LEARNING FROM LUKE: HUMILITY
Luke 18: 9-14
Humility takes many forms. When I have traveled between major airline hubs, I felthumbled as I boarded wide bodied planes. I remember one time I came through theplane door and looked to the left: there was First Class: leather seats,well-spaced, with a lay down flat feature; plugs for laptops, cup holders, horsd’oeuvre trays; and a flight attendant ready to take drink orders. I made myway to the right instead where my assigned seat was, taking the half mile trektoward the back of the plane. Coach; wasn’t that what kings and queens once calledtheir royal transportation? Wasn’t that what Cinderella had, with horses infront, to carry her to the ball? Boy, words certainly had lost their meaning. I passed Business Class seats that hadwhat seemed to be passable leg room; then as I got closer to seat numberssomewhere in the 40s, I knew the difference between the haves and the havenots: I saw no leg room; no cup holders; and received a cup of lukewarm coffeeand a bag of six mini pretzels. Yes, boarding planes in coach can be humblingand frustrating experiences. In Junior High PE when I was growing up, kidsoften played dodge ball, kickball or softball. Do kids still play those inschool? That is a sports ritualthat can really test a boy’s or girl’s self esteem: choosing teams. Peter,Paul, and Mary once recorded a song with this first verse:
“Saturdaysummers, when I was a kid
We’d run to the schoolyard and here’s what we did
We’d pick out the captains and we’d choose up the teams
It was always a measure of my self esteem
Cuz the fastest, the strongest, played shortstop and first
The last ones they picked were the worst
I never needed to ask, it was sealed,
I just took up my place in right field.”
Experiences with humility (and sometimes humiliation)occur in our schools, on our sports fields, and they can even happen inChristian families if we let them. With bullying as such a front and centerissue, parents and teachers would do well to listen for the words of boys orgirls who try to build themselves up at the cost of cutting comments made aboutothers.
Last week we heard Jesus’ story of a woman who was nottoo proud to beg for justice; in fact she was desperate as she again and againasked a judge for help. As Jesus so often does, he tells parables withcontrasting characters. The woman was humble, possessing very little, and heractions showed it. Now we can almost hear the tone that our narrator, Luke,takes with this description. Luke must a have been a wonderful man to meet:perhaps humble and caring, perhaps a Christian physician, certainly one who hadmercy on women, children, poor people, and the downtrodden. Luke now says afterthe story about the woman and the judge: “Jesus also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves, (read herethat they were arrogant), those who trusted in who–God? NO! Trusted in themselves. “They were righteous (read here self-righteous- not righteous by God’s declaration) and they regardedother people with contempt.” Contempt; does that word take you to the glanceyou have seen in others to make you feel distinctly lower class because of theprice range of clothes you wear, or the location of your home, or where youseat is on a plane? Does it take you to the scorn you received from a captain whowas choosing a team? Does it take you to the glance you got when someone elsesaid something cutting about your figure, or the way you talk, or your athleticabilities? Jesus’ condemnation of such attitudes is unmistakable. His commentsare aimed at those who arrogant. Do those who bully, or show disgust, or acthaughty claim to be Christian?Then they fail the “What would Jesus do?” test. They are being Christianin name only so Jesus is talking to them! He picked two people in his parable whowere, by usual accounts, perceived very differently. First he picked aPharisee; Pharisee, like people living in churches and communities andsynagogues even in our days.Normally they are people of faith. They are lay people; they could beelders or just faithful attendees. Elders: people who are expected to knowsomething about God and to exhibit some of the compassion-like qualities ofjustice, mercy, and steadfast love. In this story, however, Jesus foreverpoisoned our picture of Pharisees, who were the ones trying to do the rightthing in synagogue services. I am convinced Jesus did not just make up thiscaricature; he gleaned it from watching Pharisees act this way. Notice thePharisee in Jesus’ parable: he stands by himself, not with others; he prays outloud for all to hear; and he prays words in public that show him to be anarrogant, self-righteous and bullying man. He trumpets his righteousliving—fasting and tithing—but we don’t really know if he’s telling the truth,do we? We don’t really know if he’s padding his case! And who would be in aposition to condemn him? The one who has the power to do so even today: onlyChrist, and the one later called Christ publicly makes an example of him.
Let’s turn our attention to the tax collector. Likebeing called into an IRS office, people no more wanted a tax collector around themthan they wanted a toothache. There again, because of the way Jesus treatsthem—he called one tax collector to be an apostle (Matthew) and he ate dinnerat one’s house named Zacchaeus, we sometimes think they were liked; theyweren’t. Just as the usual respected man—the Pharisee—is here despised in theparable, the usual despised man—the tax collector—is respected in Jesus’ world;and his world is the Kingdom of God. In Jesus’ picture of the Kingdom,bullies and taunters are brought down from their self-made thrones, and thosehurt by words and attitude are raised up to have a modicum of self-esteem andself-respect. The tax collector stoodfar off because he was deemed offensive and could have been brutalized if hegot too close; he felt unworthy to look up to heaven; and when he beat hischest, it was a sign of self-effacement. “God” he said with head bowed low, “bemerciful to me, a sinner!” Yes; Jesus had done it again; he had done what hismother predicted he would do as she proclaimed the Magnificat in Luke chapterone: “he has scattered the proud, brought down the powerful from their[self-made] thrones, and he has lifted up the lowly.”
We don’t really need to read Jesus’ concluding wordsdo we—“all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselveswill be exalted”—we get it; his audience gets it; readers over the ages got it.But we close the book on this parable one question must be asked: with whomdo you identify the most: the despised; the self-assured; the religious person;the outcast? Have you noticed how parables are like mirrors? Imagine a ministeropening up a big worship Bible like a two-sided mirror filling the front of thechancel, stretching from lectern to pulpit! In it you would you self-righteouspeople, or would you see insecure or derided people? Which group are you in? Nomatter which group you are in, this parable reminds us that Jesus has strong orcomforting words to say to you, and to me.
Jeffrey A. SumnerOctober 24, 2010