"For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted."
There is an old expression for apologizing. One is said to be "eating humble pie." This expression comes from an old meat dish of medieval times, made of chopped or minced innards of animals. It was a food for the lower class, those who could not afford better. So to eat numble or umble pie meant to lower one’s self. For many, being humble means lowering one’s self.
We have talked before about how humility is not a very popular attribute in our society, even though the Bible talks of it favorably, and often. We can share stories about folks who were humbled, like the one I read this week about the woman who was in a hurry and wanted her Starbucks coffee to keep her going. On the way there, she ended up behind a very slow car, and kept talking to herself and the other car as she drove behind it. "Please don’t turn left, that’s where I’m going." The car ahead of her turned left. "Okay, now don’t turn right." It turned right. "Okay, surely they are not going to my Starbucks." They were going to the same Starbucks, and through the drive-in window. "Okay," she said, "I’ll park and go in." But there were no parking spaces, so she followed the car through the drive-in window, muttering all the way about how slow they were and were holding her up, how she had important things to do. She waited impatiently as they ordered, paid, and drove off. As she pulled up to the window, the clerk handed her drink and a small card and said, "The couple in the car ahead of you paid for your drink and asked me to give you this card." The handwritten card said, "God loves you. Have a blessed day." She felt very humbled and very ashamed of her behavior and thoughts. (And I hope she "paid it forward.")
Or we can share stories about those who exhibit humble behavior. There is a story on YouTube that made me cry when I watched it this week. At a high school in Colorado, the honorary team captain has developmental disabilities, but he is always there. He loves basketball, and has since an early age. He is very beloved by the team and the coach. The coach was determined to let him play in the last game of the season, no matter what the score, so he told him to suit up that day. With about 10 minutes to go, they were 10 points ahead. The coach put Mitchell in the game, and his teammates passed him the ball time and time again. He either fumbled the ball, or missed his shot. Still, the team managed to pull ahead and led by 15 points. In the last few seconds of the game, the other team got the ball after the home team scored. Inbounding near the home team’s end, with only himself and Mitchell nearby, the opponent called Mitchell’s name a couple of times until Mitchell turned to him. Then he threw the ball to Mitchell, who turned and put the ball right into the home team basket. Though his basket was not needed for winning the game, the team and the crowd cheered as if Mitchell were the winning hero. But the real hero might have been the young man from the other team, who cared enough to help this young man that he gave up another chance for his team to score. He risked ridicule from his own team. Surely, he humbled himself that night, out of care for another. When asked about it, he said he thought it was the right thing to do.
Today’s parable, found only in Luke, is surely about humbling ourselves before God. But there is so much more to it, as there is to every parable that Jesus told. Let’s look first at how a 1st century Christian might have seen or heard this story.
The first line tells us that Jesus told this story to some who were acting very self-righteously, as if they had all the answers and others knew little or nothing. We are not sure who these folks were. In the chapter beforehand, Jesus had been talking to some Pharisees, but he also addressed his disciples. Some versions of the Parable of the Widow and the Unjust Judge have Jesus addressing the disciples. But as Jesus blessed the children, just after our parable, we are told that people were bringing their children to Jesus. So it is not clear who these self-righteous people were.
We all know that tax collectors were not popular figures in the ancient world (nor are they today!). They were agents of the government, collecting taxes, but known to take some extra for themselves, to support their lavish lifestyles. They were considered dishonest and ritually unclean.
Jesus’ encounters with Pharisees paint a picture of them that makes us dislike them. They asked him hard questions, trying to trip him up or outdo him. Jesus called them hypocrites for the ways they demanded the people follow laws they made outside of scripture, in an attempt to follow God’s Word. In chapter 16, the Pharisees are described as "lovers of money," who ridiculed Jesus. Yet history shows us that, before the destruction of the 2nd temple in Jerusalem, the Pharisees were few in number and modestly lived a way of life that strived to follow Jewish law faithfully. They took the Torah seriously and tried to interpret it for daily life. In difficult times, after the temple had been destroyed and Jews were scattered, their lives were disrupted and transformed by Roman violence and rule. It was the Pharisees who were seen as the ones who kept the Jewish people on track with their faith. So though the gospels often depict the Pharisees as argumentative and self-righteous, they were generally well regarded by the Jewish society of the time.
So the behavior of both characters in this parable would have been unexpected. Pharisees did not usually stand in the temple and pray for all to hear. And this one prayed about himself, making himself better than others, including the tax collector. And no one would expect to see a tax collector in the temple. Yet here was this one, humble and off to the side, asking simply for mercy from God for his sins. The first century Christians might have laughed at both these depictions.
So Jesus must have startled them sober when he declared that the tax collector was the one God would justify, or atone, the one whose pray was accepted, who was made right with God. The Pharisee needed to take a lesson from the tax collector. What a reversal that would be! Alyce McKenzie reminds us that all the parables are really about what it means to live in the kingdom of God. (McKenzie, p.59) She says of this one:
"The invitation to enter into the kingdom of God shows up where we least expect it. It shows up within ourselves, in the ember of humility that still burns, yet that needs to be fanned to warm and illuminate our inner life. In our families, our church, our communities, the gate to the kingdom of God opens before us in the example of those who are humble before God." (McKenzie, p.59)
Surely the one who made himself the most humble before God was our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, who humbled himself even to death, on our behalf.
But in this Lenten season, as we approach the cross in Holy Week, beware that such stories also alienated some from Jesus. The Pharisees and others whom he criticized had connections with the Roman government. In both this parable and the one before it, the Parable of the Widow and the Unjust Judge, Jesus put down those in prestigious positions in society by raising those seen as lowly up above them. This teaching of the reversal of the status quo put Jesus in a dangerous position with the powers of his time. Yet Jesus, as the Son of God, knew he had to take such a risk, in the name of God.
There is a risk in humility before God – for Jesus, certainly, and sometimes for us as well. When we humble ourselves enough to follow the Word of God in ways that lead us in unpopular directions, we risk facing ridicule, prejudice, or down-right hatred. In the serious divide of issues that face our nation and our world, we may find ourselves at times in a quandary of choosing between what we believe God wants us to do and what society, or our political party, or even our nation, is telling us to do.
One time we have certainly seen this in history was in the time of the 2nd World War, when many risked their lives to harbor the Jewish people who were being persecuted.. There is a project started by a Holocaust survivor in 1963 that strives to identify all those who helped Jewish people escape the Holocaust. "The Righteous Among Nations," as it is called, would probably not have identified themselves as the righteous. They humbled themselves at great risk, at the risk of their very lives. And as we look back, we know that they did so in the name of love for all peoples, in the name of the one God of love whom we all worship.
As we proclaim on our bulletins, and in our hearts, God calls us to "do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly before our God." As followers of the one true God, we may well have to eat humble pie from time to time. May we relish eating it for Jesus’ sake!
In Jesus’ name, Amen.
McKenzie, Alyce M., The Parables for Today (Westminster/John Knox Press, KY, 2007)
Ring, Sharon H., Luke (Westminster/John Knox Press, KY, 1995)