10/23/22 – It’s Hard to be Humble

IT’S HARD TO BE HUMBLE

October 23, 2022
20th Sunday after Pentecost
Joel 2:23-32; Ps.65; 2 Tim. 4:6-18; Lk. 18:9-14
Rev. Denise Clark-Jones

The boxing champion, Mohammed Ali, famously said: “It’s hard to be humble when you are as great as I am.” The Pharisee in Jesus’ parable we just heard might have made a similar statement. Humility is not only a great virtue, according to the Bible, it is essential for a relationship with God and with one another. It is antithetical to say: “I am humble,” because the very statement is self-adulation.  We can say we are humbled by something, which directs praise to whoever or whatever has humbled us, but we cannot declare ourselves to be “humble,” without exposing our pride. In our gospel reading, Jesus was addressing a group of Pharisees with the tale of one particular Pharisee showing his lack of humility in a prayer to the Almighty.

This is the second story Jesus told in the Gospel according to Luke, in which a prayer is the context of Jesus teaching about the kingdom of God. Last week we heard the parable of the widow who persistently demanded justice from an unjust judge. Due to her persistence, the judge finally granted her request. Luke prefaced the parable with the explanation that the parable was about prayer and the pursuit of justice. In today’s reading, one Pharisee’s prayer to God, which is really no more than a self-righteous diatribe, is the context of Jesus teaching about righteousness, humility, and justification.

This illustration comes in a sequence of discussions Jesus had with Pharisees about how to enter the kingdom of God. The Pharisees were the Jewish sect who, unlike the Sadducees, believed in the resurrection of the dead. Thus, they were concerned about judgment and eternal life. Jesus had been trying to tell them, and his disciples, that in him, the kingdom of God had already entered into the world. Living in the kingdom of God was possible now if one committed one’s life to following the Greatest Commandment: ‘To love God with all your heart, soul and mind and to love your neighbor as yourself.’

To illustrate his point, Jesus tells a story that starts out with stock characters playing their expected roles. We have, wrongly, been led to believe that all Pharisees were all self-righteous hypocrites, opposed to everything Jesus said or did. At that time, when the Jewish faith was undergoing a reformation, the Pharisees were the sect most popular with the people. In a recent commentary, Biblical scholar, Francisco J. Garcia, based on the work of Jewish New Testament scholar, Amy Jill Levine, refutes the misconceptions many Christians have about the Pharisees, citing: “The ancient Jewish historian and priest Josephus described the actual Pharisees as living meagerly and shunning excess. In addition, within the broader Jewish tradition, the Pharisees are not understood as legalistic, rigid, and elitist. On the contrary, because of their attention to oral tradition and interpreting the spirit of the Torah, they are seen to have played an essential role in ensuring the theological and spiritual continuity of Judaism, and rabbinical Judaism in particular, to this day.1”

The Pharisees remained faithful, despite the tremendous pressure to conform to Roman laws and societal values. Nobody liked the Sadducees, except the rich, because they preached the message that Jews in the Roman Empire should “go along to get along,” adapting their faith values to Empire values. Pharisees aimed to preserve the faith by observing Torah laws and traditional spiritual practices. Like Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformers, the Pharisees arose to bring the faith back in line with the Holy Scriptures and away from accommodation to empire authority. Just as the author of 2 Timothy told of the Apostle Paul’s warning to Timothy to not let others steer him away from Christ, with this parable, Jesus was warning religious leaders not to lose their focus on God and become self-righteous. A warning that is needed for leaders and adherents to the Christian and Muslim faiths as well.

To have this man, who would have been esteemed for his righteousness, criticized was not what Jesus’ audience expected. It was the tax collectors who were despised and reviled. A Pharisee going to the temple to pray, of course! A tax collector going to the temple to pray, who would have expected that? Jewish tax collectors violated Jewish law in so many ways. They were seen as traitors working for the Empire that oppressed their own people. They made their living by charging the taxpayers more than Rome required and pocketing the difference. Their profit margin grew the more they charged and the more forcefully they imposed their power over the peasants. They probably feasted on roast pork and shrimp cocktail, for heaven’s sake!

The prophet Joel assured the Israelites that “all that call on the name of the Lord will be saved.” In Jesus’ account of the Pharisee and the tax collector, both of these men call on the Lord, but only the tax collector humbles himself in his call. So the big reversal Luke the gospel writer loves to tell us about, came when the tax collector showed genuine humility in confessing to God that he was a sinner and prayed for mercy. The tax collector acknowledged that only God could forgive his sins. He understood that his justification, being right with God, could only come as a gift. On the other hand, the Pharisee stood where his prayers could be heard by others and announced his litany of good deeds. He wasn’t asking for justification from God, he was telling God –and hopefully many others were listening –that he had earned it. This was one of Martin Luther’s arguments against the Roman Church, that “works righteousness” was actually self-righteousness. The Pharisee had become his own judge and thus, he became god for himself.

