Click here to listen to the audio recording of this 23-minute message. Or watch the video on Facebook here (the message starts about 31 minutes into the recording). (Just to note that I was overseas for the past three weeks, hence the long gap since my last sermon post. It is good to be back!)
Our Gospel reading from Luke 18:9-14 presents us to pride and humility. In it, Jesus makes clear his disdain for pride and his celebration of humility. The message is clear, simple and almost frighteningly blunt. We are to be humble, not proud. One barely needs to preach a message on it!
The Pharisee in the story is comparable to a priest or a theologian in our days – someone who knows the scriptures and called to do God’s work. This Pharisee is super confident of his righteousness. He stands alone in the temple – probably meaning apart from everyone else and in a public position where all could see him, rather than hidden within the congregation. He brags before the people and before God of his righteousness. He explicitly compared himself to others he sees as spiritually inferior to him. He is nauseatingly proud!
Jesus makes it clear in the conclusion that this man, the Pharisee, will not be rewarded: “All those who exalt themselves will be humbled” and “this man … [will not go] home justified before God.
By contrast, we have a tax collector, also in the temple. A tax collector is shorthand (in those days) for a sinner. Tax collectors were often Jewish, but exploited their position as an employee of the Roman colonisers to fleece Jewish out of far more than they were legitimately expected to pay in taxes. They were much hated. And so they were the quintessential ‘sinner’. This man stands in back the temple, where no-one can see him. He cannot even lift up his head towards God. He beats his chest – a sign of contrition and remorse. And he prays, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” He calls himself out for who he is – a sinner – and recognises that all he can hope for is mercy.
Jesus makes it clear that this man, the tax collector, will be rewarded: “I tell you that this man … went home justified before God. For all those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
We detour briefly to Romans 12:3-8, where Paul provides some helpful explanations about what constitutes pride and humility. Pride is thinking more highly of yourself than you ought – an inflated self-assessment is pride. By contrast, humility is to think of oneself with “sober judgement” – a cold, hard look at one’s strengths and weaknesses. Seeing ourselves as we truly are is humility. Paul also makes reference in this passage to the body of Christ (similar to 1 Corinthians 12), arguing that each one is gifted, that every gift is important and necessary, and that whatever we we have (impressive or modest) should be exercised. So, if your gift is serving, then serve.
In 2 Timothy 4:7-8, we hear Paul referring to himself in rather prideful terms – he mentions all the amazing things he has done, how faithful he has been, and how will soon be rewarded with a crown of righteousness. Only at the end, as if he suddenly realises that he is boasting spiritually, he adds, “And not only to me, but also to all those who have longed for [Christ’s] appearing”. There are many such passages in Paul’s writing – where he boasts. It leads me to speculate that Paul’s “thorn in the flesh”, which he says keeps him humble, is spiritual pride. He was an exceptional man; but exceptionality can lead one in pride and arrogance.
Pride, then, is the overestimation of one’s worth or accomplishments; taking credit for one’s accomplishments; forgetting to acknowledge that everything we have and are comes from God; and putting others down in our desire to raise ourselves higher.
Humility, though, is often misunderstood to mean putting yourself down, abnegation, self-flagellation. But no! This is not what the Scriptures teach. Humility is not about demeaning yourself or allowing yourself to be demeaned and trodden on by others. It is not about denigrating your giftedness – denying that you have gifts, abilities, talents. It is not about denying your accomplishments and the contributions you have made to the world. No! None of these things is humility. Indeed, they often reflect a false humility, which is pride dressed up as humility.
What then is humility? It starts with a sober judgement of oneself. Recognising BOTH strengths and weaknesses, BOTH gifting and failing. We all have both, and we need to recognise this ‘both and’ to become humble. It is about not boasting. Not boasting does not mean denigrating yourself. But it can mean being a bit quiet – express your gifts without drawing attention to yourself and without bragging about it – just quietly do the work that God has gifted to you to do. And it is about recognising that God has made your gifting possible – everything good and well that you can do, is a gift of God. Humility is recognising that nothing good you do is “all my own work” – it is also “God’s enabling of my work” or “God and me working together”.
We see this recognition of the centrality of God in our accomplishments beautifully in Psalm 65, the first verses of which are as follows:
Praise awaits you, our God, in Zion; to you our vows will be fulfilled. You who answer prayer, to you all people will come. When we were overwhelmed by sins, you forgave our transgressions. Blessed are those you choose and bring near to live in your courts! We are filled with the good things of your house, of your holy temple.
Notice all the “you’s” in this short passage – it’s all about God! We are merely beneficiaries. As we learn to appreciate this, we will discover humility. And in that, we’ll discover that we are walking in the footsteps of Christ, the Son of God.