It is said that one of Jill’s ancestors disliked visitors.
So he created a device which enabled him to rattle chains in the attic. When he
tired of his guests he would rattle the chains and declare that they had better
leave fast for the devil was coming…. Did I mention that he was a pirate? It’s
perfectly true, or so Jill’s uncle told us. Jill’s uncle JR was a really good
storyteller. When you listened to one of his tales you could never be sure
where fact ended and story began.
Jesus was a lot like uncle JR. He told a good tale. So it’s
important to remember that some of what he said was for the sake of the story
and not to be taken literally. Some of us hearing today’s gospel might think
that we are meant to berate ourselves and declare ourselves miserable sinners
and less than worms in order to have God pay any attention to us at all. And so
we justify giving ourselves guilt trips and feeding our feelings of shame and
inadequacy. I don’t for a moment
think that that’s what Jesus is saying; rather he is painting a dramatic and
humorous contrast between the two men, who are almost cartoon characters, not
recommending that we always approach God as if we are worthless. After all, God
sent his only Son that we might have life – if God loves us that much we are
not at all worthless – we’re worth God’s Son.
The Pharisee is also a humorous larger than life figure – the
true self-made man. This character is so full of himself that when he prays he reminds
God of his own achievements, of how much he has made of his life, of how
virtuous he is and how much better than others. Clearly we don’t want to be
The moral of the story is that God loves those who are
humble, but how are we to understand humility if it’s not making ourselves out
to be miserable sinners?
We know that the heart of God is compassion, and so as we
draw closer to God so we get to cultivate a habit of compassion which includes
compassion for ourselves. Having compassion for ourselves means being able to
take a step back and see ourselves clearly and honestly and with a touch of
loving humor, just as we might see an old friend. Humility is having a clear,
compassionate vision of our abilities as well as our failings, our flashes of
brilliance as well as our bad habits, our foibles as well as our giftedness.
But beyond that, humility is the knowledge that we cannot do
it alone, that there really is no such thing as a self-made man or woman - that
we are totally dependent upon God who gives us breath, God who gives us
consciousness, God in whom we live and move and have our being.
I think it’s difficult to find our bearings on this path of
humility. A little like trying to get your sea legs – we find ourselves
over-inflated – the ego doing its thing again - and so we over-compensate by
being too self-critical, and then we correct that only to find that now we are
feeling superior and judging others. Perhaps the mark of the mature Christian
is the ability to be centered in a true humility which has a firm grip on the
realities of our spiritual natures as the sons and daughters of the living God
as well as our limitations of body and personality.
Being able to maintain the balance of humility means having
a clear picture of oneself, but no longer needing to make comparisons. It means
no longer needing to feel superior or to compare ourselves with others, because
our primary relationship is with God and we rest secure on the knowledge of
God’s never-ending love. From this humility comes a confidence and security
which is rooted and grounded in God’s love and does not need to judge others.
The awareness of one’s own failings is balanced by the experience of
confession, forgiveness and absolution. We are human, and the more Christ-like
we become the more we will see and know our limitations and our failings and
also see them as another opportunity to open ourselves to God’s love.
But since humility is grounded primarily in the relationship
with God, it brings with it tremendous joy because it is part of that
never-ending heavenly song of love and praise which sounds wherever God is
present. And from that swelling up of gratitude and hope and praise comes the
desire to give all that we are. This is a God-given desire for God in Jesus
gave everything for us, and as we come to appreciate that more and more so we
find ourselves swept up into the divine song of gift.
That connection between humility, gratitude and gift means
that we can approach humility from a number of different ways. We can come at
it directly by noticing when we are judging others and choosing instead to pray
for forgiveness for ourselves and joy for them. We can also back into it by
cultivating praise and self-giving. One caution here; the cartoon Pharisee in
Jesus’ story thought he was praising God by saying, thank you that I am not as
others are, thank you that I am superior to them. That is not praise. Praise is
about God not about me.
One of our members once said that she cannot believe that
God is really sitting around waiting for us to pat him on the back and praise
him with a “Well done, jolly good job, God”.
I agree. That is not what praise is about.
Praise is about our joyful adoration of our Creator. God
alone is worthy to be praised and worshiped. When we praise God we are joining
in that heavenly chorus and we ourselves are uplifted and sustained. This is
not a reward for God’s work well-done but a joyful acknowledgement that without
God nothing, including us, would exist. Without God the cosmos is not even a
single subatomic particle.
Praise and humility are like two sides of the same coin.
When we are praising God there is no room for our little egos to get in the way.
When we are practicing humility we see clearly the wonder of God and our own
relative insignificance. And from these two comes the desire to give because we
know that everything we are and everything we have is a God-given gift for us
to share and that in sharing the gift grows.
This is quite contrary to most economic theory which deals
with a world of scarcity. In the world of spirit, when we give we are adding to
the cycle of energy and as we give so what we have increases. We may not have
so many toys, we may not have such a big house as we would had we hoarded our
love and our money and our talents for ourselves, but the quality of our life in
God and in love constantly grows.
Thus, as we grow into mature followers of Jesus we aim for praise,
humility and self-giving. They are so interwoven that wherever we start we
increase all three. Let us ask the Spirit of God who teaches us how to pray to teach
us to praise and to increase in us the spiritual fruits of humility, self-giving,
and a sense of humor. Just like Jesus.