Humbler than thou

Preached on 23 October 2016 at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Snohomish, Washington
Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 25

It seems to be inherently human that we compare ourselves to others.  We rank.  We judge.  We tell ourselves, “I’ll never be as good as her.” or “I may not be perfect, but at least I’m not like that.”  But when we compare and rank and judge, we separate ourselves from others; we create walls.

I wonder how many of us hear today’s parable and think, “I hope I’m not like that Pharisee,” but then we almost cringe to think of being like the tax collector.  We hear Jesus praise his humility and think we should be more humble.

The Pharisee seems to be the epitome of “holier-than-thou.”  But is it better to get into a “humbler-than-thou” contest?  They’re two sides of the same coin.  They’re both about comparing, judging and more important they’re about us, about what we do to try to justify ourselves.  There’s the rub.

We think we can justify ourselves.

So, let’s go a little deeper into this parable and then see if it’s helpful in our own relationship with God.

Let’s start with where they are.  They’re in the Temple in Jerusalem.  The Temple is the central place for worship.  Unlike the synagogue, this is where people come to bring their offerings; it is where they come to be as close to face-to-face with God as is possible.  It’s a massive, public space teeming with people.  Yet each of the two men stands alone to pray.

The Pharisee stands alone, thanking God for not making him like “other people.”  He recognizes that it is by the grace of God that he even has the opportunity to live a righteous life.  He is righteous; he conforms his life to God’s teaching and law and strives to be in right relationship with God.  What sounds like boasting may merely be description.  There is nothing wrong with being righteous.  In fact, God calls us to righteousness and teaches us how to live.  It’s a good thing.

However, it can also be a stumbling block.  It’s a stumbling block when we think our own righteousness is enough and that we don’t need God.

It’s a stumbling block when the righteousness that we strive for is used instead as a standard by which we judge others.  This we separates us and creates walls.  The Pharisee prays alone.  Is he afraid of being polluted by others?  Or does his self-righteousness keep others away?  The sad thing is that we can’t be in right relationship with God while we are at odds with our neighbors.

The tax collector, on the other hand, is trapped.  He will still be a tax collector when he leaves; he’s trapped in a system of sin.  And so, he stands apart, alone in the back of the Temple to pray, where he won’t bother anyone.  He is humble, maybe even desperate as he pleads with God to have mercy on him.  He can’t be righteous of his own accord.  And Jesus says that he is justified.

What does that even mean?  We kind of bandy those words about in the church, righteousness and justification.  It means that God counts him as righteous in spite of his failings, his sin.  God restores him to relationship with God’s-self.

The Pharisee is righteous when he arrives and he is still righteous when he leaves.  He prays to God with confidence.

Righteousness is about our own action.  It’s how we live our lives in accordance with God’s teaching.  It’s about conforming our own will to God’s will.

Justification is God’s action by which we are restored to right relationship because of God’s deep love for us.  You are justified by God.  And so is our neighbor.

Think about that.  You are already justified, loved by God; you don’t have to strive to deserve God’s love, you already have it. You don’t have to justify yourself.  You don’t have to compete to be more holy or more righteous or more humble than your neighbor.

You are free

Justification draws us together, rather than separates us, as we recognize our common humanity, our common failings, our common need for God’s grace and mercy.

Justification frees us to do our best in all areas of our lives not in an effort to earn God’s love but because we already have it.

Justification frees us to love our neighbors, not compete with them, or judge them, because they, too, are God’s beloved.

The parable isn’t about a Pharisee and a Tax Collector.  It’s not about being holier-than-thou or humbler-than-thou.  The parable is about God.  God justifies the righteous and the unrighteous.  God justifies us – you and me.

It may be inherently human to compare and rank and judge.  But we’re not stuck there.  The good news of the gospel is that we don’t have to compete for God’s love.  We already have it and so we are then free to love others.