The Gift of Humility”
October 27, 2019 – 20th Sunday after Pentecost – Year C
One day 2 men were walking along a busy sidewalk. Looking at the 2 men, you notice that 1 wore an expensive business suit, and the other wore rags. They were quite a contrast. The well-dressed man walked with an air of pride, not paying much attention where he was going. The poorly dressed fellow was huddled over, obviously quite cold. All of a sudden, the 2 men collided.
The man in rags humbly apologized over and over. The man in the suit cursed him and barked, “Watch where you are going!” Then he stormed off without looking back, without apologizing, without even accepting the apology offered.
The man in rags apologized once more to the distant figure. Then he slowly turned and trudged off.
To an observer, it was obvious that it wasn’t the fault of the man in rags. The well-dressed man wasn’t looking where he was walking. He ran into the poor man. Clearly, if one was at fault it was the well-dressed man. But he didn’t care!
When we hear a story like this, our thoughts and feelings can easily focus on the wealthy man – and likely we feel some anger and disappointment.
As we think about the poor man, the outcast, it is easy for us to feel proud of him. This story parallels the parable recorded in the book of Luke about the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. While the Pharisee praised himself, lifting himself above the others, the Tax Collector humbly bowed and said, “God, have mercy on me.”
Let’s be clear. Tax collectors were not civil servants like tax auditors for the CRA. They were independent owners of a franchise business. They contracted with the Romans to collect taxes from their own people. In return they kept a goodly percentage for themselves. Many people of the time saw them as the scum of the earth. They were detested. The tax collector was a no-good , low-down, sleazy, used car salesperson type, who arm twisted people for money. He was a taker and not a giver. They were rightly considered betrayers in cahoots with the occupying force. They were spiritual outcasts. As for the Pharisees, we need to give credit where credit is due. They were genuine in their desire to “walk the walk” and not just “talk the talk”. Theirs was a powerful lay renewal movement and their passion for righteousness was real.
But hold on. this parable appears only in Luke and his intended audience is clearly stated in the opening sentence: “To people who were sure of their own goodness and despised everybody else.” In religious observance and dedication to the Law of Moses, this Pharisee is depicted as the very pillar of the Jewish community. He gives generously and prays continually, actually going beyond the letter of the law in his observances. His fault lies, not in his quest to live within the Torah, but in his sense of superiority over others who couldn’t. He counts himself as worthy before God and clearly sees this as a result of his own righteous actions. He compares himself with others such as the tax collector and despises them for their “sinfulness.” His prayer is boastful and self-righteous – full of extreme spiritual pride. In contrast, the Tax Collector is all too aware of his shortcomings. He feels unworthy and alone. His profession isolates him from his fellow Jews. He acknowledges his sinfulness and seeks God’s mercy. Luke concludes: “Those who make themselves great will be humbled, and those who are humble will be made great.” Most of us have no problem accepting that forgiveness is a gift from God – freely given and not earned or deserved or dependent upon individual worthiness. The tax collector’s attitude of humility does not surprise us. “And so he should!” most of us say along with the Pharisee. What is never as clear is that “righteousness” or right relation with God is a gift too. Both forgiveness and worthiness are blessings from God and can only be received with an attitude of humility and gratitude. The Pharisee, despite all his religious correctness was not truly open to receiving God’s gift because his proud attitude masked his need. In contrast, the tax collector had no problem recognizing his need and came ready to receive whatever gift God had to offer.
What does it mean to “walk humbly with our God?” Perhaps a clue lies in the root word “humble” – that is humus or earth. We are all inhabitants of the earth, dependent upon the earth when we die. If we find ourselves blessed, and in a position to be pleased with our life, surely this is a matter for gratitude, not pride? But then who among us can claim to be completely free of any trace of personal pride which causes us in some way to feel superior to others? Is it possible to be fully ourselves before God, with all our shortcomings and inadequacies, and still be worthy in God’s eyes? Could it be simply a matter of attitude? What attitude might God be requiring of us, both as individuals and as a community of faith? Before I address that, I want to point out that in Arabic the word for blessing and the word for rain are the same. In a desert climate, blessing and rain are the same thing.
For years now, we have been warned about the dangers for climate change. With an election just behind us, climate change was one of the “hot button” issues. A 16 year old girl from Sweden spoke in a way and was heard in a way that even David Suzuki and other environmentalists can not match. So, are we going to be like the tax collector and humbly go about doing our part in benefit of the planet? Or, are we going to be like the Pharisee and make a lot of noise, but ultimately do little in actually effecting change on behalf of the environment?
How we live is as important as what we say. We have all met or been a person whose words do not match up to the deeds.
In “The Quietness Book” Ray Ashford told this story, “I am reminded of a beautiful young woman, a renowned peace activist I once hosted for an afternoon. I remember how much I looked forward to our meeting. I remember too my disappointment when I found myself dealing with a crusader of the angriest and most arrogant kind – a woman who, in fact, was arrested only hours after we parted company. The charge? Kicking a police officer in the groin.”
As they say, “Actions speak louder than words!”
In the novel “Father Melancholy’s Daughter” tells this story: “A college professor, Trevor LaFarge, has fallen into disgrace. Resigning from the Vestry, he continued to attend church and take communion. His daughter Margaret describes how a certain lady sidled up to her father, the priest, at the first coffee hour after the disgrace.
On that occasion, Professor LaFarge had received communion but had foregone the socializing afterwards in the basement. The lady confided to the priest. “I was frankly surprised to see you-know-who at the communion rail today.”
The priest gave the woman a strange look before he replied. “He’d better be there. We need him.”
“I beg your pardon?” she asked.
“I said we need him,” the priest repeated. “I say we’re lucky to have him. The church has to have a few sinners.” Then he quoted a verse of scripture. “I am not come to call the righteous…” he said. And then he added, “You-know-who said that.”
In one of the past churches I served, a group of us were talking about the fellowship of coffee time. One woman courageously spoke up and said, “I disagree. I find it to be a time of gossip. I don’t feel included or safe saying anything personal.” I broached the topic in a newsletter – and wow di I receive flack! “We are a caring congregation,” said one. “How dare you call us gossips,” said another. But – in time I had several folk thanking me for my courage in naming an issue that had plagued that congregation for decades.
God calls us into a relationship that is both intimate and complex. It is about more than simply doing the right things or praying the right prayers. It is about seeing the world the way God sees it and responding with our whole selves. Gossip is one of those fine line issues. We mean well when we ask about another. We intend well when we speak of a neighbour as failing. And yet, it can too easily turn into a time of malicious slander. I don’t think it was just the church from my past that struggled with the issue of gossip. I think we all do. For we are all Pharisees. We are all tax collectors
We have reflected on a challenging parable. We see ourselves in both caricatures. And if we are honest, neither one makes us terribly comfortable. But, we see clearly the door of humility open wide. May we surrender ourselves to the path of kindness, open-heartedness, and gentle-spiritedness. Amen.