Oh, Lord, it’s hard to be humble, when you’re perfect in every way. . . To know me is to love me. I must be a hell of a man. Oh, Lord, it’s hard to be humble, but I’m doing the best that I can! -- I’m not quite sure why, but every time this reading comes up, I hear Mac Davis playing the role of the Pharisee. In answer to your questions: yes, I am old enough to know who Mac Davis was; yes, my parents were abusers who sometimes introduced me to what they considered “music;” and yes, God does have a lot of sanctifying work yet to do on me. I know some of you are laughing, but think back to the song. Yes, I know all of you were Beatles’ fans, and James Taylor and Jim Croce and other “classic” artists. None of you really ever had to listen to Mac. But this song became a fairly good hit in the mid 1980’s. Yes, even twenty-five years ago, humility was an issue for humanity.
Jesus begins this story, we are told, to instruct those who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else. Our translators try hard to convey the sense of those to whom Jesus was teaching, but we lack some of the meaning in English. The literal translation of “confident in their own righteousness” is more along the lines of “relied upon themselves to stand before God”; for “looked down on everyone else,” we should think “always despising or loathing” or “always thought of others as ‘those people.’”
Although not my emphasis today, the attitude that best captures what Jesus is preaching against can be found and heard in our farm bill / SNAP debates and the discussions regarding immigration reform. While I am certain there are crooks and people who game the food stamp system and that some of those wastes can be identified and removed, the whole discourse has lumped everyone into a group. One party sees “those people” as someone to cater to for a vote; the other seems to want to lump “those people” together as lazy or thieves in order to win votes from their constituents.
Similarly, the immigration reform debates excels at creating “those people.” “Those people” are either criminals with no respect for the law, and so a politician deserves your vote for always speaking and voting with that attitude, or desperate people who needed a chance like our immigrating forbears, and so a politician deserves your vote for always speaking and voting with that attitude in mind.
As with many debates in this country, I wonder if the debates would not change in tenor if we made our politicians spend time getting to know “those people” who will be impacted by their decisions. It is easy to condemn “those people” when one does not know the story of what got them there. Similarly, it is easy to put down those people and treat them like children in need of one’s largesse and mentoring when one does not spend the time to learn what happened in their lives. I have spent too many hours in conversations with those seeking help from the parish since late 2007 to know better. And I get that our resources are not unlimited. Unlike the Church, who receives her provision from God, the state is dependent upon the tax payer. God can create out of nothing; the state can only take from what is there.
In any event, Jesus today is speaking against pride. Pride, as we know, is one of the big stumbling blocks to being a good disciple of Jesus. One of the warnings that Jesus repeats to His disciples is to avoid being like the Pharisees and the Romans. Jesus will mention repeatedly that the Pharisees like to be thought of as holy. In reality, they sit at Moses’ seat looking good but inwardly ugly. Similarly, the Romans place great stock in hierarchy. They like to have those beneath them wait upon them. As His disciples, you and I are called to be servants. Just a couple weeks ago in Luke we read that our attitude ought to be that we have only done what we should have done. We cannot bargain with God because we really have nothing He needs. One person in prayer in His parable today understands that lesson; one would be better served to be a disciple of Mac Davis.
Jesus begins His story with the Pharisee. Not surprisingly, Jesus is critical of the Pharisee’s attitude. Five times in the prayer, the Pharisee focuses on himself, even though he begins the prayer like a psalm of praise, “I thank you, God.” I am so much better than “those people.” I pray a lot. I fast a lot. I tithe from what I get. The attitude conveyed by his prayers is that God should be breathing a sigh of relief that the pharisee has chosen to worship Him. This guy has gone beyond the duty of obligation, and God should be fawning all over him. Hey, it could be worse. God might have to depend on “those people” to worship Him, like the tax collector and the prostitutes, and what good would that do Him?
Set against the Pharisee is the tax collector. Tax collectors, as you know, were despised by the people of Israel. They were Benedict Arnold’s and Johnny Taliban’s and IRS agents all rolled into one person. They collected taxes with a squad of Roman soldiers ready to defend them, no matter the tax. Many in Israel considered them to have abandoned their covenant relationship with Yahweh in order to serve Rome, as if the reason Israel had not been exiled earlier or conquered by Rome for the same abandonment. All pretty much universally despised them.
