Sunday, October 23, 2022
Humility as a Christian Value
The Rev. Mark D. Wilkinson, Rector
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church
Katy TX 77493
October 23, 2022
The first line of this passage just leapt of the page at me this week on Monday afternoon when I started to consider this sermon. Here is that line in the Common English Bible translation, “Jesus told this parable to certain people who had convinced themselves that they were righteous and who looked on everyone else with disgust.” The last word disgust is what really grabbed me. That is in a nutshell what is the greatest problem I’m seeing in our world today. Looking at others with disgust.
This is a problem because underlying this is an “it’s all about me attitude.” I’m right, I’m important, more important than anybody else. Therefore, I am better than everyone else.
By the standards of 1st century Jewish society, this Pharisee was the ultimate example of the perfect Jew. He does everything right. He tithes a full 10% on all his income (no asking is my tithe figured on my gross or my net income). He prays in the temple even though the Pharisees emphasized faith in the home setting. He fasts, he is doing everything a Pharisee should do in order to be a perfect example of the faithful Jew. That is what Pharisees were expected to be, an example to all. One can hardly blame the poor fellow and I am sure that he would not understand why Jesus was upset with him.
No Jesus is not upset because the Pharisee is generous, but because he makes a huge show out of it. Jesus had the same issue with the wealthy in the story of the widow’s mite. He’s giving in part to make himself look good. He’s also saying “Hey look I did this all by myself. Look at how great I am.”
However even that is not the real sin here. The real issue is the contempt, disgust or looking down his nose at others that is expressed in the various the translations. The tax collector considered the lowest of the low, a collaborator with the Roman occupiers, a sympathizer even viewed as a traitor by some is held up as the example of humility. Why?
The tax collector knows that he is a sinner and is a penitent looking for forgiveness. This is a theme among all the tax collectors that come in contact with Jesus. They are all transformed and realize that they are dependent on God. This is a key element. Let me say this again, they are transformed by their encounters with Jesus and realize that they are dependent on God. It is so easy to look down at other people and for a moment it makes us feel superior. There sure is a lot of that going around right now. This denigration of the other for whatever reason is something that concerns me more than anything else I see right now not just here but around the world. When we tear the other down, we make them less than human. Groups have to do that in order to be able to dislike and eventually hate the other. We see this in the political adds. We see this in the war in the Ukraine.
Looking at the other with contempt or disgust only deepens the divides that already exists. It denies the humanity of the other and that just makes it even easier to dismiss the other as wrong, stupid, angry, you name the negative term. And I firmly believe that the work of the church in the next few months following this election is to try to heal that divide.
The issue comes down in some respects to tribalism. We are so locked into our tribes and this is true of all of us, that we can’t see the common ground any longer, all we see is the differences and those differences are looked at with disdain by many people. The Pharisee is looking at the tax collector as other, traitor, cheat, unethical, collaborator I can think of a whole list of negative comments, yet the Pharisee also doesn’t see the person, the person made just like he is in the image and likeness of God. That this other is a beloved child of God just as he is. Jesus sees it, Jesus praises his humility.
Because we live in a world that praises the Pharisee, the successful, the person who as acquired a great deal, holds great power, has lots of fans, most of the world including the religious world doesn’t understand Jesus’ praise of the tax collector. In fact this is why true Christianity is completely countercultural.
I was reading the weekly blog post by The Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber who I have mentioned before. Nadia is a very progressive Lutheran pastor and a wonderful speaker and writer whose ministry has been to the marginalized of the world. She started a church called All Saints and Sinners, but now is a writer and yes I would call her a theologian. Very outspoken and coming from her challenging background sometimes rather crude in her language, but she speaks a truth because she gets the humility piece.
Here is part of what she wrote1:
And I was especially struck by the work of Daryl Van Tongeren (a Psychology professor at Hope College). The following are some points from his presentation on what intellectual humility looks like:
Know ourselves—acknowledge and own our cognitive limitations and the fallibility of our beliefs
Check ourselves—restrain our ego, need for superiority, and defensiveness when sharing our viewpoints with others
Go beyond ourselves—listen, cultivate curiosity, be teachable, and seek to understand others’ viewpoints
What really got my attention was the way that Van Tongeren then spoke about his work studying people . . . well, like myself. People who leave conservative Christianity and who become equally as strident against it as they were against liberals just years earlier. Many of the people he studied seem to simply “shift the target of their vitriol”.
Listening to him and other researchers made me realize that maybe the opposite of religious fundamentalism isn’t strident atheism or liberalism. Maybe the opposite of fundamentalism is . . . humility.
“A great many people think they are thinking when they are merely rearranging their prejudices.”—William James”
We seem to be in a world where humility is confused with weakness. Where compassion is confused with weakness. Where compromise is confused with weakness. Where admission that we made a mistake is considered a weakness. In fact any interpersonal skill that allows us to work with others seems to be considered a weakness and something to be rejected. Yet this is what Jesus holds up as our call as Christians. Love, compassion, understanding, willingness to put others first are all what Jesus taught.
So what does a humble, God centered person look like? We might look no farther than St. Ignatius. In his famous prayer the Suscipe he writes: Take, O Lord, and receive all my liberty, my memory, my understanding and my whole will. All I have and call my own. You have given all to me: To you Lord, I return it. Everything is yours do with it what you will Give me only your love and your grace that is enough for me. Amen.
We have turned this prayer in to the prayer of Self-dedication. This prayer is just prior to the Prayer of St. Francis in the prayer book. I truly believe the church and the world would be a better place if we would not just say these two prayers, but live them.
Almighty and eternal God, so draw our hearts to thee, so guide our minds, so fill our imaginations, so control our wills, that we may be wholly yours, utterly dedicated unto you; and then use us, we pray you, as you will, and always to your glory and the welfare of your people; through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.