A long time ago, when I was first coming out, I participated in support groups led by a pioneering psychologist named Don Clark. In addition to weekly group meetings, we would have periodic weekends of intense sharing, all focused on what it meant to be a man in general and a gay man in particular. I will never forget an incident from the end of one of those marathon weekends. As I recall, I was feeling pretty good about the work I was doing in self-understanding and ways to make my way in the world as a self-affirming gay man. Another participant was a young man from Los Angeles who was really struggling to find his way and claim his worth.
I must have had a lot to say that weekend, sharing freely all I was discovering and the good feelings I was having about myself. When it came time for the closing circle, in which we shared some personal feed-back with each of the other participants, this young man fixed his gaze on me and said something like, “You’re so sure of yourself, so certain you’ve got it all figured out. You’re just as messed up as the rest of us!” His language was actually more colorful, but you get the idea.
Needless to say, I was rocked by his attack. It seemed to come from nowhere. I don’t remember what my response was, if anything. Surely he was calling out his own pain and I could have attributed his remarks to envy. Still, his words caused me to pause and consider where I really was in my life. How had I been presenting myself? Maybe I had been a little too confident, a little too eager to share my perspective, a little too determined to articulate what I was learning. It may be, in fact, probably was so, that I had learned more than I had actually integrated into my life and he could see through the veneer to my inevitable limitations. He could sense what I still lacked before arriving at any ideal. It was a hard thing to hear and it was good for my growth. It was a lesson in humility.
We are never really all we can be or as good as we want to be. There are lessons to learn and there is growth to experience. We are all journeying together on this road of life. Compassion for our companions will always get us further down the road than self absorption.
I think about this story of mine when I read today’s parable. I think the point of the stories is very similar – a lesson in humility for the self-righteous. Jesus’ parable sets a very clever trap for his hearers, as indeed all his parables do. If you follow conventional wisdom, you’d think that the Pharisee would be the good guy and the Tax Collector the bad guy. Pharisees could surely be a pain but they were people of faith in search of righteous living, weren’t they? Tax Collectors were lower than dirt. They collaborated with the Roman oppressors and they made a living cheating people out of their meager resources. A Pharisee was redeemable but a Tax Collector? Never.
That analysis would work if Jesus hadn’t already turned the tables quite thoroughly. By the time Luke recounts this parable, most of those listening would have been familiar with Christ’s criticism of the too-often hypocritical self-righteousness of Pharisees. They would have been aware his habit of dining with Tax Collectors, bringing transformation to their lives and calling them as disciples. The crowd would have known by now that, from Jesus’ perspective, the Pharisee was the bad guy and the Tax Collector the good. You could hear the murmurs of disapproval for the Pharisee and pity for the Tax Collector. The catch in the parable is this reversal of social status, this flipping of respect for cultural roles, right?
Well, not exactly. Here’s the real catch. According to Richard Vinson, “We knew before this one started who the good guys and the bad guys were going to be. The Pharisee was going to get whacked for being a self-righteous, self-satisfied, judgmental hypocrite, and we were going to thank God that we are not like him. Gotcha!…That’s the trap this parable lays: we knew when the parable began that the Pharisee would get whacked, but we didn’t expect that we would be the Pharisee” (Richard B. Vinson, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary, Luke, p. 572).
How easy is it for any of us to drift into self-righteousness when we are feeling good about ourselves, or, conversely, when we’re covering for our missteps and limitations? If we took an anonymous poll, how many of us might confess to feeling just slightly superior to some individual or class of persons at some point in our lives? It’s subtle, insidious. It infects us without our knowing until it’s too late and someone has to remind us that we are as messed up, or limited, or vulnerable as everybody else. Vinson, again, paints the picture this way: “We begin praying, ‘Thank you God, for the blessings of my life’…” It sounds innocent enough, right? Don’t we often begin our prayers this way? But then, he says, we “…slide into, ‘I thank you that we are the most prosperous, most freedom-loving, most righteous people on the planet.’ Or we begin praying, ‘Lord, I’m sorry for what I did,’ but veer off into thinking, ‘but they made me, and they do it, too, worse than I do.’ Or start, ‘Lord, please bless so and so,’ and in the next breath, ‘even though I’d like to tell him where to get off’” (Vinson, op. cit., p. 572).
Am I wrong about this? Am I the only one with this tendency to slip into judgment? Am I the only one who needs to hear again this lesson in humility?
Thomas Merton believes that “There is something of this worm in the hearts of all religious [people].” He writes, “As soon as they have done something which they know to be good in the eyes of God, they tend to take its reality to themselves and to make it their own. They tend to destroy their virtues by claiming them for themselves and clothing their own private illusion of themselves with values that belong to God. Who can escape the secret desire to breathe a different atmosphere from the rest of [humanity]? Who can do good things without seeking to taste in them some sweet distinction from the common run of sinners in this world?” (Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, pp. 48-50, quoted in Vincent, op. cit. p. 571).
I believe there is something in human nature that struggles with grace and it challenges our ability to be humble. We fear that we will never truly be good enough. We believe that somehow we have to earn our keep, to work for our worth, to merit love and understanding. After enough practice, self-righteousness can become a way of life that masks our inner challenges. Richard Rohr reminds us that “We each need to stand under the mercy of God, the forgiveness of God, and the grace of God—to understand the very nature of reality. When we are too smug and content, then grace and mercy have no meaning—and God has no meaning. Forgiveness is not even desired. When we have pulled ourselves up by our own bootstraps, religion is always corrupted because it doesn’t understand the mystery of how divine life is transferred, how people change, and how life flows” (Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditation, “A Central Point,” 10-26-2013, cac.org).
Neither self-flagellation or self-aggrandizement is God’s way. That is what Jesus keeps teaching and living. There are no second-class citizens in God’s realm nor are their superior beings. God’s love is equally distributed among all – because it is love – and that is the nature of love, to reach out to all to provide healing and wholeness, to bring full and abundant life. It’s just that we have so much trouble accepting that there really is enough for everybody – for you and me and all the world.
This lesson in humility is given “to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt” and its message is that “all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” That’s the way it is with God’s love and grace. We are lifted up when find ourselves bowed down and we are leveled off when we have come to think more highly of ourselves than is warranted. Both the lifting up and the leveling off are acts of love and grace. To be humble is to have an accurate sense of worth, neither underestimating nor over-valuing one’s self. We are loved and valued for our very being, as children of God, made in God’s image and likeness. Healing and wholeness is available to all who turn to God and accept what is freely given. The healing may be an enlarging or a scaling back as humility requires.
Lift me, Lord, when I am sinking down and level me when I overreach. Help me to live always in the humility of a common humanity that will bring the joy of salvation to me and all creation. Amen.