At last, an easy parable!
If you’ve been reading along the past few Sundays, then you know we’re about due for an easy one: we’ve had some doozies lately. A few weeks ago we were counseled to be like a dishonest manager who messed with the accounts of all his boss’s debtors. Then we heard about the power of faith the size of a mustard seed and the wonders we could do if we had even that much. Last week we were told to be like a woman pleading for justice with a stubborn, hard-hearted judge. It’s enough to make you wish Jesus had a less creative teaching style.
But finally, today, we get a straightforward parable with a neat and tidy message. “Jesus also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt” (Luke 18:9). That beginning sets it up nicely: a parable about the proud and the humble. Sounds simple enough: bring it on, Jesus!
And lo and behold, we quickly discover that it’s even a good-guy / bad-guy story to boot, the parable equivalent of a cop show. What could be simpler? In this corner we’ve got a Pharisee, and in this corner we’ve got a tax collector, both of them headed up to the temple in Jerusalem to pray.
It is important to remember that while we hear “Pharisee” and very likely think “self-righteous, religious know-it-all,” that’s not what Jesus’ audience would have thought. Pharisees were the keepers of religious law in the Jewish community. They were people who read their scriptures and said their prayers, who stayed out of trouble, who gave generously to people in need. Yes, Jesus had plenty of qualms with them, but by and large, people heard “Pharisee” and thought of a person who modeled faithful living.
And similarly, while we hear “tax collector” and think mild-mannered IRS employee, that’s not what Jesus’ audience would have thought. Tax collectors in Jesus’ time were folks employed by the Roman Empire; they were typically people from the local community who were working for “the man,” collecting money from their friends and neighbors to ship off to Rome for the purpose of funding the ongoing military occupation of their own country. By and large, people heard “tax collector” and thought of a dishonest, two-faced traitor.
So in this corner we have a Pharisee, one widely thought to be righteous, and in this corner we have a tax collector, one widely thought to be a scumbag. And they each offer a prayer. The Pharisee’s prayer is essentially a list of his fine, righteous attributes: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income” (Luke 18:11-12). And on the other side of the temple, way in the back of the room, the tax collector whispers his own, short prayer: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner” (18:13). And we probably know where Jesus is going with this before he even begins to explain: God is more interested in humility than in arrogance. Forget the fact that society gave one man honor and the other man scorn: the one who humbled himself was made right with God that day.
At last, an easy parable! Right? Good guy / bad guy? Now all that’s left is to ask which kind of person you are: one who judges others or one who is perfectly humble. No problem, right?
And it’s right here that the story suddenly becomes plenty complex. A teacher of mine says this parable has a trap, and it’s almost impossible not to spring it. None of us wants to be like that Pharisee. While we all probably have some of those ugly tendencies, some of those “Thank God I’m not like so-and-so,” thoughts, that’s not who we’d like to be.
But as soon as we start thinking about how humble we want to be—or about how to become a very humble person—we’re probably started down a road much like the Pharisee’s, a road of self-congratulation and self-justification before God and everyone else.
Because here’s the crazy thing about humility. The people who know the most about it probably never talk about humility. They probably don’t think about it, either. They’re too busy thinking and talking about things outside themselves; they’re too busy being humble. I bet you know a few people that describes pretty well; I know I do.
Contrary to popular belief—and to lots of Christian practice—I don’t think the Bible or the Christian faith is particularly interested in turning people into shame-filled sacks of self-loathing. God deemed the whole creation good—and people along with it—and throughout the Bible, it’s God’s mission to lift up those who are bowed low, to bring healing and wholeness and life to a world that needs them.
So when the Bible talks about humility as a virtue—which it certainly does—I think that instead, it’s talking about the gift of knowing that God is God and we are not. I think it’s talking about the gift of having eyes that look out into the world beyond your own skull and seeing that you are part of a story much, much bigger than yourself.
- Humility is having eyes like the prophet Joel, who could see that it’s God’s dream to pour out the Spirit on all people—on daughters and sons and young and old.
- Humility is having a heart like the author of the psalm, who called God the “hope of all the ends of the earth and of the farthest seas,” who could sense the love of God in the rains softening the dry ground and blessing its growth.
- Humility is having faith like the author of Second Timothy, who could see that God stands by us always and gives us strength.
Contentment—the subject of the chapter we’re reading together this week from the book Enough—is like humility in that way. The people who know the most about contentment won’t talk your ear off about how gloriously content they are. They’re too busy receiving each day as a gift and living in the present, trusting in the deep grace that holds them.
Hamilton spends a lot of this chapter on practical steps (Four keys to cultivating contentment, Five steps to simplifying—you get the picture). While I’m generally suspicious of lists like these that claim to offer the step-by-step solution to a complicated problem, I think there is some wisdom in his approach.
Because when it comes to contentment, thinking or talking about it will only get you so far. Maybe it will help you recognize a problem you have—that you’re rarely satisfied with the gifts around you, always grasping for more—but thinking and talking won’t ultimately make you content. The only way to get there is to start practicing: to change unhealthy purchasing habits, and give thanks even when you don’t feel like it, and simplify the stuff in your life. Take a few practical steps, and you may—without noticing it—find yourself entering a more content place.
I think the same is true of humility. We don’t get there by talking about humility, or by saying self-effacing things, or by thinking of ourselves as nothing more than dirt. We get there by looking outside ourselves:
- By studying the wonder of the creation around us.
- By reading a book that enlarges our world.
- By giving our full, undivided attention to another person.
- By praising God with our own words, in our own language.
- By praising God with words written by others, in a foreign language.
- By singing with others—songs we love, and songs we might never choose on our own.
- By working at seeing the presence of God in those who are right in front of us.
We become humble by looking outside ourselves, and by realizing that the things that truly matter are given, not earned: life, grace, faith, hope, love.
May God give us hearts ready to receive and hands ready to serve.