Ed Bacon: True Humility

If you are interested in becoming humble or if you want to become more humble, this is the parable for you. The gospel lesson I just read, frequently referred to as the Parable of the Tax Collector and the Pharisee or the Publican and the Pharisee, is conventionally understood as a moment in Jesus' ministry when he taught and emphasized the importance of humility. Jesus concludes his parable by saying, "for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted."

So, one definition of humility, drawn from this parable, is that humility is being aware of your sinfulness and your need for God's mercy. Conversely, the definition of haughtiness or self-exaltation or hubris is denying our sinfulness or not even being aware of our sinfulness.

One more introductory remark, to underscore the essential value of humility in the Christian faith and life, is a particular prayer that has been drawn from this parable. This prayer, which is deep in our mystical tradition, is the spiritual discipline of repeating in one's heart at all times the following, "O Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner." That prayer has been taught primarily by our sisters and brothers in the Eastern Orthodox tradition, called the "Jesus Prayer," it is to be repeated over and over in the heart every moment of the day. It is exactly the prayer that the tax collector prayed in this parable. It has a centering and instructive effect similar to the "sacred word," of the more recent tradition of Centering Prayer. "Have mercy on me, a sinner."

While I want to emphasize all of this, I also want to share with you an additional interpretation of this parable - this compelling story from the lips of Jesus, the great story teller. We are advised by scripture scholars that we damage the richness of Jesus' parables if we boil them down to just one simple message. There is much more texture in Jesus' genius than reducing every one of his stories to just one message.

So, while emphasizing that this parable is about the virtue of humility, while embracing our tradition's holding up the dangers of self-aggrandizement and the healing of such clueless self-absorption by the practices of humility, let me offer what I hope is an enriching level to this parable's understanding.

I'm thinking about another word Jesus uses in the story in addition to the word, "humble." Jesus also frames the story of the two men praying in two different ways with two different attitudes, using the word, "righteous" or "justified." One person, the paragon of religiousness or even religiosity, the Pharisee, thought he could be righteous not needing anyone or even God. He was the one who claimed that he was not like these other sinners. He was a walking witness of self-righteousness or spiritual condescension. The other person, who in the culture of Jesus' time was marginalized and even out-cast, was this tax-collector in the story. Tax collectors were considered to be the worst of the worst evil-doers. They took advantage of people left and right, daily. Isn't it characteristic of Jesus to hold up as models those who were considered "Other" and "less than" in religious circles - people like shepherds, prostitutes, wine-bibbers, tax-collectors, and the like? We could spend an entire additional sermon just talking about the centrality of marginalized persons in the teaching of Jesus. What a pedagogical tool Jesus used in holding up the marginalized to convict the self-righteous.

So, back to the words, "righteous" and "justified." I prefer to translate the Greek word here, often translated righteous and justified, with the word "aligned." The Pharisee thought he could align himself with the love of God by being unlovingly judgmental, condescending, and separate toward others. The tax collector was proclaimed "aligned" with God's love by Jesus because of his awareness or consciousness of his constant need of God's mercy and compassion. So, appearances to the contrary, another favored pedagogical technique of Jesus, was one who externally appeared the more religious turned out not to be aligned with God's love; the one who cultural norms considered lower than the low, turned out to have the attitude or character or mind or consciousness that is indeed more aligned with God's love.

Let me illustrate further. I'm taken these days by a young public intellectual named Charles Eisenstein. Eisenstein argues that there are two competing stories going on in our times and culture today. On the one hand is the story or myth of the separate self. On the other hand, is a different story, the story of "Interbeing," a term coined by the great Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh.

The Separate Self myth thinks that we are all interchangeable and not relatable substances, kind of like parts of a mechanical clock, which of course is one of the symbols of Newtonian thinking. We are each on a different plane. We can make our own choices. We don't have to think about the impact of our choices and behavior and actions on one another. We are disconnected individuals. We can go our own way and not have to worry about something like "The Whole." W-h-o-l-e, the Whole. The self-righteous person in Jesus' story, separated himself mentally by saying, "Thank God I am not like these other people."

Modern science, from Einstein on, shows that matter is actually energy and that you and I, as energy, are walking events with atoms that were recently in someone else's body or in another creature's form and that those atoms in our bodies are replaced every nine years. Furthermore, we all come from that one speck which exploded 14 billion years ago in the Big Bang. All scientific fields today are teaching us that we are each a participating part of One Whole - W-h-o-l-e. In fact, Jesus is frequently called the Wholemaker. Wholemaking is another good word for the word frequently translated as "salvation." There is no individualistic salvation. We are all made whole together. We are all saved together.

Therefore, each of us and God Godself, we are all a part of Oneness as Jesus prayed in John 17. God is all and is in all, and we are all one in God, and with God we are all a part of one interbeing. So, the Kingdom of God or the Reign of God, as Jesus said, is between us, among us, and also within each of us.

So, to take a posture and attitude of being in need of God's mercy like the tax collector did, knowing that we cannot create our own alignment or righteousness separate from anyone or anything else, is not to be in alignment with God, this separate, over-against mentality or prayer. But, to connect with God and also to connect with everyone else in our conscious need of God, in order to be aligned with God's Love, and with the way God has constructed reality, that is alignment with God - to be righteous or to be justified. I also argue that that is the way to true humility.

Archbishop Tutu and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had it right, I think. They are both paragons of interbeing rather than the myth of the separate self. We are indeed caught in an inescapable network of mutuality such that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere and I need you to become yourself in order to become myself and vise-versa. Those were Dr. King's words in his last Sunday sermon before his assassination. And Archbishop Tutu, in his oft-used African word ubuntu, claims that I am because we are and that a person becomes a person through other persons. He also says that we cannot be Christian alone. Nor can we be a human being alone.

So, my friends, the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax-Collector offers deep teaching about Life with God and life with the other the members of the Human Family and life with all of Creation. The delusion of the separate self leaves us misaligned, and humility of interbeing aligns us with God's love. Amen.

Will you now join me in prayer?

Loving and everlasting God, increase in us the gifts of faith, hope, and love, and humility in alignment with your love, that we may obtain what you promise. Make us love what you command. Through Jesus Christ, our Savior, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.