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Oh Lord, It’s Hard to be Humble

Preached: October 27, 2013
Scriptures: Luke 18:9-16

Jesus offers his listeners many parables to tell them what the Kingdom of God is like, and by the end of the story he turns the tables upside down on his audience.  These stories invite us to identify with characters. Generally, we like to identify with the more positive characters in a story.  This is a tough parable because I really don’t think Jesus gives us very good options for identifying with either of the characters.

It’s hard to imagine a more earnest, conscientious, religious person than the Pharisee. He leads a blameless life according to the law.  In fact, he surpassed the Law. The Law required fasting once a year; this guy fasted twice a week. He gave generously to help the needy. His spiritual regimen was stringent. His life bears no resemblance to the unsavory characters with which he compares himself. He tried very hard to be good.  And he felt good telling God about it.  He doesn’t sound like a bad person.  He approached God with a pride of having done good things.
The Pharisee was at least trying to be godly at a time when so few people were even trying.

Why then, do we not like him? His efforts at godliness make him appear arrogant, smug, and unlovableGod, thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.”  At first his derogatory remarks are for “those people”. But then he narrows the field – “this tax collector” – making it very personal.  His prayer makes him sound like a self-absorbed and immature child.

The Pharisee looked down on everybody else. He doesn’t give thanks that God has spared him from being a thief, adulterer or tax collector; he gives thanks that he is not like THEM. He skips authentic gratitude opting for elitism. The Pharisee measures himself and is pleased with the difference. This is a form of spiritual self-justification which becomes toxic to authentic spirituality.  People will invoke almost anything to justify ourselves — intelligence (GPA and SAT), alma mater, money (“I’m frugal toward myself and generous to others”), family, sports, politics (“My vote is enlightened, yours is ideological”).   I have a personal example: when I bought a used Prius, I remember feeling a bit haughty over those who were usurping the earth’s resources.   Self-justification assures me that “I’m better than the next person.”     In judging others we validate ourselves or that at least we will compare favorably. We harm people when we do this, and while imagining that we elevate ourselves, we harm ourselves.

His utter conviction of his own righteousness leads him to hold others in contempt. The world, for this man, is divided into two sides: between the righteous and unrighteous, the moral and the immoral, the just and the unjust, those who are in and those who are out. Such a moral geography leaves no room for either ambiguity or grace.  While he prays to God, his prayer finally is about himself, and because he misses the source of his blessing. The Pharisee is not seeking a relationship with God and is unaware of his utter dependence on God’s grace.  The Pharisee is righteous at the cost of relationship.

The tax collector, on the other hand, was probably correct in his confession, “God, be merciful to me a sinner!”  There were good reasons for his guilt.  The  average local tax collector took unfair advantage of people. The typical tax collector was greedy, dishonest, cruel, traitorous.  And we should note: the tax collector was working for the Pharisee! In this parable, the tax collector is too overwhelmed by his own need, his own desperation, his own shortcoming to give any thought, let alone judgment, to the failings of others. He pours out his heart his most profound awareness of his own weakness, failures, and sins, that he apparently never notices the Pharisee, let alone compares himself with him. He flings himself on the mercy of God.

The hook in this story is the temptation to identify with the tax collector and not the Pharisee, even though the Pharisee may resemble us in more ways than we would like to think.  The Pharisee is the perfect kind of church member – what pastor wouldn’t love a church full of people who care enough to fast and pray, a congregation full of people who tithe.  I know which character visits the sick, feeds the hungry, prepares and teaches the Sunday School lesson. The ones who do the work of the church and provide the financial support necessary to support religious institutions.

So why did Jesus prefer the one over the other, or at least the prayer of the tax collector over the prayer of the Pharisee?  We don’t hear the tax collector repent, there is no pledge to offer restitution to those he has cheated, no promises of a new and better life.  Perhaps it was in the longer version of the story, but somehow got truncated to fit into scripture.  What we have is simply the acknowledgment that his life is entirely dependent on God’s mercy.   Perhaps Jesus preferred the tax collector’s prayer because it is authentically humble.  Humility is a tricky thing.  The word “humble”, comes from the Greek, “hummus”, meaning dirt – lowly.  How many of us like to be referred to as a pile of dirt?

Benjamin Franklin once made a project of improving himself, and wrote down 13 habits to work on: Temperance, Silence, Order; Resolution, Frugality, Industry; Sincerity, Justice, Moderation; Tranquility, Cleanliness, Chastity; Last of all — Humility.”          “Imitate Jesus and Socrates,” he wrote.

Franklin worked on one virtue every week, by keeping a small notebook in which he would mark a black dot every time he backslid. If he found himself overeating, he put one black dot beside the “Temperance” in his little book.  The second week, Franklin worked on “Silence.” “Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself,” he wrote. “Avoid trifling conversation.”       He was making real progress, he thought. Every week the accumulation of black dots became smaller and smaller. Franklin went on to Order, Resolution, Frugality, and so on; but when he came to the 13th week, Humility, Franklin’s self-help plan broke down, because he could not avoid being proud of his successful pursuit of Industry, Sincerity, Justice, and all those other good things.

I want to let you know that one of my clergy colleagues has received a book offer that he will start writing next year.  Rev. Dr. Sanford Brown serving Seattle 1st will be writing a book on pilgrimage in Italy next year.  I decided I wanted to write a book as well.  Want to know the title?     Humility, and how I achieved it.

Garfield:  “It is hard to be humble, when you’re as great as I am.”
Oh Lord, It’s Hard to be Humble, when you’re perfect in every way.
I can’t wait to look in the mirror cause I get better lookin’ each day.
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 doin’ the best that I can!

As soon as you start telling yourself or anyone else for that matter that you’re humble, you’ve lost all humility.  We cannot will ourselves to be humble.  We cannot pray ourselves humble.  And there is such a thing as false humility.  However, we can come before God in humble openness and fervent trust in God’s goodness.  In so doing we make room for God to work in our lives. The Hymn Amazing Grace speaks of a deep humility that recognizes that we are all dependent on God’s grace.  Although I always change the word wretch to soul.   I never liked the word wretch, so I simply change it.  However it does remind me of that saying:  There’s good in the worst of us, and bad in the best of us, so it doesn’t behoove any of us to talk about the rest of us. Truth be told, there is a bit of a wretch in all of us. We just don’t like to admit it.

 To live without self-justification makes me feel vulnerable and naked, but it can be liberating. As soon as we accept that we are accepted by God, we never need to prove ourselves. To get to that place, Jesus says that we need only seven words — those mumbled by the tax collector as he stood at a distance and stared at the ground, the Jesus Prayer: “Oh Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

Charles Cousar writes, “Prayer is the occasion for honesty about oneself and generosity about others”.  Honesty flows from an open heart, an open mind, a life opened to God and to transformation.  What if we offered the prayer, “God, I thank you that my well- being is bound up with that of all other members of your creation.

The spiritual life is about love.  Love God, love your neighbor as yourself. Put that love into practice, with deep listening, openness, responsiveness, all of this in an ongoing way, not just in times of prayer, but always.

The life lived with God is more about our posture than our practice.
We are called, not to be professionally competent, but to be humbly open.”

 The Place where you are Right by Yehuda Amichai considered to be Israel’s greatest modern poet.
From the place where we are right Flowers will never grow In the spring.
The place where we are right Is hard and trampled Like a yard.
But doubts and loves Dig up the world Like a mole, a plow.
And a whisper will be heard in the place
Where the ruined House once stood.