During the 16th century, Reformer Martin Luther while making an important point, with tongue in cheek” said: “True humility does not know that it is humble. If it did, it would be proud from the contemplation of so fine a virtue.” Gary Zukav in his book, The Seat of the Soul, writes: “An authentically empowered person is humble. [We see in their character inclusivity and harmlessness.] The inclusiveness of one who responds to the beauty of each soul. And the harmlessness of one who treasures, honors, and reveres life in all its forms.”
“The understanding of humility as a key virtue is found in most religions. For example, Tibetans look at a person who holds himself above others, believing he is better than others and knows more, and they say that person is like someone sitting on a mountain top: it is cold [up] there, it is hard, and nothing will grow. But if the person puts himself in a lower position [i.e. humbles himself] then that person is like a fertile field.”
In our Scripture lesson from the Gospel of Luke we heard that Jesus once told a group of his disciples as well as some Pharisees and other self-righteous folks, a parable whose goal was to hold up a mirror to them so that they could see how their arrogant and judgmental attitudes had resulted in a misguided and distorted understanding of true religion—of what matters most to God.
One of my mentors, theologian John Buchanan of Chicago, of this particular parable of Jesus once wrote: “It’s a simple story on the face of it, as it is so often with the parables that Jesus tells. “Two people go up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee, the other a tax collector…The Pharisee is a paragon of virtue, a member of an exclusive part of the Jewish religious tradition at the time, charged with keeping the laws of the Torah. The Pharisee is the ultimate religious insider, the establishment figure… The tax collector, on the other hand, is a symbol of corruption, greed, of hopelessness, of one who has sold his soul to the prevailing powers, the occupying Roman forces. The tax collector [makes a good living by perpetuating Roman oppression among his own people] and is the outsider in religious terms. Jesus [tells us in this parable that] the Pharisee is standing by himself as the Pharisee prays: ‘I thank you, God, I’m not like other people.’ And then the Pharisee goes on to outline examples of [such people, saying I’m] not a thief, a rogue, an adulterer.
Friends, to put it in contemporary terms, He would say, ‘Thank you, God, that I’m not like those people at the border; or like Godless liberals; or like Muslims or Jews. “[In Luke’s passage] the Pharisee follows that with even further self-justification of how he is different from others: he not only follows the law of God, but he goes beyond the strict cultic stipulations of the Torah in his fasting and tithing.“[Jesus contrasts this attitude of the Pharisee with the Tax Collector.] The tax collector…his head bowed, prays, “God, be merciful to me a sinner.” Says Jesus: “It is the tax collector, the hopeless corrupt outsider, rather than the Pharisee, who is justified, who is made righteous in God’s sight, who lives in right relationship with God.”
Friends, what is the spiritual thrust of your prayers? “Thank God I’m not like others” or “Lord, forgive me.” This parable shocked the original audience for it was a “total reversal of their expectations. To say that the hero of the parable—the person justified in the eyes of God—was the tax collector went against everything people in Jesus’ day believed about God and religion.
For the Pharisees and other insiders, God was a judge, and religion was about obeying a strict set of laws in order to please or appease that divine judge. The primary purpose of religion, they felt, was to uphold sacred tradition—to be constant in prayer and fasting—to tithe faithfully to the work of the temple. And to not be like other people.
For Jesus, true religion was not caught up in obeying a set of rules or dogma. For Jesus, true religion is living a life of love and compassion; of reaching out to the poor, the untouchable, to those on the margins of society; of realizing that “injustice anywhere, is a threat to justice everywhere.”
By his words and deeds, Jesus said that true religion was seen in those men and women like the tax-collector who prayed to God in a spirit of repentance and an attitude of humility—not in persons who approach God in a spirit of pride and an attitude of pious arrogance.
Listen to this contemporary parable that I first shared, many years ago, which shows how pride and arrogance can sneak up on any of us who have been part of the institutional church for years.
Once upon a time a person of great faith died and came to the gates of heaven to be greeted by St. Peter. The person of great faith said to St. Peter, “Surely I’ve earned my way into heaven with my countless good works!” St. Peter asks the man if he can give a brief history of his life with an emphasis on the good deeds he has done in order to gain entrance into the kingdom of heaven base on his works as he requests. "You will need 1000 points to be admitted to heaven," Peter tells the man. "This will be a cinch," the man thinks to himself, "I've been involved in church from the days of my youth." Then he begins to list his activities for St. Peter, including: He was a leader in his youth group, served in every possible position he could as a youngster. In the decades that followed he had served on nearly every committee the church had to offer and for years taught Sunday school. His list was extensive. "Very impressive," St. Peter smiles at the man. An angel standing with them also smiled and nodded as he tallied the points and then whispered in Peter's ear.
