October 23, 2022
I was reading a story the other day about a situation at an airport. There was a flight that was cancelled, and so everyone was asked to come to the ticket desk to reschedule their flight. People formed up a line, but then this one guy in a business suit pushed his way to the front, slammed his ticket down on the desk, and demanded that the ticket agent book him before anyone else. He insisted he was very important, and besides, he had a first class ticket! When the ticket agent politely reminded him he had to get in line like everyone else, the man responded:
“Do you know who I am?!”
Without missing a beat, the ticket agent turned on the microphone and announced to the airport, “We have a gentleman here who does not know who he is. If you are missing someone, please come to the desk to retrieve him!”
It seems like the times we are humbled the hardest are the times we think we need to be humble the least. And it also seems, if y’all have noticed, we don’t usually grow purposefully into humility. Usually it’s knocked into us by a series of humbling experiences: times we were wrong, times our hypocrisy has been exposed, times when something happens to convict us of ways that we were actually the one who was wrong. I’ve had plenty of those experiences myself, and I’m sure God knows I need plenty of work to be humbled in the future. I’m sure we all do.
So who is humbled by this parable? We know, if not this specific parable, then we’re at least familiar with the characters in it. We know the pharisee, thanking God for what a good person he is, how he tithes and fasts, and how he isn’t a degenerate sinner like the tax collector. And we know the tax collector, who can’t even look up toward heaven as he prays for mercy. We know we’re supposed to emulate the tax collector and humbly ask God for mercy, and shun the pharisee and his looking-down-the-nose-at-others ways.
But why? Why is that the takeaway so often? What else is God trying to say here?
I want us to consider the pharisee. When pharisees are mentioned in Luke’s gospel, we almost instinctively know they’re the bad guys. They are hypocrites. They are lovers of money. They are the ones who try to trick Jesus with disingenuous questions and tell him not to heal people on the sabbath. But look at this guy: he tithes. He fasts. That means he takes his stewardship seriously, without a doubt dropping a coin into every beggar’s cup he passes. He combs the streets for the poor on Passover to make sure his table is full and everyone can celebrate. He fasts to remind himself of his constant need for God’s provision. He reads the Torah regularly and spends plenty of time in prayer. He is an upstanding member of the community—the kind of person we would all admire and definitely want to have as part of our church. He does all the right things.
And the fact that he’s so admirable makes it that much bigger of a punch when Jesus declares at the end of the parable that he’s not the one who goes down to his home justified! Despite all his good works, his tithing and fasting, his devotional life, his general righteousness, he misses the point. He is filled with contempt. His heart hasn’t been changed. Rather than all of his time devoted to serving God, learning about God, reading God’s word, serving God’s people—the pharisee of the parable takes all of that to mean that he’s a better person than others, closer to God than those unrighteous sinners and thus more deserving of God’s goodness and mercy.
And we hear that contempt in the opening of his prayer: “I thank you, God, that I am not like other people.” It’s not an unfamiliar prayer to Jesus’s hearers though. They know this prayer. We have records of this prayer. It was considered a good prayer, because it shaped the pray-er’s words to thank God for all that God had done for them. It acknowledged that it was only by God’s grace that they could even be as righteous as God had made them to be. It wrapped thankfulness to God for God’s grace around pitying contempt for those unfortunate people outside of God’s grace. It had the exact same flavor as “There but by the grace of God go I.”
Humility isn’t usually grown. It comes to us in kicks. And the original hearers of this parable would’ve been kicked with humility when they realized they, too, had said the same prayer as the pharisee of Jesus’s parable. They, too, looked at the tax collectors and sinners and had been thankful that they weren’t like those people. That God’s grace had saved them from being like the people they believed were wrong, that were woefully misguided, that were sinners. They, too, harbored pitying contempt for others that they believed were less righteous, less good, less upstanding. And Jesus’s humbling reversal in the parable would’ve been a humbling experience.
Because we have this tax collector. And like the pharisee, we instinctively read the tax collectors as good guys in the gospels. But the original hearers would never have thought of them that way. Tax collectors were traitors to their people. They were exploiters; they got rich by bilking their neighbors. If there was anyone who would leave the Temple without being justified, it would be a tax collector. And yet here he is, in Jesus’s parable, justified instead of the righteous pharisee. Why?
Because he had been humbled. Something happened in this tax collector’s life where he acknowledged his sinfulness, and he asked God to have mercy on him. He didn’t know what to do. He didn’t have the answers. He had no one he could look down on and thank God at least he wasn’t that bad. So he threw his hope on God. He leaned on God’s mercy and hoped that was enough. He took his humbling to heart. And humility is the first step toward truly loving your neighbor.
When we are humbled, it reminds us just how far short we are from the perfection of God. And when we see just how far short we are, it makes us more willing to extend grace to others. Humility opens our eyes to the ways that we are wrong, or have done the wrong thing, or followed the wrong convictions. It’s hard to hold others in contempt when you’ve had a truly humbling experience that reminds you just how easily you could be the wrong one. Through humility, Jesus teaches us to rely on God, to trust that God’s grace is what will save us, to be transformed into more loving, more patient, more understanding, and more grace-filled people. When God humbles us, it’s so that we grow closer to the person God has called us to be.
So how has God humbled you lately? How do you need God to continue to humble you? Who do you still see and think, “thank God I’m not like that?” What humbling experience would help you throw your whole hope on God? This parable challenges us to remember humility, to trust in God, and to remember that it’s not our goodness that justifies, but God’s grace. May we be humbled enough to be open to that grace that lets us love our neighbor the way God wants us to.
Thanks be to God. Amen.