Rev. Stephen E. Stults
St. Barnabas Anglican Church
The Eleventh Sunday after Trinity, 2010
Hubris and Humility
Please consider these two prayers, taken from today’s St. Luke’s gospel selection; first, “God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican”; and second: “God be merciful to me a sinner.”
They are most interesting, both because of their content and their purpose. Could there be any clearer contrast? Most commentators don’t think so and state that Christ’s purpose was precisely to draw our attention to the contrast between these two fascinating characters appearing in this parable from the 18th Chapter of Luke.
The first prayer, that of the Pharisee, bristles with hubris. It is full of self-satisfaction and self-love. The Pharisee, obviously a good man in terms of the Old Covenant, is really outstanding. He avoids the grosser sins of the multitude. He doesn’t cheat on his wife, he doesn’t extract money unfairly, and he is just in his dealings. Best of all, he doesn’t engage in a sordid profession, “even as this publican.” We also learn that he fasts twice in the week and gives tithes of all that he possesses. He goes over and above what is required in the Law. Could there be any finer example of righteousness?
Now, for the publican. He stands “afar off”, in direct contrast to the Pharisee’s “striking a pose” before God. He won’t even so much as lift up his eyes to heaven, but stands back and smites his breast, asking God to be “merciful to me a sinner.” He doesn’t parade his good deeds before God. He doesn’t presume that he has any kind of prior standing with God, based upon works, but instead asks for mercy.
Once again, could there be any clearer contrast? We see the Pharisee: proud, boastful, self-righteous, neither seeking or expecting anything from God. After all, it seems as if he has life fairly well figured out. It rather seems that God owes him someone for all his righteous behavior. He is truly one of the Chosen, one of the elite few, or so he thinks.
Then, we have the tax collector: humble, penitent, only seeking only mercy from God. He doesn’t ask for justification from God, nor does he really expect it the way the Pharisee does. He merely throws himself on the divine mercy of God.
In the end, we know which approach has success, for Christ tells us:” I tell you, this man (the publican) went down to his house justified rather than the other….” The reason for this is clear: “…for every one that exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.” God doesn’t need or appreciate man’s feeble and ultimately futile attempts at self-justification. To quote Isaiah 64:6: ”But we are all as an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags; we all do fade as a leaf; and our iniquities, like the wind, have taken us away.” Truer words were never spoken. The point is plain, of course. We do not receive justification in God’s eyes without God. Human efforts cannot but fail and in fact lead to more sin as, in the case of the Pharisee. His attempts to embrace and become perfected by an exterior code only lead to an over-weanng sense of pride, as seen by himself. In this light, the word “self-righteous” makes more and more sense. To sum it up, attempts to change the outwards acts or behaviors without affecting a change in the heart are futile and ultimately negative. Consider those in this world who claim to adhere to a rigorous moral code, only to kill innocent people through cowardly bomb blasts or other terrorist acts. What a paradox… We cannot help but be reminded of Jesus’ statement: “Wherefore by their fruits shall ye know them…”
In this case, the publican gets it exactly right. “God be merciful to a sinner”, he prays. God knows the failings of our heart, will and mind. If anyone knows our foibles and our sins, it is He that made all things. Once we recognize that all our vaunted righteousness is merely “filthy rags” in his sight and that without Him, we are nothing, we are on the right track to justification.
This parable, in a real and obvious way reminds us again of the great contrast in the Scriptures: Law vs. Grace. We know that God has laws and that His whole creation is governed by them. His moral law, too, is absolute. Yet, thanks be to God, it is tempered by His grace. Without this tempering of Law by divine grace and mercy, no one could be saved.
Yet, this grace must find its way to the soul ready to receive it. It comes not to the outwardly successful and self-assured Pharisee, but rather to the humble and spiritually broken publican. In the same way, it will come to us when we can receive it. There in the quiet, yet receptive chambers of the soul will God’s grace do its holy work of redemption and salvation.
What is more interesting and perhaps more troubling about this parable lies not just in the story itself, which is understandable and appreciated by all, but in its individual application.
This parable is not just an instructive story about two men. It is also a picture of each man and each woman’s soul and our imponderable dualism. It is no mystery that we too can be both Pharisee and publican simultaneously. As one commentator says: “There is something a bit terrifying about this parable. There is within every person that which makes it possible for him to do the same thing the Pharisee did. He can go to the place of worship and go through the forms of worship and still go home the same person he was!” We too, at least subconsciously, want to tell God how “good” we’ve been. Sometimes we too put our arm out of joint by patting ourselves on the back. It’s a natural human thing to do and, for out souls’ true welfare, it must be resisted vigorously. The more we engage is Phariseeism, the more we will stunt our soul’s true growth in righteousness. On the other hand, the more we engage in humility and penance, the more we will grow in love, peace and joy.
In the end, it does come down to a dualism, as in many things in life. Despite modern society’s protestations to the opposite, there is right and there is wrong. There is black and white. There is certainly good and evil. At the end of time, there will be the ultimate dualism of salvation and damnation. One will either be exalted forever with God, or one will debased forever in perdition.
Perhaps that is why Christ ends this particular lesson with the statement about exaltation and abasement. He who vaunts himself will be brought low. He who abases himself will be lifted up. This is true with no exception. Oftentimes, we see it happening right before our eyes. When it does, we Christians must suppress any sort of evil glee, even when, in our opinion it is well deserved. That determination is not up to us. At other times, we look at the evil prospering around us and remark with the Psalmist: (92:7) “When the wicked spring as the grass, and when all the workers of iniquity do flourish…” Those times, we do wonder a bit about the divine plan that seems to reward those with the strongest wills and the greatest appetites. We wonder until we finish the verse: “is it they shall be destroyed for ever:” In the end, we know that all of us shall reap what we have sown. Those who have sown love, joy and peace will receive that harvest a hundred-fold in Heaven.
Those who have sown discord, hate and faithlessness will certainly receive the same in their resurrection of eternal death.
As you know, Della and I read every day. She gets a lot done, while I usually enjoy the three or four pages I peruse before succumbing to sleep… Nevertheless, I am now more than halfway throughWilliam Shirer’s monumental The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, which is about 1200 pages long. In it, as I am permitted to explore the fanatical mind of Adolf Hitler, I am amazed at his absolute faithlessness to everything except his own megalomaniac will. It seems that Hitler, as well as the whole Nazi regime, or as Winston Churchill once put it, “the whole odious apparatus of Nazi rule” , broke every single promise it ever made, to everyone. How could it not? It was truly evil to the core. After reading this, one must contemplate, with horror, the unspeakable fate of such a man in the afterlife. Thus, in every way, we shall reap what we sow.
In the end result, we must resist every attempt made by ourselves, or by others in our behalf, to offer justification by our deeds. Such attempts can and will fail, always, every time. Only when we, as the publican, acknowledge our own wretchedness before God will He hear us. Upon hearing our anguished cries of “God be merciful to me a sinner”, He will do exactly that. Not based upon our frail deeds, but instead upon the mighty, completed work of Jesus Christ will He extend justification to us. Thus, once we realize, truly realize this we can relax into the loving will of God. Once we know this, we can confidently affirm, in the words of Christ: (Luk 18:14): “I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other: for every one that exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted. “