Thought for the day
Humility, humiliation, low self-esteem: these things get all mixed up in our minds and in our feelings. In the past, humility was encouraged by humiliation—really an abuse, which must have caused much harm. Low self-esteem—the root of many problems and addictions—used to be confused with humility. A robust humility is really an exercise in truth-telling about ourselves. If we are to be grounded in the humus (earth) of our human existences, then we do need to be honest in our appraisal, affirming the good and recognising courageously our faults. Humility goes with being human.
As we affirm your gifts and rejoice in them, help us to honest and know the full story, warts and all, that we come before you in need of your grace.
The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector
Luke 18:9 He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: 10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ 13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ 14 I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Our reading (unique to Luke) is a direct continuation of last Sunday’s Gospel, really on the same theme of prayer. Luke often works with pairs of stories. The focus shifts, however, from persistence to humility, from disciples to Pharisees. Humility probably isn’t a great word today—even though it really means being down to earth (and not, of course, humiliation or low self-esteem).
Christian readers can find it difficult to identify with the Pharisee, always somehow “one of them” rather than “one of us.” But of course, the parable is not about them but about us truly. Even a good moral life can become a false basis for relating to God. Even prayer can become a matter of boasting.
Kind of writing
This is a didactic parable, in the sense that there is no puzzle, but a plain contrast, the meaning of which is hard to miss.
Old Testament background
In the Hebrew Bible, humility as self-effacement etc. rarely appears. The word set mostly refers to the poor and the oppressed. However, there are exceptions.
He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8)
Remember the long way that the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, in order to humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commandments. He humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding you with manna, with which neither you nor your ancestors were acquainted, in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord. (Dt 8:2–3)
For you deliver a humble people, but the haughty eyes you bring down. (Psalms 18:27)
For thus says the high and lofty one who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: I dwell in the high and holy place, and also with those who are contrite and humble in spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite. (Isaiah 57:15)
New Testament foreground
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly (Luke 1:52)
Then he looked up at his disciples and said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. (Luke 6:20)
For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Luke 14:11)
If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:1–8)
Verse 9 The lines are clearly drawn from the start. Verse 9 is surely a Lucan editorial comment. We are to imagine an audience of Pharisees, here portrayed as an élitist group who look down on “the rest.” Contrast: Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death so that we would rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead. (2Corinthians 1:9) Righteous is in inverted commas, as we will discover.
Verse 10 The mention of two men will trigger a memory in the attentive reader the two brothers in Luke 15. The temple is always important in Luke Acts (in case you need proof: Luke 2:27, 37, 46; 4:9; 18:10; 19:45, 47; 20:1; 21:5, 37–38; 22:4, 52–53; 23:45; 24:53; Acts 2:46; 3:1–3, 8, 10; 4:1; 5:20–22, 24–26, 42; 14:13; 19:27, 35, 37; 21:26–30; 22:17; 24:6, 12, 18; 25:8; 26:21!).
In the Lucan narrative, tax gathers are consistently portrayed as open to the word of the prophet and hence to conversion (7:29, 3:12; 5:27, 29, 30; 7:34; 15:1). By contrast, the Pharisees are always closed.
Verse 11 The Jerusalem Bible translates “he said this prayer to himself.” There is even further ambiguity in the Greek: (i) he prayed quietly; (ii) he prayed to himself instead of God; (iii) he prayed with reference to himself. The ambiguity is unsettling and intentional. The NRSV misses the point somewhat. The NET plumbs for option (iii): The Pharisee stood and prayed about himself like this (Luke 18:11).
Thanking God that you have been spared gross immorality could be a good prayer...except that the singling out of the tax collector ruins the prayer with pride and scorn.
In any case, contrast the opinion of Jesus: Then the Lord said to him, “Now you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness. (Luke 11:39) So he said to them, “You are those who justify yourselves in the sight of others; but God knows your hearts; for what is prized by human beings is an abomination in the sight of God. (Luke 16:15)
Verse 12 Fasting is one of the three pieties of Judaism, as well as prayer and almsgiving. See Lev 16:29-31; Num 29:7. Tithing (Deut 14:22-29) was recommended, but the Pharisee has gone beyond the basic requirements. Cf. an later rabbinic prayer in the Talmud:
Our Rabbis taught: On entering what does a man say? “May it be Thy will, O Lord my God, that no offence may occur through me, and that I may not err in a matter of halachah and that my colleagues may rejoice in me and that I may not call unclean clean or clean unclean, and that my colleagues may not err in a matter of halachah and that I may rejoice in them”. On his leaving what does he say? “I give thanks to Thee, O Lord my God, that Thou hast set my portion with those who sit in the Beth ha-Midrash and Thou hast not set my portion with those who sit in [street] corners, for I rise early and they rise early, but I rise early for words of Torah and they rise early for frivolous talk; I labour and they labour, but I labour and receive a reward and they labour and do not receive a reward; I run and they run, but I run to the life of the future world and they run to the pit of destruction.”
Verse 13 The bodily stance already tells us about this man: location, look, action, words. In a frank and forthright way, he admits who he is and straightforwardly asks for mercy. This prayer, too, was part of the synagogue service of later times. The sixth of the Eighteen Benedictions runs thus:
6. For forgiveness: Forgive us, O our Father, for we have sinned; pardon us, O our King, for we have transgressed; for you pardon and forgive. Blessed are you, O Lord, who is merciful and always ready to forgive.
Such prayer, of course, is rooted in the Psalms.
Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. (Psalms 51:1–3)
Verse 14 For the first hearers, this would have been a big surprise, an unthinkable reversal. It is difficult to know how we would capture the same sense of shock in today’s categories. Paradoxically, our inherent resistance to identifying with the Pharisee may be very revealing indeed! Presumption has not gone away, you know.
Note that the verb is in the passive, denoting that God has justified the sinner. We have already hear the final summing in Lk 14:11 (see above). Cf. The translation of the first beatitude in the NEB “Happy are those who know their need of God.”
Pointers for prayer
1. There can be an element of defensiveness in our relationships with others. We are reluctant to let another see us as we see ourselves. Occasionally we meet someone with whom we can be totally open and know we will be accepted. With whom have you had that kind of a relationship? What was it like for you to have that freedom?
2. Likewise with God, when we come to prayer pretending to be better than we are, we are hiding from God. What difference does it make when you pray to God, acknowledging your faults and limitations? Have you ever found that when you are humble in this way in prayer, God lifts you up?
3. The parable is also a cautionary tale against judging others negatively on the basis of externals. Perhaps God, who looks into the heart, sees another picture. When have you discovered there was more to another person than the negative picture you got from first impressions?
O God, who alone can probe the depth of the heart, you hear the prayer of the humble and justify the repentant sinner.
As we stand before you, grant us the gift of humility, that we may see our own sins clearly and refrain from judging our neighbour.
We make our prayer though our Lord Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God for ever and ever. Amen.