law, righteous, respectable, known in the temple. In this case, arrogant, proud, self-exalting. He is out of touch with his true humanity, in that he doesn’t understand his own soul. He thinks he is solely what he does, and of course, what he does has to do with keeping the law and being perfect. The problem is that there is no love or compassion. It’s all about self.
The Tax Collector: He is considered a cheat and a scoundrel, despised by the Jews, often in league with the hated Romans, who at the time of Jesus occupied Israel. In this case, humble, repentant, sorrowful, self-debasing. He is honest with himself and God about who and what he is. He has no illusions of grandeur. He does not compare himself with others or seek to debase others for his own purposes.
We know what Jesus thinks of both of them. He says “all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.” God can forgive sins, but what can God do with arrogance and pride, except wait for the inevitable fall? Conceptually we all understand this teaching. But it often seems that most of us have to learn the hard way.
Those who exalt themselves almost always have an insatiable need to tear down others. Instead of learning humility, they cover their own shortcomings and neediness by ridiculing and accusing others. It somehow assuages their own pain. They also lose touch with themselves. The more out of touch they become, the more wrenching becomes the reality checks when pretense stops working. We know the progression, the old saying: pride cometh before the fall.
But, it really isn’t easy to be truly humble. Life for the modern New Yorker is about being aggressive, being number one, and getting ahead. We don’t want to be seen as weak, or we fear we will be eaten alive, and so sometimes we eat others alive…Maybe that is why most people regard humility as weakness.
However, what Jesus wants us to know is that humility is not weakness. To the contrary, those who are humble are often very strong. It takes strength of character and of the spirit to be humble. Humility is lovable, approachable. Humility draws others to us. Sadly, humility is one of those wonderful traits that disappears the moment you come to realize that you are humble. Humility is a state of being that the great thinkers, those we consider wise, often write about.
C.S. Lewis wrote, “Humility is not thinking less of yourself, it is thinking of yourself less.”
And Thomas Merton wrote that, “Pride makes us artificial and humility makes us real.”
From Simone Weil we read, “Real genius is nothing else but the supernatural virtue of humility in the domain of thought.
And last, in his book on humility, the great Andrew Murray wrote, “Pride must die in you, or nothing of heaven can live in you.”
I am reminded of a phrase we hear from time to time: He is so full of himself, or she is so puffed up with her own importance. While we think of it as a euphemism, in truth, God cannot fill us with more of God’s self or “godness” when we are full of ourselves and self-important. We need to empty ourselves to make room for God to do God’s work in us. Then God is able to infuse into the truly humble more of God’s self.
Interestingly, the strength that lives alongside humility is often developed through trials, tribulations, and learning life’s lessons the hard way. But it seems to prepare us as fertile soil for God. Most importantly, God can work with humility and does. God cannot work with self deception.
For the humble, drawing close to God and being in such loving, merciful, healing, and forgiving relationship with God makes the person strong. Therein is one of the keys to the beginning of faithful discipleship. After all, we are imago dei—created in the Image of God. And God is faithful to show up when the humble person calls out to God.
Jesus is our model; he is the human personification of God. Jesus could have exalted himself, but instead he chose the role of the servant leader and teacher, willing to die for what he believed and for the cause he represented. He allowed himself to be falsely accused. He chose not to fight back. Instead he chose the route of drawing all humanity back into loving relationship with God.
Two questions for each of us this morning as we prepare to come to God’s altar: Do you allow Jesus to draw you ever closer into loving relationship with God? Are you willing to be emptied of self and ego, so that God can fill you with more of God’s self? So that there is more room for the Holy Spirit to work within you?
As we read in James 4:6: “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.”
And in verse 4:10: “Humble yourself before the Lord, and he will exalt you.”
Or, in the words of a hymn on the same passage (sing): “Humble yourself in the sight of the Lord, and he will lift you up higher and higher, and he will lift you up.”