Jesus doesn’t tell us what happened afterward to the tax collector. The tax collector said only: ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ We don’t know if after he confessed himself a sinner, he left and ‘sinned no more.’ We only know what Jesus deemed most important to tell us — the tax collector understood he needed to ask for forgiveness from God.

The Pharisee prayed: “’God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.”  You might not consider yourself a thief, an adulterer or a tax collector, but we are all guilty of “going rogue” from God at times. In this parable, I can hear these words from the bible: “judge not, lest you be judged.” But wait a minute, didn’t Jesus do some judging? He did some serious judging when he overturned the tables of the moneychangers in the temple. Even though he didn’t get physical, he had some biting commentary for the rich who neglected the poor and acted without mercy. Jesus spoke truth to power. Was not judgment involved?

At issue is for whom Jesus puts himself in conflict. Jesus judged when he saw people being pushed to the margins of society by those who believed they deserved power and privilege. He judged when he reminded people in sermon and story that God demanded we share with those in need. His aim was always bringing the world closer to the kingdom of God through faithfulness to God’s sovereignty and love for our neighbors, most especially those treated unjustly and pushed to the margins of society.

The model for the self-righteous Pharisee today could be Christian dominionism, which is on the rise, particularly among white Evangelical Christians. Dominionism is the belief that Christians should take moral, spiritual, and ecclesiastical control over society. Dominionism has shaped right – wing politics for a long time. Jerry Falwell was a passionate force in the support of using bullying and misinformation to achieve political power under the guise of religion. Christian politicians, such as Marjorie Taylor-Green, have since merged their religious, ethnic, and political identities to claim themselves to be Christian Nationalists. Like the Pharisee in Jesus’ parable, their image of God resembles themselves. They have claimed the power to judge who is in and who is out of God’s circle of love and mercy. Their hate-filled diatribes against people, who they deem unworthy of human dignity and respect, commend violence and restrictive laws as a means of forcing religious and political conformity. There is no place for love. And like the Pharisee, when there is no space for love, there is no space for God, except the one we create in our own image.

As for the penitent tax collector, Jesus announced: “I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other.” (Lk.18:14) Jesus simply stated that after the prayers of the two men, it was the unexpected one, the despised tax collector, that was in right relationship with God. The tax collector understood that he had broken his relationship with God by putting profit above justice and compassion. The Pharisee spoke as if he had no need of God: “I got this justification and righteousness thing covered God. I did it myself. You can go worry about those real sinners, those contemptible people I wouldn’t go near.” This Pharisee had broken relationships with his neighbors by judging them to be less worthy of God’s care than himself. He was neither in right relationship with God nor with his neighbors. This Pharisee was not a faithful Jew; he had become a religious bully.

Nobody gets it right all the time — no human being, no political entity or institution. Sometimes our own personal worlds bear little resemblance to what Jesus described as the Kingdom of God. As the prophet Joel proclaimed, even when the world looks like it can’t get in any worse shape, God wants us to show our faithfulness by living in hope. Living in hope requires ‘seeing visions’ and ‘dreaming dreams’ of a better world, of a better church, a better you and a better me.

The Pharisees did not understand that we do not achieve this ourselves by being “righteous.” Being righteous by God’s standards – as opposed to being self-righteous by our own standards – prepares us to receive the gift of justification.  The 20th-century theologian, H. Richard Niebuhr, observed that, “Self-justification is the most prevalent source of error.”

Two men went to the Temple. One went up and returned self-righteously, but the other returned justified by God. The tax collector was given a clean slate. We don’t know what he did with that gift. The question Jesus poses for us is: “What are we going to do with that gift? Lutheran pastor and writer Ernesto Tinajero, put the challenge this way: “Is the fruit of your Bible study making you have more love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control? If not, you’re less reading your Bible to inform your worldview than you are reading your worldview into the Bible.” 2

All power honor and glory to God. Amen.

 

    1. Franscisco J. Garcia, Oct. 23, 2022 Commentary on Luke 18:9-14
    1. Ernesto Tinajero, https://spokanefavs.com/reading-yourself-into-the-bible/May 1, 2016.

 

 

 

© Rev. Denise Clark-Jones, 2022, All Rights Reserved
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