Humility has been called the master virtue. If one can grow in humility the rest of the spiritual life falls into place. Yet being humble is really hard and goes against the grain of everything our self-actualized culture professes. Humility grows in importance in our time, especially since it has the power to restrain yelling, which would be a great gift in this political season. It is part of our sinful human condition to seek to justify ourselves at every turn, usually at someone else’s expense.
Jesus loves to tell stories, and the parable of the Pharisee and tax collector who went up to the temple to pray, is one of his finest. The text begins: “To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody, Jesus told this parable” (Luke 18:9). Just in case we might miss it, the warning is at the beginning: looking down on everybody disqualifies one for the Reign of God. Trusting in ones own goodness is a fool’s errand.
No one who reads this can question whether Jesus had a sense of humor! For the tax collector to come across as a better character than the Pharisee is irony at its finest. It would be like comparing a pay-day lender to a conservative legislator from Kansas. The former is thought to be reprehensible, preying on the poor; the other claims faith as a guiding principle for political purposes.
Not surprising, the Pharisee prays first, expressing how profoundly grateful he is not to be like others, and he lists varied evil-doers, including the tax collector nearby. He then recounts to God his spiritual practices — just to make sure God is proud of him, too. Actually, he never gets around to asking God for anything since apparently he is convinced of his righteousness.
The tax collector stood at a distance, and in humility would not even look up to heaven. Displaying signs of repentance, he implored: “God have mercy on me, a sinner.” Honesty about his own sin proved redemptive. Jesus said: “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God.”
We know nothing of the outcome of the Pharisee’s prayer other than it was not accepted. Why should it be? The Greek is very revealing: “The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself.” His preoccupation with his own virtue left little room for God to provide grace, and his contempt for his companion in prayer is unworthy. Nothing wounds more than contempt.
Jesus concludes the vignette with these words: “Those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” This is the trajectory of his own life, and he beckons his disciples toward his pathway.
Throughout Luke’s Gospel, Jesus has accented his mission to call sinners to repentance. The self-righteous do not know their need of his forgiving grace, nor are they aware that a radical reversal is going on. Those who exalt themselves by taking seats of honor will find themselves at the other end of the table, along with those who have been cast down from their thrones.
Being humble is hard, and we fear it will make us vulnerable. It surely will, and that is a good thing. Yet humility remains a challenging spiritual posture because we live with incessant social demand for achievement and power. Joan Chittister writes: “Lack of humility is a social virus, a plague that infects the whole culture.” She offers this definition: humility is “the strength to separate our sense of the meaning of life from what we do.” What could be harder for those of us who find our worth in our productivity?
Humility creates space for God and for the other. When we are proud, we are self-referential about everything, and we fill up all the space. Humility allows us to be receptive and delivers us from the burden of perfection, thus granting inner freedom. Roberta Bondi describes this freedom as “giving up the need to be above reproach.”
We can choose whether we will jostle for power in order to dominate others or relax into our true identity as vulnerable and flawed, yet beloved persons. We can either recognize the truth of our lives as sinners and seek God’s mercy, or we can continue to bluff about how well we are doing and how little we need the outpouring of God’s grace.
One way leads to joyful life; the other leads to self-protective striving. We can learn the downward mobility of being humble, and it will draw us nearer to God and to one another. And God will determine who is righteous, through God’s great mercy.