Humble, not Humiliated

Luke 18:9-14

“Humility” is not a very popular concept.

On the one hand, those writing the history books of the future might look back at the past 100 years and declare that this was the century of “equality”, as it became the lens through which we view each modern controversy: from women’s suffrage in 1916, to civil rights movements leading to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, as we’ve attempted to deal with issues from land claims and self-government to the decisions to redefine marriage and definitions of the family in Canadian law, with each movement claiming “equality” as its goal.

But, for all the talk of equality, we continue to create new and different ways to distinguish ourselves from our neighbour.  We all do it – and it is so ingrained that it’s almost sub-conscious.  You know, those quick, fleeting thoughts that flash across our minds when we encounter someone who, for whatever reason, we’ve categorized as “other”: it might be that warm flash of pride when we see our shiny new car parked between two old jalopies; it might be that silent “good heavens” when we see someone still in their pyjamas with a couple of unruly kids hanging off their shopping cart at the store; it might be that splash of dopamine, that moment of pleasure that we’ve learned to crave as we check our Facebook again and again to see how many likes that post had – or, depending on our mood, perhaps even clicking to see who has liked it, and who hasn’t.

As a society, we’ve made great strides in the name of “equality”.

But, in a world bent towards corruption by the effects of sin, we simply cannot help ourselves from creating division.


From the start, the chief effects of sin are division and separation.  Separation from the God-given blessings of the land, divisions between parents and children and peoples and nations,
and separation from life in the presence of a holy God, as we choose darkness over light and death over life.

We’ve come a long way from our great-grandparents, whose society built dividing lines based on race or gender; but where one dividing line falls, it seems a new one is built.

Humility is not a very popular concept.

It was Karl Barth, the great Swiss theologian of the 1900s who wrote that, above all else, ‘pride is the chief sin of the religious person’.[1] 

Now, if we’re living our lives as disciples, as apprentices, students of Christ, and our call is to follow where he leads, we’ll find ourselves moving from strength to strength as grow in the imitation of Christ, as we increase in charity and love for each other, as we become able to speak the truth in love, following that narrow path of obedience.

But the problem with this narrow path carved through the mountains alongside the valley of death is that, if you stop to look around, to see where you are compared to the others, if you lose track of the footprints of the one leading the way, you risk losing your footing, and then you fall.

Yes, pride is the chief sin for a religious person, precisely because it only springs up after we’ve avoided the more public, the more visible sins.

No good Christian would boast that you have lied, or committed murder, or dishonoured your parents.  You wouldn’t boast that you sat down and carved a false God, or lost your house and livelihood to addiction. But how easy is it for any one of us to see those sins in another, and suddenly feel that warm rush of sinful pride as we thank – not God, but ourselves – that we aren’t like those people.

The Pharisee and the Tax Collector

In the Gospel today, we hear the Pharisee saying his prayers: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, evildoers, adulterers – or even like this tax collector.  I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get”.

Now, I hope we all recognize that there’s a problem with this prayer – standing up and telling God how great you are.  But that’s not the lesson for us.

The reality, you see, is that the Pharisee is right

Everything he’s saying is true.  The Pharisee’s concern above all else was keeping the laws of the Old Covenant as strictly and carefully as possible.  By the objective religious standard, he is a better Jew, a more observant God-fearer than thieves, evildoers, adulterers, or tax collectors.  The law required a fast once per year on the Day of Atonement, but he offered God a fast twice each week; the law required that you offer back to God a tenth of your living expenses and farm profits, but he offered back a tenth of every thing he received.

According to the law, according to the cultural and religious expectations of his day, the Pharisee is right.

The problem – and the lesson for us – is that, for as right as he certainly is, the second his “rightness” became a badge of honour that he could show to the world, it loses its value.

Sure, he’s no less right.  But, you know what the scriptures say: if you announce your good works, sure, they’re still good works, but “truly, I tell you, you have received your reward”.[2] 

After resisting the temptations to disobey the law, the Pharisee falls victim to that more sinister, chief sin of pride, which makes all of his obedience and religious progress worthless.  All the effort of following that narrow path becomes worthless if, in your looking around at others in their journey, you lose your footing at fall.

What is Humility?

There’s a lot to think about there.  Pride and humility are big ideas.

Unfortunately, we aren’t helped by what “humility” has come to mean in the way we speak.

We think, before anything else, of “humiliation”, when you’re made to feel ashamed or foolish by an attack on your dignity: that’s not humility, and as sons and daughters of God and members of Christ’s Body, humiliation is the furthest thing from what God wants for us.  After all, we’re made in His image, and he loves us so much, we’re worth so much, that before the foundation of the world He would offer his own son to redeem us.

Humiliation – an attack on your dignity by someone else – is not humility.