Notice the prayer of this tax collector. There is no beautiful opening formula like that of the Pharisee. He hasn’t learned the so called “right words.” The Pharisee’s mockery of him would be a well known attitude. The tax collector, Jesus points out, refuses even to look up to heaven. The tax collector knows there is a tremendous chasm between God and himself. He realizes that there is nothing he can say or do to justify himself. And so he asks God to be merciful to him, identifying himself as a sinner. That’s it. He does not bargain with God; he does not tell God that He is lucky to have him as a worshipper. He simply begs for God’s grace.
We can well imagine the attitudes and understandings of those in Jesus’ audience. if we rightly understand the attitude with which people held tax collectors, we can almost hear the mocking laughter of the others “who trusted in themselves” hearing the prayer of the tax collector. Clearly, God will have been impressed with the one who did extra stuff and not so much with the one who does not even know the right words. On the other side, there are people like the tax collector who know they have nothing to offer God. God may have inspired the prophets and Moses to write that He loves the widow and orphan, but few widows and orphans will be able to demonstrate that the people of Israel live as if they believe that of Him. Jesus may be willing to sit down with prostitutes and other notorious sinners, but He certainly is not God, is He?
Imagine the shock and surprise when Jesus tells His audience that the tax collector went away justified before God. To one side, such a statement would have caused outrage; to another side, the statement would have engendered hope. The side that trusted in itself would be convinced that the man from Nazareth was off his rocker, that God clearly loves those who are like them. The side that understood themselves to be unworthy of God’s love, though, would hear the beginnings of the Gospel, “For God so loved the world . . .”. Could it be true? Does God love me despite me?
Jesus’ teaching today reminds us, brothers and sisters, that except for His grace, we are all “those people.” Even those of us who think we deserve special treatment and love by God are “those people;” they simply do not want to recognize that about themselves. We talk often around here of the two axis of the cross. We remind ourselves of the vertical chasm which exists between us and God, absent the work and person of Christ, and we remind ourselves that His hands were stretched out on the crossbeam axis embracing all who would come to Him. All of us are equal before God when we depend on our own selves because we are all sinners. We all exist on the side of that great chasm. And when we begin to understand that teaching, when we begin to realize who we are outside of Christ, that is when He really begins to work in us.
As His disciples, we begin to understand that our only standard of comparison is God. We measure our holiness against His, our righteousness against His, our justice against His, our love against His. True humility understands that, like the tax collector in today’s story, we are not deserving of His grace. Nothing we do “earns” His love. He freely gives it to all who come to Him through the Cross and Resurrection of His Son! All. When we compare our qualities to those of others, we are demonstrating the pride exhibited by the Pharisee in today’s story. Well, God, I’m not as bad as that guy in jail. Well, God, I’m more special than that person because I give a bigger percentage of my income. Well, God, I’m more deserving of your love because I come to church more frequently than that person. We all have our “those people” in our lives; the key, according to Jesus is to remember that, before God, we are all “those people” and to die to self.
How important is this teaching on humility? Humility is a theme which runs throughout the Gospels and even Scripture. It is hard to teach because one cannot raise their hand and say “Hey, look at me. Humility is my best quality.” A humble disciple cannot call upon others to serve himself or herself. A humble disciple simply does whatever serving needs doing. A humble disciple cannot claim special privilege. He or she simply strives to do what is right in the sight of God and repents whenever he or she fails. A humble disciple cannot call attention to himself or herself. A humble disciple directs the attention of all those around him or her to our Lord--you know, the One who came down from heaven, was born in a manger, raised by a carpenter, and died on a cross despite being God! Like Jesus when He walked the earth, the disciple expressing His humility might pass among us unseen, unheard, and unvalued. But, like our Lord, the disciple knows that, in the end, the Lord who judges all and knows all will act to exalt those who were loved Him truly and to put down those who rejected Him. “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
Mac Davis was right. It really is hard to be humble. Thankfully and mercifully, God works even with our kernels of humility when we approach Him in faith. Thankfully and mercifully, He got it right so that our salvation need not depend on ourselves. That is a good news for all, be they widows or orphans or addicts or prostitutes or pimps or even ourselves!