Sermon: “Journey to Humility”

October 23, 2016: Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost

Luke 18:9-14

In the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, Jesus handed us two characters who are polar opposites. More so even than a couple of Presidential candidates I could name.

Now, they do have a couple of things in common – Jesus’ characters in the parable, not the candidates, that is. Both the Pharisee and the tax collector would have lived pretty comfortable lives in comparison with most people around them. Pharisees tended to be wealthy enough to have time for study and devotion. Tax collectors were noticeably rich. They both had power and authority in their communities. People would treat them with respect for their power.

And then there are the contrasts.

Despite what the word has come to mean in English – we tend to equate “Pharisee” with “hypocrite” – the Pharisee in Jesus’ story was righteous. He met and exceeded the standards for faithful living in the first century. He was careful to do the right things. He didn’t hurt people. He gave the expected tithe. He fasted on Mondays and Thursdays, the days when people from the surrounding farms would come to the villages for worship at the synagogues.

He was righteous.

The tax collector, however, was not. He worked for the Roman Empire, not for any local government, which made him a collaborator with a despised occupying power. The Romans set an amount which each tax collector must raise – but nobody said that they couldn’t collect more and pocket the rest, so that’s exactly what most of them did. They were so despised that in third century writings of the Jewish rabbis, it’s said that if a tax collector enters a house, the house becomes ritually unclean. As David Schnasa Jacobsen writes, “Tax collectors are not merely ‘misunderstood’: they are on the wrong side religiously, politically, and economically.”

Not righteous.

But the tax collector in this parable was self-aware. He knew that he’d been on the wrong side. He knew that that was wrong. He knew that he needed God’s mercy.

In contrast, again, the Pharisee was not self-aware. He had no idea what he sounded like to God as he prayed his prayer, with all its harsh comparisons with other people. As Anna Kennedy put it so well at Bible Study on Wednesday morning: “The Pharisee doesn’t need God; he has himself.”

In his book Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis wrote: “A proud man is always looking down on things and people; and, of course, as long as you’re looking down, you can’t see something that’s above you.”

Jesus’ parables usually invite us to identify with one or more of the characters, but that’s pretty risky in this story, and I can’t recommend it. These two characters are extremes: one fully righteous but internally clueless, and the other fully self-aware but with a soul burdened with sin. I don’t think any of us are so unrighteous and self-aware as the tax collector, or so righteous and self-righteous as the Pharisee.

Truthfully, I’m more interested in a part of the story that Jesus didn’t tell: How did the tax collector come to this place? How did he make his journey to humility? In real life, that rarely happens in an instant. How did he come to trade in his selfishness for self-awareness? How did he come to care more for his soul than for his comfort? How did he come to place his trust in the grace of God?

Well, Jesus didn’t say.

But isn’t that the place for us to be? Starting wherever we start – please don’t go to the place the tax collector started with all the greed and theft and disregard for others – but starting wherever we start, how can we come to this place?

How can we make the journey toward humility? How can we trade selfishness for self-awareness? How can we care more for our souls than for our comfort? How can we place our trust in the grace of God?

The first part of that journey, I’m convinced, is to follow the lead of the Pharisee. However badly this prayer turned out, it has to be said that he set out to be a good person, to do the right things, and not to do things that brought harm to others. He had standards.

Standards count for something. They give us something to compare our behavior to. They give us a measure by which we know how we’re doing.

If we’re not there yet, they become goals. Goals can really challenge us. They can help us stretch from the person and place that we are, to the person in the place where we want to be.

With standards and goals in place – both, I hasten to point out, things that we need to review from time to time – the next part of the journey is paying attention. Paying attention to ourselves, to what we say and what we do. The questions aren’t complicated. What have I done? What haven’t I done that I meant to do? That’s pretty straightforward.

What’s not so straightforward is the discipline to ask them, and ask them again and again. To answer them with honesty and with as little self-delusion as possible. To grasp hold of the courage necessary to acknowledge our real talents and skills (and the obligations that may go with them) on the one hand, and to face our sins and errors without excuses or trivializing them on the other. Discipline. Honesty. Courage.

Part of the journey is making mistakes. They’re impossible to avoid, after all. Our knowledge is incomplete, and our ability to predict the future is incomplete. With the best of intentions, we will make mistakes.

I don’t know about you, but sometimes my best intentions slip to my worst intentions, too. And I don’t always recognize the difference. A pretty good clue, for me, is that when I think somebody owes me something, I’m out of my best intentions.

Having made mistakes, it’s important to confess the mistakes. To acknowledge that we made them. To apologize for having made them.

Having confessed the mistakes, it’s important to learn from the mistakes. What won’t I repeat? What will I try that’s different?

It’s as if I always started a nail with my thumb resting on the head of the nail, right on top where the hammer is supposed to land. If I do that, it’s easier to hold the nail steady, but I’ll hit my thumb with the hammer every time. The only way I’ll miss my thumb is to miss the nail entirely.

If I never admit, at least to myself, that this doesn’t work, I won’t change it. I’ll end up with a very sore thumb, and I probably won’t have any nails holding things together.

Learn from mistakes.

Not everything we do will be a mistake, thank God. We will have the experience of the Pharisee, the ability to point to success. Celebrate these successes so that they become jumping-off points for the next stage of the journey. They’re not endpoints. They’re waypoints. They’re milestones. They’re ahu that mark the trail.

And keep the focus, as best you can, on God. The Pharisee lost his focus. He turned it onto other people, comparing himself, in pride, with those he saw as ethical and spiritual failures. He wasn’t focused on God. The tax collector, mind you, was at risk of concentrating so hard on his unworthiness – on himself – that he could also have lost touch with God.

Because this journey to humility is, in the end, about a journey to more fully receive, appreciate, and renew our souls in God’s love. As Monica Baldwin wrote, “What makes humility so desirable is the marvelous thing that it does to us; it creates in us a capacity for the closest possible intimacy with God.”

And it is a journey, not a static, one-time decision. It’s a journey. The journey isn’t short, and it isn’t all that well mapped, and sometimes it’s downright difficult. Particularly if you’ve really challenged yourself with those goals.

But it’s a journey so worth making, that I can only urge you to continue on. Continue on this journey to humility, and know – really know – that God is with you all the way.

Categories Sermons | Tags: , | Posted on October 23, 2016

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