Sunday, October 27, 2013

Humility: the root of all virtue

May my words be in the Name of the Holy & Undivided Trinity: + Father, Son, & Holy Spirit. Amen.

I'm going to begin by saying something that will probably make your head hurt … I say this because it makes my head ache a little and I'm the one who wrote it! And it is this: most of us read the parable from today's Gospel reading, the Pharisee and the Tax-collector, and think of themselves as being more like the Tax-collector than the Pharisee; but we do so in a way that in fact makes us more like the Pharisee than the Tax-collector.

I'd say it again, but I don't think it would make it any easier. Instead, let me tease it out for you a little. First, we need to be sure we understand what is going on in the parable. And one of the things we need to realise first is how shocking the comparison that Jesus makes would have seemed to those listening to him. Christians now have an almost 2000 year old history of reading the new Testament and thinking of Pharisees as the 'bad guys.' But that's not how Jesus' audience would have seen them. They were learned and pious men. And what the Pharisee in the parable says about himself is the absolute truth – he is a man who is faithful to Jewish law completely and utterly.

The tax-collector, on the other hand, is a man they would have despised … and with good reason. And we must remember what it is what we are talking about when we use the word 'tax-collector' in this context. He was not a civil servant in the employee of the ancient world's equivalent of the Revenue Commissioners. The word we are translating as 'tax-collector', tel-own-ayes, actually means 'tax-farmer' … he was a person who essentially put in a bid to raise a certain amount of taxes for the authorities … and what he raised above that he got to keep for himself … worse, he was a Jew who not only associated with foreigners, he was collaborating with the Romans, the foreign occupying power, to squeeze money out of his fellow Jews. There's a reason why again and again in the Gospels we hear the phrase 'tax-collectors and sinner' … and note which comes first on that short list … to be a tax-collector was worse than any other sin … the closest comparison I can think of from the modern era is the Nazis … they were that hated … and perhaps that deserving of the opprobrium they received.

And that's what would have made the comparison so shocking … because the one who should have been the 'the good guy' is condemned and the one who should have been the 'bad guy' is praised … why? Well, Jesus tells us why: 'for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.’ At the heart of the parable is the issue of humility. The pious, lay-abiding Jew is not the bad-guy simply because he is a Pharisee; any more than the traitorous exploiter of his country-men is the good guy for being a Tax-collector. The sin of the Pharisee is a lack of humility, in pride in how virtuous he thinks he is, in judging, despising, and condemning others; and the virtue of the tax-collector is to stand before God and admit and accept that he is a sinner in need of God's mercy. And that is what humility is: understanding that compared to God we are as nothing; that in fact all our gifts and talents come from him & we can take no credit for them; that it is not for us put ourselves in God's place and judge others; that it is especially not for us to make ourselves look better by thinking less of others … humility is the root of all virtue … because to be humble is simply to acknowledge the truth of how things are … and without that truth, no other virtues are possible.

And so back to my head-hurting opening statement, that most of us read probably read this parable in such a way that even as we condemn the Pharisee, we do so in a way that makes us more like him than the Tax-collector. By which I mean this: how many, when they hear this, automatically react to the Pharisee in the same way that he reacted to the Tax-collector, by swelling with a little pride in their hearts and thinking: God, I thank you that I am not like that Pharisee or other sinners; I am not arrogant, and full of pride; and instead of truly admitting themselves to be sinners, rather list off the good things they do, like the Pharisee ... all the money they give to charity, the work they do for the Church, the kind things they do for others? How many smugly think of others they know who do less or nothing at all and commend themselves to God?

If you do not, then you have my admiration … you have achieved a level of sanctity that is truly heroic … a humility that is to be admired and emulated by all … you have learned how to stand before God and ask him, and truly mean it, to have mercy on you, a humble sinner. It is something that I pray all here will be able to do – even as I ask that you pray it for me. Amen.

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