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 looking each day.
To know me is to love me // I must be one real righteous man.
Oh Lord it’s hard to be humble // but I’m doing the best that I can.
Based on how Jesus portrays him in this parable, humility does seem hard for the Pharisee. He comes to the temple to pray, to have a little one-on-one time with God, and in the midst of praying, notices someone across the way, someone everyone knows is a sinner… which, happily, reminds the Pharisee of just how good he himself is.
Now, there’s a great reason to keep your eyes open while you pray. It gives you a chance to look around, compare yourself to others, and assure yourself—and God—of just how good you really are. When the Pharisee does his prayer-peeking and compares himself to his fellow pray-er, he hits the jackpot. He’s no sinner! He’s no thief or rogue or tax collector, like that guy over there! He fasts twice a week. He tithes. “I thank you, God, that I’m not like that loser over there!” Rather than praying to God and giving thanks for all he has, the Pharisee tells God how good he, the Pharisee, is. How lucky God must be to know him!
Luke tells us that Jesus “told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.” Jesus “told this parable to some, some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous.” So, if we don’t trust in ourselves that we are righteous, can we just skip this parable?
I guess we could skip this parable…but if we trust in ourselves that we don’t trust in ourselves, um, aren’t we trusting in ourselves? Man. That Jesus was a sneaky one! I guess we’d better stick with it…just to be safe.
Whether Pharisee, tax collector, or innocent bystander, what might this parable say to us?
It’s a story, right? The formula likely would have been familiar to the hearers. Kind of like, “A priest, a rabbi, and a Baptist preacher go into a bar….” A joke like that works because of characteristics we’ve come to associate with priests, rabbis, and Baptist preachers. The priest is going to refer to the Pope; the rabbi is going to refer to worshiping on Saturday; and the Baptist preacher is going to take up an offering. That’s just how the format works.
So, when Jesus starts out, “Two men went to the Temple to pray, a Pharisee and a tax collector,” the hearers would have been prepared for the Tax Collector to be the butt of the joke. Because everybody hated tax collectors. And Pharisees were some of the most faithful people there were, at least according to the Pharisees. So, when they heard the beginning of the story, Jesus’ hearers probably were settling in for a story about how the tax collector was a sinner.
Except, that’s not what Jesus does, is it? He turns the predictable formula on its head when the Pharisee prays loudly about all the sins he hasn’t committed and the Tax Collector prays fervently for all the sins he has committed. And who goes to his house justified? The faithful Pharisee? Nope. It’s the Tax Collector. And why? Because he is humble.
Humility. Now there’s a popular topic. Mac Davis is right. It’s hard to be humble….but not as hard as I once thought it was, not since I discovered the Rule of Benedict.
Benedict wrote his Rule in 5th c Italy. He’d been living in community but then had enough of that and went to live in a cave as a hermit. He was happy in his cave, but a group of men who wanted to live as monks found him and asked him to be their leader. Old Ben sighed deeply, then relented. The Rule represents his ideas about what it takes to live in community.
The Rule is the longest continuously used monastic guidelines in existence. It’s over 1500 years old. It’s the Rule followed by the nuns at “my” monastery, Our Lady of Grace.
The thing I like about the Rule is how practical it is. If someone doesn’t read well, Benedict says, they shouldn’t be a reader in worship. If someone doesn’t sing well, please don’t ask them to be the cantor. And that first psalm everyone sings at prayer? Sing it slowly and sing all the verses…that’ll give people who are running late time to get there. And for heavens’ sake, please don’t pray long prayers. Nobody likes that. My favorite practical tidbit is to give yourself time to go to the bathroom before you come to prayer.
The chapter I didn’t like initially was chapter 7, the one on humility. Benedict outlined 12 steps of humility. And in contrast to the rest of the Rule, it’s pretty harsh sounding stuff. Closer to humiliation than humility.
Which is why I’m glad Sr. Joan Chittister has “translated” Benedict’s idea of humility into 21st century terms. I won’t go into all the 12 steps…you can read Sr. Joan’s book for that. If you boil the Benedictine concept of humility down to its basics, though, it means to “understand (our) place in the universe,” to have a sense of our unique place in life, the only place we are put together to occupy. (Wisdom Distilled from the Daily, 55) We don’t think of ourselves more highly than we are; we don’t think of ourselves more lowly than we are. True humility is knowing ourselves as we are, which is knowing ourselves as God knows us.
When we know—and accept—ourselves as we are, it becomes so much easier to accept others as they are. It’s when we start inflating–or deflating–our own worth that we become annoyed with or disdainful of or afraid of others. If we are in sync with our own location in the world, other people occupying their place in the world won’t bother or threaten us.
So, when the Pharisee spends all that time in his prayer inflating his own worth and deflating the Tax Collector’s, he’s not being honest about himself. He’s not being honest with himself. He’s not being himself. Instead of using his prayer to connect with God, he uses it to hide from God. Not being honest about his own foibles, he’s not able to receive justification or grace from God. How can you receive forgiveness and grace if you never acknowledge you’ve done anything wrong? The Pharisee leaves the Temple that day exactly the way he came in. Which, when you think about it, is just plain sad.
The Tax Collector, though, goes home “justified.” Why? Because he knows he is a sinner. As a tax collector, he was part of a corrupt system that gouged the poor and enriched the wealthy. (NIB, 215-17) When he goes to the Temple that day, the Tax Collector understands his place in the universe. He’s remorseful for taking more than he needs…and exploiting the poor in the process. Aware of himself and his sin, the Tax Collector comes clean before God. And because he comes clean—with himself and with God—he is able to experience forgiveness. And grace. And wholeness. He goes home justified. He goes home feeling God’s love. He goes home a new, more humble man.
One of writer Anne Lamott’s prayers sums up well the prayer of the humble. “God, please help me not to be such an ****.” There you go.
In Luke’s gospel, Jesus seems fixated on this humility thing. He just keeps wanting us to be who we are created to be, to know our one place in the universe…
Even at the table…maybe especially at the table. Don’t presume to take the places of honor at the table when invited for a meal. Take the seat of lowest honor. It could be that the host will invite you to sit in a different place, or maybe not. Simply come as yourself and enjoy the meal, the fellowship.
Yesterday, we said goodbye to our beloved Sue. If ever there were a truly humble person, it was Sue Bunch. By the way she lived her life–with compassion and intention–you could see that Sue fully inhabited her one place in the universe. She didn’t think of herself more highly than she was; she didn’t think of herself more lowly than she was. She was, simply, Sue…the Sue God created her to be.
As we continue trying to figure out how to live in a Sue-less world, we’ll do well to follow her humble example–not to think of ourselves more highly than we are, not to think of ourselves as more lowly than we are. The best way to honor Sue’s life will be to simply be ourselves, to find our one place in the universe, settle into that place, and breathe in God’s love…breathe out God’s love…breathe in…breathe out…
In the name of our God, who creates us, redeems us, sustains us, and hopes for our wholeness. Amen.
Kimberleigh Buchanan © 2013, 2022