Sermon for Sunday, October 23, 2016 || Proper 25, Year C || Sirach 35: 12-17; Psalm 84: 1-6 || 2 Timothy 4: 6-8, 16-18; Luke 18: 9-14 || The Rev. Margot D. Critchfield
“For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Humility is not a virtue that our culture seems to honor much any more. We like the best, the greatest, the self-confident and the self-assured. Our celebrities and politicians vie for the most media attention and public adoration, and nearly every decision we make about how to raise our children–what’s good for them or what isn’t–is based on the effect it will have on their self-esteem. So in 21st century America, what does it mean to humble oneself and why in heaven’s name might it be desirable?
Clearly, the Pharisee in this story sorely lacks humility. He exalts himself with self-aggrandizing blather about his piety and practice, in what is meant to pass as prayer. He is clearly either incapable of (or uninterested in) admitting to himself—much less God– any possible shortcomings or sins he might bear. He is a stand-in, a proxy, for the crowd to whom Jesus is addressing himself, those who Luke tells us, “trust in themselves” that they are righteous and look down their noses at others. The Pharisee and his ilk, we are told, will be humbled.
The tax collector, on the other hand, is a stand-in for all the sin-stained souls Jesus has come to heal and save. He is portrayed as a breast-beating sinner so filled with shame that he can’t even look heavenward– standing off to himself and prayerfully begging God for divine mercy. This man and his kind, we are told, will be exalted.
Now my guess is that unlike Jesus’ original hearers, who were expected to find this parable outrageously offensive, brash, and about as “in your face” as one could get, few of us are especially moved by it one way or another. It’s too much of a stretch for us to relate to either the Pharisee or the tax collector.
The Pharisee, who was among the wealthiest and most respected members of Jewish society, was—for better or worse—a religious superhero by today’s standards. He strictly observed a fast twice a week, tithed at least 10% of his income to the temple, and prayed multiple times in the course of his day, every day. Few of us can lay claim to any one of those spiritual disciplines, much less all three.
And the tax collector, while cast here as the paradigm of humility, was among the most corrupt and despised members of Jewish society, who prospered not just by colluding with the Roman oppressors and collecting exorbitant taxes from his mostly working-class peasant neighbors, but by extorting from them even more with which to line his own pockets—all with a wink and a nod from the Roman authorities.
So this story is meant to be another one of Jesus’ great reversals, where the good guy is the bad guy and the bad guy is the good guy. But is it?
Neither man, it seems to me, can lay any claim to being what Luke calls “justified” or “righteous.” That, by definition, would mean being in right relationship with God, and as far as I can see neither man in this parable can make that claim. The Pharisee is so puffed up with self-importance –and the tax-collector so beaten down with self-loathing– that neither man is right-sized in relation to God. What these two seeming opposites share in common is such an exaggerated sense of themselves–for better or for worse– that they’re shut-off from God’s love and grace.
As long as they’re self-identifying as excessively virtuous or hopelessly unworthy, neither man is being humble. To be humble is to be right-sized. To be humble is to accept the fact of our belovedness before God no matter who we are, or what we’ve done. It is to accept the fact that God loves us, warts and all. Afterall, the scandal of the gospel is that Jesus died for the Pharisee and for the tax-collector, as sure as he died for you and for me, our friends and our enemies, the sinners and the saints of this world and everyone in-between. We can’t earn or lose that love by anything we do. It’s pure gift. And to be humble is to be able to gratefully accept that gift.
To be humble is to live into the freedom for which God made us—the freedom to choose to love the Lord our God with all of our heart and all of our mind and all of our soul, and to choose to love our neighbors as ourselves, by choosing to live generously, creatively, and relationally. To be humble is to be free from the bondage of self-centered fear that pinches and diminishes us and shrinks us in on ourselves. It’s to embrace the freedom that lives expansively, inclusively, in ever-widening circles of God-centered community and compassion.
To be humble is to trust God, unlike those who Luke tells us, “trusted in themselves.” It’s to trust that there is method behind what sometimes seems like God’s madness, to trust that God really does know a lot more than we do about how to do this thing called life, and to trust that if we follow God’s perfect will, no matter how imperfectly, He will indeed do more for us than we could ever ask or imagine. Much more! We will thrive, we will flourish, we will know the joy and peace of perfect freedom.
To be humble is to be grateful. It is to recognize that all is gift—that our very lives are contingent on God’s constancy–that if God were to hold God’s metaphorical breath, all of creation would melt away like some special effect that dissolves before our eyes on our TV screens. It’s to realize that the mystery we call God is so much bigger than anything we could ever get our heads around that we are like dust motes in comparison—yet we are dust motes created by this mystery we call God in God’s image, and that means created by Love, with love, to love.
To be humble is to appreciate the achingly heartbreaking beauty and fragility of life, and to feel one’s heart overflow with gratitude for the gift of experiencing it. It’s to gather at God’s table to meet Christ in the bread and the wine and to delight with surprise when we discover him in the squirming child kneeling next to us.
To be humble, plain and simple, is to love and be loved by God.
A Pharisee and a tax collector went up to the temple to pray. The Pharisee was filled with self-righteousness. The tax collector was filled with self-loathing. Neither man could see beyond his inflated sense of himself to embrace God’s grace and love.
But imagine if they did. Imagine if they reached out to each other, as different as they were, and embraced. Imagine if they realized in that embrace, that they were embracing God’s own self and were humbled. And imagine that in heartfelt gratitude they then praised God with both their prayers and their lives by the choices they made and the actions they took.
May it be so for each of us. May we become ever more right-sized, that we may live ever more humbly, generously and compassionately, into the love for which God created us. Amen.