Thoughts on the passage:
I would not make a very good farmer, because I like to be in control of things. When you are a farmer you can control some things, like what you plant and when you plant it, but there is a lot that is beyond your control. You cannot control the weather and that probably has the biggest effect on how your crops perform. You also cannot control the price that you will be able to sell your harvest for, and that in turn has a big effect on whether or not your year’s worth of work will allow you to plant again next year.
Control give us the illusion of power and power feels good. Every child goes through a phase where they love to turn the lights on and off. Why, because I think it gives them a clear sense of control. When they flip the switch, something clear and demonstrable happens: darkness becomes light and light becomes darkness. Now they have the power to control their world, if just in one small, simple way.
That same illusion of control is wrapped into our own American culture and values. Think of the image of the self-made individual. Built into that image is the idea that a person can be in control of their own destiny. The self-made person is not controlled or beholden to outside forces but instead shapes their own success.
The problem is the self-made person is an illusion. You cannot in fact pull yourself up by your own bootstraps. Even the strongest “individual” did so with the support of others. It was the family that raised them. It was the community that supported them. We never truly do something on our own. Usually we achieve great heights not by pulling on our bootstraps but by standing on the backs of giants.
Humility runs counter to a lot of what we value as a culture. We value power, and humility means letting go of power. We value individual achievement, and humility requires admitting the things that we cannot do on our own. We value success, and humility causes us to acknowledge our failures. In spite of all these pressures, we as Christians need to do what we can to cultivate a humble heart.
Being a humble Christian is hard. After all, when we read this story we probably need to NOT identify with the tax collector, but instead remember the ways that we are like the Pharisee, casting judgement on those around us. To be a humble Christian we have to hold in tension our brokenness, our failings, and the fact that we are also beloved children of God and through Christ we can do all things.
How do we hold this in tension? First we need to remember that we are all sinners. This is not as easy as it sounds. When we think of sinners we tend to conjure our own images and usually they are of someone other than ourselves. Sinners are people who do not think and act like us. This kind of thinking is exactly what traps the Pharisee in our Bible story. When we think of sinners we tend to think of those other than ourselves. We are also sinners. We sin in little ways and we sin in big ways. The reality is that as humans we are sinners and we are not perfect. As uncomfortable as it makes me and probably all of us, we must remember our own fallen nature and do it regularly.
Second, we need to remember we cannot do things alone. When I was in college I remember being struck by the number of intelligent people around me who did not believe in God. What was striking to me was that in some sense they had enough confidence in themselves that they did not really believe in a higher power. As it says in the Bible, “fools say in their hearts, ‘there is no God.’” (Psalm 14:1) We are too quick at times to trust in our own abilities. We believe that we can achieve anything and everything. Instead, we need to remember that we cannot do it alone. We need each other and we need God.
These first two steps are critical; we need to remember our brokenness and we need to remember our limits. Left alone with these however we would be in a depressing place. Fortunately, that is not where God leaves us. God meets us in our sinfulness and washes it away. God meets us with our failings and foibles and lifts us up. With God’s help we can accomplish anything. When we forget these things we set ourselves up for failure. When we remember them and come before God with a humble heart, God will lift us up.
Questions to Ponder:
When do you struggle the most to be humble in your life?
Who is someone you know who does a good job of being humble?
What can you do this week to stay humble in your everyday activities?
Gracious God, too often we forget to turn to you and we “go it alone.” Too often God we act like we do not need your help in our daily lives. Forgive us, O Lord, for the times when we think too highly of ourselves and not enough of you. Help to us to be humble. Help us to remember our failings. We give thanks, O God, for your grace, that lifts us up, even in the midst of sins and doubts, and leads to the light. Amen