Who are you…in your eyes?
October 23, 2022
Scriptures: Joel 2:23-29, Luke 18:9-14
In her essay on our gospel passage titled, “Look What I’ve Done! The Pharisee and the Tax Collector”, Linda Fabian Pepe retells Luke’s story in the form of a short narrative. I would like to share her version of our parable, for I think it serves to highlight some of the important points in the scripture. Linda writes:
Jesus tells them a story:
The theater doors open and the audience files in…behind the curtain, the Pharisee and the Tax Collector both take their places in the temple. The house lights dim, and a hush falls over the expectant audience. The conductor taps his baton and the overture begins… something resembling the triumphal march from Aida rises from the orchestra pit as the curtain goes up!
A single spotlight follows the Pharisee to center stage as he scans his audience with great intensity- making eye contact with as many as he can. He stops confidently down stage right, puffs his chest out, and after a dramatic pause, with all eyes focused where he wants them…he begins…
“I thank you, God! I thank YOU, that I am not a sinner… that I am not a sinner like… frankly… everyone else. I don’t cheat… I don’t swindle,… and I don’t extort! I’m not anything like (just in case you needed an example God) that tax collector in the balcony! Look at all the wonderful things I’ve done! In fact, let me list them for you! I fast twice a week! Twice a week, God! And I give you God a tenth of my income! Not even my agent gets 10%! What a stellar example of piety and generosity I am! Thank you for making me special… and for calling me righteous! “
(Then, with a large dramatic swirl to show off his robe as the music swells, he exits stage left)
Meanwhile, in the balcony, well, not really the balcony, but beyond the balcony in what many would call the cheap seats, is the tax collector. He has actually moved farther back into the darkness after the Pharisee’s display. And in his little corner of the nosebleed section, he hangs his head, bows as low as he can and begins his prayer- no music… just what few words he can find…
“God have mercy on me, a sinner…” and the words of his prayer sting his own ears… “God have mercy on me, a sinner…” He tightens his arms around himself and rocks back and forth beating his chest, “Oh God have mercy on ME… a Sinner… God… have mercy…”
He kneels in silence for who knows how long, wipes the tears from his face and he rises from his place of prayer with no applause, and no exit music…
I think today’s passage may allow for some deep introspection…a real in-depth look into who each of us is…in our own eyes. The passage focuses on two extremes, the first character totally filled with a notion of high self-worth and self-adulation, and the other completely the opposite, sure that he is in no way worthy of God’s care or forgiveness.
And I believe Jesus used these two examples which are poles apart, to drive home the point of his story. His message that God looks at the core-condition of one’s heart, rather than at whatever they have, what they may have done, or who they are. And that only in true humility can one draw near to the heart of God.
In thinking about humility, the almost cartoonish depiction of the self-righteous Pharisee is easy to understand, as well as easy to dismiss, or at least feel as though you could never be that bad, or that obnoxious. It is not hard to see why Jesus would set him up as the one rejected by God, for I am fairly sure none of us would ever toot our own horn that loudly, or that publicly.
But when it comes to the tax collector and cheat it is a little different. To understand the context of this, it is important to know that in Jesus’ day tax collectors went from house to house, farm to farm and collected taxes that were required by Roman law to be paid to the state. Tax collectors were expected to collect a set amount for a particular region, however, the only way they could make a living was to overcharge those from whom they were collecting and then to keep the difference for themselves. It was a system that by nature was oppressive, and which put tax collectors in a position such that they were distrusted and thought poorly of, if not much worse.
The tax collector in our parable is reflecting on this very truth, even as he is searching for God’s mercy and forgiveness. He acknowledges his fault and sinfulness that were his by nature of his occupation. And he knows he cannot hold a candle to the Pharisee in terms of outward signs of ‘holiness’ or ‘visible practice’ of the faith. And the contrast between his own lifestyle and that of the one who prayed just before him is enough to remind him that he does not measure up in terms of righteousness in the eyes of the community, whatever that means. So he beats his breast and cries out to God for mercy, not feeling as though he deserves it, but hopeful nonetheless. And as a result, Jesus concludes that by virtue of the tax collector’s humility before God he goes home accounted as righteous in the eyes of God.
Humility is an interesting word. It is something that is holy in the eyes of God, but so often misunderstood as well. The way it is usually understood is when one is not self-promoting or loud. Not tending to brag about or exaggerate one’s abilities or achievements. Fully the opposite of the way the Pharisee in our parable acted and spoke. By the same token, in our current context where strength and power have been so highly elevated in how one conducts oneself publicly, for someone to actually be meek and to give credit wherever it is due, never seeking praise from or the envy of others, is seen as weakness.
But I think the example of the tax collector in our story has to be looked at within its context in order to understand what Jesus was saying is in fact true humility. As I said, the tax collector’s role within society was one that was despised, one that existed only by taking advantage of others, one that involved cheating and siding with the forces that were so deeply oppressing the Jews.