Humiliation – feeling humiliated – is an emotion, and a highly negative one at that, the feeling of responding to a public attack by another.

Humility, on the other hand, is not an emotion, but an attitude. 

Where humiliation is reactive, responding to what someone else has done, humility is a direction, a course that we set for ourselves.

Humility – having the quality of humbleness – means that we have become intentionally aware of our status, of our strengths and weaknesses, and our relationships to others.

Too often, we’ve allowed everyday speech – the same speech that, just under the surface, is building walls to divide “us” from “them” – to define “humble” as a polite way of saying “poor”, or as a kind way of saying that someone is weak or passive. 

But that’s not the point.  A person who is humble is aware of their status before God.  The word itself comes from a Latin word meaning “of the earth”, as our faith itself tells us that our entire existence depends on God, and as the dirt will one day be sprinkled on the earthly remains of every one of us, we are called to remember that we are dust, and to dust we shall return.

Confidence in Christ

The Pharisee, proclaiming how much better he is than the others, is certainly not humble.

But, let’s take a moment to hear again the words of St. Paul, the blessed Apostle to the Gentiles, and see if we hear the difference in his speech:

“As for me, I am already being poured out as an offering, and the time of my departure has come.  I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.  From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give me…”[3]

Is this a humble speech?  Yes.

St. Paul knows his worth in the eyes of God as a sinner forgiven by grace, even as he awaits his trial in a Roman prison.

Like the Pharisee, St. Paul knows he has done what is required of him, and when he has messed up, he’s asked for forgiveness and started again.  Again, St. Paul, like the Pharisee, has full confidence in the reward that accompanies a life of faith.

The difference, though, is the attitude, the direction of their gaze.

St. Paul, a student and follower of Jesus, followed the narrow path; and now, nearing the end of what he describes as his earthly race, what does he do?  Does he stop and turn around to see how big of a lead he has?  No.  He keeps his eyes firmly fixed on Christ, knowing that, whatever he may face, his worth, his identity is secure as a child of God.

The Pharisee is also running the race of obedience, but instead of keeping his eyes on the prize, he’s focused instead on the others that he thinks he has left in the dust; but no one wins a race by focusing on how much better you are than the others; and the surest way to lose a race is to assume that you’ve already won.

And what about that tax collector?

Well, there’s no question: this man was a sinner.  Tax collectors were those who cooperated with the Roman oppressors, and were authorized to charge as much as they liked and to collect the debt by any means, even violence.  There’s no question, he robbed those in his own community to line his own pockets, and was probably personally responsible for widows losing their homes.

He was certainly universally hated; he had hurt everyone around him.  He came to the temple, but wouldn’t dare even enter, but stood out in the porch with his head down so people wouldn’t recognize him.  And while everyone else was performing the daily rituals of prayer, he bent down and said “God, have mercy on me a sinner”.

…And here’s the scary bit: that criminal – he’s the one who went home in a right relationship with God.

Is Jesus telling us to follow the example of the tax collector?  By no means; Jesus doesn’t condone the sin; and whenever Jesus encounters people in the Gospels he tells them to go and sin no more, making right what they have done wrong.

But it’s a matter of attitude: the tax collector knows where he stands; he knows he needs God’s mercy, and he makes no excuses.  He doesn’t stand there and say, “well at least I didn’t murder someone, or at least I’m not a homeless drunk”.  He needs mercy.  He asked for mercy. And he received mercy.  The Pharisee, as right as he was, didn’t receive anything, for he had already received his reward.

How, then shall we live?

Humility is not a popular concept.  But, it was St. Cyril of Alexandria who said “no true soldier who has seen battle brags that they came out alive while others fell”.[4]

We’re all on this journey.  The temptations may look different, but “there, but by the grace of God, go I”, and the moment we take our eyes off the prize to see how much farther ahead we are than those who are struggling is the moment we fall. 

But, from a place of humility; with the knowledge that we are all God’s children, and with our course set as followers of Christ, everything changes.  When you know who you are, as a forgiven Child of God, the dividing walls are no longer necessary.  When you know where your value lies, puffing ourselves up with pride no longer gains us anything.  When we are honest with ourselves about our own struggles, then we realize the mercy we’ve received, and can extend that grace to a world that is desperately hurting.

For, truly I tell you, all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.  To God be the glory forever and ever.  Amen.


[1] Volume IV.1, 60.2 of Church Dogmatics.  Barth begins by saying the chief sin is “unbelief”, which he explains as the pride of man in believing that we can be god, being our own law-giver, judge, and saviour.

[2] Matthew 6:2

[3] 2 Timothy 4:6-8a

[4] Cyril of Alexandria’s Commentary on Luke, Homily 120, para.

Featured Image: “The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector”, Acrylic on Canvas by Rebecca Brogan.

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