He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘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.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other, for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Sometimes Jesus told parables that I really question whether or not they are something he saw recently. Similarly, to how Nathan got David to admit his wrongdoing by shifting the people in the story to being shepherds, so Jesus seems to address very real people in mildly fictionalized scenarios. I think to back when I watched a lot of Law and Order in High School, or even Criminal Minds for that matter, inevitably they would have a story ripped straight fROm the headlines, and they would do next to nothing to hide that fact. That produced something of a voyeuristic effect within the show, a definite knowledge that I was being entertained by something awful that really happened.
The effect is different in ancient discourse, and usually it was not for the purpose of entertainment. While we remain captivated by many of Jesus’s parables, even two thousand years later, I would not say that many of them entertain me. The parable of the figs, is just a thing that happened to Jesus the other day when he yelled at a fig tree. The parable of the Good Samaritan, a bit better in terms of entertainment value, but the message is kinda obvious so I’m not left wanting to know more about the characters. No, the parables lack that sort of problem when they’re representing real people in the life of Jesus and his disciples, but they still have a stamp of familiarity that is hard to deny.
Maybe what we see is not Jesus throwing any amount of shade, as our first instinct might be, but instead a projection of our own feelings. We can think of people in our lives that resemble the characters in the parables and so we imagine Jesus must also have such specific people in mind when he tells these stories. Maybe that’s the secret to a good story, creating characters that become vessels for the listener to explore their own emotions and place in life, and not just to make some statement about our own.
Regardless of the exact intent behind the story, Jesus does have a point to make in this parable. There is a right and a wrong way to go about our devotion to God, and I would say any aspect of our life where we feel we are doing exceptionally well. A difference between expressing joy and basking in the goodness God has allowed us to experience, and lording those opportunities over others as if we alone made them come to be. It is a difficult thing to be humble, especially when addressing things that we legitimately should be lauded for. Yet, the person of faith has to walk that line and see that there is utility to humility.
Likewise, it should be said, the downtrodden in the world need to be elevated and lifted up. There are so many people in life that refuse to think one good thing about themselves, and that is no less a problem than excessive pride. Jesus here sees the tax collectors broken heart and praises it, not just for its humility, but for what it means. Tax collectors were considered pariahs in Judean society, not just because they collected taxes – although that gives us all indigestion – but because they were seen as traitors and thieves. They helped the Roman empire, the active oppressors of the people, and often asked for money beyond the tax itself to line their own pockets. To see the tax collector lamenting in the Temple meant they might be ready to make a change, something the Pharisee never would.
Pharisees were in many ways like pastors for ancient Judea. They had a bit more sway in the community and its daily life, but still basically pastors. That meant that you had good pastors and bad ones. There were pharisees as humble as Moses and pharisees as proud as the Morning Star at its zenith. Despite the multiplicity of actual morality among the pharisees, it is not surprising to me that Jesus would use them as an example of what is wrong with God’s people. You want to see virtue in a church, a pastor is not a bad place to look, but you can also find a lot of rot rising up to the top of any power structure.
The two characters embody as much dispositions of self-image as they do a willingness to respond to God. The Pharisee here loudly proclaims all that they have done for God so that the people know that they keep the law and then some. For this person, the Law has become a means to an end. For the tax collector the Law is what it is always meant to be – the instructions of God through Moses for the betterment and perfection of humanity through the Spirit of God. The tax collector will leave the temple thinking what he can do to better serve God, while the Pharisee will leave determined he already does enough.
Some of that might sound familiar to those who were here last week. It turns out that beyond our general stances on how quickly we become holy when we accept Christ’s call upon our life, there is a necessary willingness to be conformed to that image and calling. Humility is ultimately an honesty about the necessity of change and an acknowledgement of the progress that has already occurred. The humble person is not one who denies there is any good within them, but the one who can see where they stand before God, aware of the large gulf between, while noting that the separation was once much more pronounced.
Sitting in your pew today, you should be able to see a difference in how you think and act now to how you did a year ago. Hopefully, beyond that you can see that that difference is good. If not, a different conversation has to happen. However, humility allows for the conversation to go either way. The more we learn about being good, the higher the standard becomes, and so we are not ever in a place where we can lord our goodness over another, not if we truly know the meaning of the word. Likewise, no one can fall from a height to the place they cannot climb back up again, the path often being worn down and easier the second time than the first.
When we see Jesus blessing the humble, we might believe that we suddenly have to have very low self-images. I know many people will insist that there is not one good thing within them. I think that downplays the work of God upon us. We are justified through faith alone, yes, but the sanctification that God works in us makes permanent and definite changes to our soul. Those paths I mentioned a moment ago, are things we can go up and down, but they have been cleared by God’s spirit. The goodness within us is hard won, and it is won through the power of God, but it is all the same present with us.
The humble man, contrite and wanting to change, probably did more good on a regular basis than the proud one. The amount of grief he felt at his wrong certainly allows for him to be more than ready to bounce back and make amends for whatever evil there might be. Just one chapter away from this Parable, Jesus sees his story enacted by Zacchaeus, a tax collector who repays all those he cheated and then some. Zacchaeus did not do this because he already knew how to be good, or because he was exceptionally proud, but because when he met Jesus and was aware of his evil, he was more than ready to do the good necessary to fix it.
Perhaps that is the thing we need to keep in mind. Humility is the ability to look in the mirror and make a change. Pride is covering the mirror and substituting some imagined self-perception upon it. However, cover up the mirror, and you will not be able to keep yourself in the state you last remembered. When we do not reflect and seek to change, we change nonetheless, however rather than growing we shrink. We become less than we were, not able to find contentment in growth, but false comfort in delusion. We miss out when we do not seek out truth, and truth sets us free. It frees us from guilt by allowing us to take action, it frees us from sin by allowing us to become holy, it frees us to the freedom we are called to. All this, if we can only be honest about the real problems, to come to the real solutions. – Amen.