Humility is a word that has gone out of style in our 21st-century vocabulary. Our world teaches us to look down on those who are humble, to step on them to get to where we think we need to be. We are taught that our self-worth is tied to our status in life, and thus we are called to propel ourselves ahead of others not only with our talents but with our cunning ways and our political savvy. It has become acceptable to not only disagree with someone but to make fun of them and destroy them on a personal level for no other purpose than it makes us feel better, and we get a good laugh. We have become so numb to all that is going on around us that we believe that if something does not directly affect us, then we do not have to worry about it. That, by the way, is the very definition of privilege.
But we read in Micah, what has been called the Micah Mandate, “And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (6:8). And we heard at the end of the Gospel passage this morning, “For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted” (18:14b). Being humble is one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit and, in my mind, anyway, one of the things that is most lacking in the Church today.
Jesus paints us a picture. Two men are in the Temple, praying. One is exalted by the Church and is the proper and perfect parishioner if you will. He attends church every Sunday. He serves on several committees and volunteers for everything happening around the Church. He places his envelope in the tray each week and is the first one to return next year’s stewardship pledge form, increasing his previous years’ pledge just a little…. (a short subliminal commercial there). But he comes to the Church, stands in the center wearing his most elegant garments, raises his arms over his head and thanks to God that he is not like others especially this poor wretch over here, and he points to the small man, rolled up in a ball in the corner.
And there he is, the other man in the story whom the grandiose one labels as a Tax Collector. If there is anything more despised in the 1st century Palestine it’s the Tax Collector. I would venture to say that the Tax Collector is more despised than the Samaritans that we always hear about. But here he is in the church standing, as we read, afar off. He is beating on his chest and saying over and over again, “God be merciful to me a sinner.” So burdened is he with his sin that he cannot even list his eyes to God. These two are quite the contrast between confidence and humility.
The great thing about parables is that those who hear it can place themselves inside the parable. There have been times when we have been the proud one, and there have been times when we have been the poor wretch in the corner. Perhaps we twinge a little when we think of ourselves as the self-righteous one, and maybe we get a little inspiration from the humility of the Tax Collector, either way, we are both people in this story.
But this parable also tells us of the God of mercy and the God who redeems through self-sacrifice. It is also a reminder that our justification comes not through our doing things, even good things. In fact, it is not achieved at all, at least by us. Justification comes through God’s reaching out in mercy to helpless sinners. There is a saying in recovery that “the first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem.” Recovery does not work if one is forced to go, recovery has to come from within, and the same is true in our spiritual life. Acknowledgment that we are sinners is critical. Now, we do not have to be like the Tax Collector in the story but, a recognition that we have fallen short and we need the help of God in our lives is what we are being asked to do.
1st century Jews believed that strict adherence to the Law was what was needed for their salvation. If they obeyed the Law and followed the Law correctly, they would be justified before God. Of course, that was impossible to do, no one could follow the law accurately, and this caused a great deal of pain. We have seen a similar thing play out in the modern Church with all of the rules and regulations. All of these rules led to corruption in the Church, which, some would say inevitably, led to a reform in the Church. Guilt is a powerful tool that can be used to good and evil, but guilt is never a way to help someone in their spiritual life.
So Jesus came to show us another way. Jesus told us that he was the fulfillment of all of the law and all of the prophets and summarized it all with “love God and love neighbor.” We no longer have to make a sacrifice on some altar in atonement for what we have or have not done for God made that ultimate sacrifice for us by sending Jesus to show us the way and to chart the course for us. We no longer have to wander in the darkness, for God has shown forth his light to lighten the path before us. And yes, we will stray from that path, and we will fall in a ditch or two along the way, but thankfully, that light never goes out, and we can find our way back perhaps with a little more humility.
The humility of the Tax Collector does not require us to wallow in self-pity and regret. The liberation of knowing that God is a God of mercy, and a God of love means we can leave behind our reliance on our achievements in our work or our faith community, These things have their place but not at the center of our spiritual life and our relationship with the God of the cross and the Friend of the poor.
Balance is key. We cannot trust in our ability to fulfill the Law, even the simple law of love God and love neighbor, but we also cannot abandon the Law. We humble ourselves before a merciful God yet are confident in the Lord’s promises. Whether Pharisee or Tax Collector, we all find welcome in God’s Temple, and for that, we can truly be thankful.