St. Peter tells the man, "This is quite striking--we seldom see men or women of your very good works. You will be pleased to know that you have 327 points! Is there anything else you can think of?" 327? The poor soul breaks into a cold sweat and begins to reach deep for every single act of kindness he can think of. He is still 673 points short of getting into heaven based on his good works. He lists more acts of kindness as the angel scratches furiously on his angelic clip board and nods his head in admiration.
St. Peter looks at the clip board and says, "This is quite exceptional! You now have a total of 402 points. Can you think of anything else?"The distressed guy, still 598 points short cries out: "I’m sunk! There is no hope for me! What more could I have done? O Lord, all I can do is beg for your grace and mercy!""THAT," exclaims St. Peter, "Is a thousand points!"
Friends, that brief anecdote reminds us that humility is what God is looking for in each of us—because humility is the first step in being a disciple of Christ. The humble person realizes that we all fall short of what we could have done with our lives—so that’s why we rely on God’s mercy, God’s grace, and God’s love.
That is what the Reformation was really about—Luther and Calvin were asking the Roman Catholic Church to, in a spirit of humility, repent, to turn around and return to the Bible as the central teaching, guide, foundation and standard of the church. For the individual, humility brings us down the mountain of pride to an understanding that we are no better or worse than anyone else. Humility enables us not only to confess our shortcomings, our sins, it enables us truly to be a person who loves others, loves our neighbor, as we have been loved.
The person whose heart is humble prays: Thank you God for loving me even as you love thieves, rogues, adulterers, and tax collectors. Thank you for being a God of mercy and compassion, for with you in my life, I know all things are possible. Help me, O God, not to be cold, hard, heartless, cruel, or proud. If I boast, may I boast of your steadfast love for this world. May I boast only of Christ.
One of my heroes in the faith, William Sloane Coffin Jr., a great Protestant leader of the twentieth--century…describes true religion as “that which strives to convert people from self-preoccupation to the wholehearted giving of oneself in love to God and to others.”
With that in mind I close with a true story about a young man who one day learned the meaning of humility and grace—an unexpected gift to him from a stranger. It’s one of my favorites!
“In Richmond, Virginia, one Saturday morning early in the 1800s, an old man went into the market to buy something. He was dressed plainly, his coat was worn, and his hat was dingy. On his arm he carried a small basket."I wish to get a fowl for tomorrow's dinner," the old man said. “The market man showed him a fat turkey, plump and white and ready for roasting."Ah! that is just what I want," said the old man. "My wife will be delighted with it."
The old fellow asked the price and paid for it. The market man wrapped a paper round it and put it in the basket. The old man was about to begin his journey home smiling as he anticipated his wife’s delight on seeing his gift to her.
Before he had left the market, a young man stepped up. "I will take one of those turkeys too," he said. “The young man was dressed in fine style, a top hat, cape, and carried a fancy cane."Shall I wrap it up for you?" asked the market man."The young man replied, Yes, here is your money, and send it to my house at once.”"I can’t do that," said the market man. My errand boy is sick to-day, and there is no one else to send. Besides, it is not our custom to deliver goods." "Then how am I to get it home?" asked the young gentleman. "I suppose you will have to carry it yourself," said the market man. "It’s not heavy." The young man, now flustered said, “Carry it myself! Who do you think I am? Fancy me carrying a turkey along the street!" said the young gentleman; and he began to grow angry.
The old man who had bought the first turkey was still standing nearby. He had heard all that was said. "Excuse me, sir," the old man said to the young gentleman; "but may I ask where you live?""I live at Number 39, Broad Street," [a couple of blocks from here] answered the young gentleman; my name is Johnson." "Well, that is lucky," said the old man, smiling. I happen to be going that way, and I will carry your turkey, if you will allow me.""Oh, certainly!" said Mr. Johnson. "Here it is. You may follow me."When they reached young Mr. Johnson's elegant home, the old man politely handed him the turkey and turned to go.
"My friend, what shall I pay you?" said the young gentleman. "Oh, nothing, sir, nothing," answered the old man. "It was no trouble to me, and you are welcome." The old man bowed and went on his way. Young Mr. Johnson looked after him and wondered.
A few days later the young man was back at the market. He found the market man who had sold him the turkey."Who was that polite old gentleman who carried my turkey for me?" he asked of the market man. "That was John Marshall, Chief Justice of the United States. He is one of the greatest men in our country.” The young gentleman was surprised and ashamed. "Why did he offer to carry my turkey?" he asked. The market man responded, “He probably wished to teach you a lesson," answered the market man. "What sort of lesson?" "Maybe that no man should feel himself too fine to carry his own packages."
Just then another man who had been in the market that day and had seen and heard it all, said to the young gentleman, "Judge Marshall had no lesson in mind, he carried the turkey for you simply because he wished to be kind and obliging. That is his way."
Friends, may God’s grace enable us, too, to live in just such a way—celebrating—that with God’s spirit and grace in our hearts, we can be kind, warm, helpful, even humble.