He knew he was guilty of all that his position required for him to be successful, and he knew that probably no one would ever believe he had any faith at all, and surely no reason even to pray, for he was so hated and looked on with such contempt. And yet, we see that he was found praying and asking for mercy from God, he was seen as one who was brutally honest about who he was, and what he had done.
And that is what I see as the key to truly understanding what humility is in the eyes of our Lord. That is, the ability for one to stand before God in all honesty, hiding nothing, baring one’s soul, and still seeking mercy. This is the starting point of authentic relationship with God. Looking within, assessing one’s life and focusing on the whole of it…not just the good, not just the not so good, but rather on the totality of what one has done throughout their life, and then placing it before God asking for mercy.
Now this may seem like an old idea…perhaps known otherwise as confession or even repentance. And while those are indeed a part of this process, they are not what I am focused on. And another point I think is important to mention, is that this is a private matter between oneself and God, not a public admission of past failures or the act of running to and fro asking for forgiveness from someone who may have been wronged. For there is a belief out there that for one to truly be forgiven, they must confess everything they have ever done to whomever was injured as a result. And while going to someone and asking for forgiveness is a good thing, it is not the same as being humble before God. In addition, sometimes opening up old wounds in relationships by keeping them, or bringing them back into focus can sometimes be more injurious than not. An inordinate focus on seeking forgiveness just to remove a guilty conscience more often rises from a sense of false humility…or at best simply the elevation of one’s self-esteem. Which is something very different than what our tax collector was tearfully doing that day.
So, what in fact is it, that I am saying is true humility? At heart, it is an important and critical part of our relationship with our God. In the fifth chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans, and in verse 8 he writes, ‘God has shown us how much he loves us—it was while we were still sinners that Christ died for us!’
While we were in the midst of living our lives, with all the good, the bad, and the downright ugly, God was still in love with us.
While we were still at fault…we were already being offered forgiveness by our Lord.
So, standing before God, baring all that we know we have done, thought, or said that was less than pleasing to God, and not in line with the plans and purposes of love, is the start. And it is doing so, within the knowledge of the fact that God loves us so deeply and unconditionally in spite of and through all of our weakness, that gives rise to the deepest of humility in the very core of our being. It is deep, it is so very humbling, it is so intensely personal, and it is holy in the eyes of God.
And…there are some very profound consequences that go along with it. First, it causes one to love God even more deeply and to trust in and rely on the Spirit for all aspects of one’s life, including the earlier mentioned proper time if any, to approach another asking for forgiveness. Even in this, the Spirit knows best what is the most loving and most life-giving decision.
And secondly, being honest with oneself to the extent that the contrast is fully appreciated between what our God of love wants and how often and how deeply we have failed in that regard, and, how much God still loves and cherishes us in spite of that…makes it very hard if not near impossible to stand in judgment of another. Standing in all humility before God, knowing how we do not measure up and yet, are still so cherished, means we cannot stand in judgment of another. For everyone has a story of their own. Everyone has circumstances and situations throughout their life that have caused them to be, or to become who they are. And, absolutely everyone is beloved by God, even if they do not yet know God personally, even if they are still at a place in their life where they may be actively living or working to reject God’s love in their life. We, having the privilege of knowing first, who we truly are, and second, that God loves us nonetheless therefore have no right whatsoever to judge another who may be at a different place on their journey in response to the extended love of God, and not where we perhaps feel they should be.
Humility is personal…it is something that results from one’s intimate and internal relationship with God. It cannot be earned or somehow ‘acquired’, rather it is an integral part of one’s ongoing conversation with God. Humility or being humble is not something one should ever try to get another to be, or to find, or to understand. Rather by being humble ourselves, by being fully understanding and forgiving…by refusing to enter in judgment, we as followers of Christ, will by virtue of our own humility draw others into curiosity as to why it is that one can be so kind, so caring, so compassionate, and so different than what our culture and society seem to be loudly insisting on right now.
And finally, true Godly humility clears one’s vision and one’s hearing. Several times in the gospels, we hear Jesus say, ‘let him who has ears hear’. When we are in humble relationship with the Lord, we are then open to the guidance of the Holy Spirit within. And we are not only able to see and to hear what, to whom, where, and when we must respond with the love of God, we are also able to see the results of God’s love in action, both in how the lives of others are changed and enriched, as well as how deeply we are blessed at every turn. Humility enables us to see with the eyes of God…enables us to see the blessings that go before us, each step of the way.
Humility before God…true humility is just a part of our daily walk. It is so humbling when we fall, but so gracious when our Lord helps us back up. It is not outward or showy, and it is not simply the opposite of what our Pharisee so blatantly did…it is not beating oneself up in public, and it is not meekly allowing oneself to be walked on or taken advantage of…
…rather, it is standing all alone, in the silence of one’s own inner soul before God, and knowing the need for mercy, even as it is already being offered…
…for in that very moment, one is renewed once again, one can lift up their eyes and by grace, and in the power of the Spirit, rise to meet the urgent task of loving every one another…
…just as God already loves us!