Parents do strange things sometimes.
My dad used to introduce me to people by my shoe size:
“I’d like you to meet my son. He has a size 11 shoe.”
I know it sounds crazy, but it’s true. Can you imagine what would have happened if I had internalized that fact as an impressive talking point?
I might have said something like, “That’s right. You heard the man. Size 11 is nothing to mess around with. I expect to be treated with some respect around here.”
Obviously, that would have been ridiculous. Shoe size has nothing to do with how good or interesting a person is. It would be silly to suggest otherwise. Of course, we laugh at that idea, but how many other criteria do we have for evaluating a person’s status that are just as ridiculous and arbitrary?
My favorite ridiculous commercial is the one where a guy implies that drinking a certain kind of beer makes him “the most interesting man in the world.” Does beer really make a person more interesting? Probably not. Nevertheless, this particular beer company makes at least enough money to keep making these commercials, which means that somebody, somewhere is buying their argument.
These companies keep us buying their products by appealing to our sense of pride. Now, when I use that word, pride, I’m not talking about the healthy kind of pride. There is a pride that comes from human dignity or the celebration of ones accomplishments. Those are both healthy kinds of pride.
But the pride that keeps us spending money we don’t have to buy things we don’t need to impress people we don’t like is an unhealthy pride. Philosophers call it hubris. Psychologists might call it a superiority complex. We might even call it sinful pride. Personally, I like to call it getting a case of the “better-thans”.
You know what I’m talking about: It’s that inner voice that says, “I’m richer/smarter/prettier/more successful/holier/better than so-and-so.” We all have that voice inside. We all fall into that trap from time-to-time. No matter what our standard of measurement is, it cannot ever really measure the full dignity of a human being. Whether you’re counting by salary or shoe size, neither one can tell you what a person is worth. But that unhealthy, sinful, foolish pride tricks people into thinking otherwise.
There are, generally speaking, two kinds of unhealthy pride: pride of pedigree and pride of performance. I’d like to look at each one in turn.
Pride of pedigree is that sense of superiority that people get from inherited characteristics that are beyond their control. This is where we get all our “isms” from as a society. I’m talking about racism, sexism, classism, nationalism, and ableism, just to name a few. People obviously have no control over their skin color, gender, family or country of origin, or disability status, so it’s ludicrous to claim superiority for oneself because of these things. That’s the pride of pedigree.
The other kind of unhealthy pride, pride of performance, is far more deeply ingrained in our collective cultural psyche. Our society was built, in its earliest days, on the idea of a puritan work ethic that prizes individual effort and people who “pull themselves up by their own bootstraps.” All of that is fine, in and of itself. It’s a good thing to celebrate one’s accomplishments in life. But the celebration turns sour when it gets people to the point of looking down on others for not measuring up according to some arbitrary standard like education, salary, piety, or church attendance. When we arrive at that place, no matter how justified or accurate our standard of measurement might be, we have misjudged our fellow human beings and we are guilty of the sin of pride. That’s the pride of performance.
Unhealthy pride is what we can hear in the voice of the Pharisee from today’s gospel reading when he prays, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people.” This guy had a serious case of the “better thans”. According to text, the Pharisees “trusted in themselves that they were righteous and treated others with contempt”.
To be fair, the Pharisees were justified in their pride: they were educated, religious, and very well-respected. They were the “moral majority” of their day. Tax collectors, on the other hand, were not well-respected at all. In fact, they were despised. More than just the equivalent of IRS agents, tax collectors in those days were actually a lot more like Mafia thugs. Tax collectors back then were private contractors hired by the occupying Roman government from among the local populace to extort taxes, fees, and tariffs from their neighbors. They were bottom feeders and traitors. The way they made a living was by intentionally overcharging people on their taxes and skimming off the excess to keep for themselves. So they were liars and thieves too. Nobody liked tax collectors.
So, when Jesus starts telling his story about a Pharisee and a tax collector, his Jewish audience would have naturally assumed that the Pharisee was an upstanding citizen while the tax collector was the scum of the earth. So then, it was a big (some might even say offensive) twist ending when Jesus tells the crowd that it was the tax collector, not the Pharisee, who went home “justified” in the eyes of God.
The average tax collector had no redeeming qualities. There was nothing about him that was worth saving, according to the average person. When the tax collector in Jesus’ story calls himself a “sinner,” his neighbors would have just said, “You bet.” The Pharisee, on the other hand, looked like a much better person by comparison. In fact, he was. The Pharisee had every reason to see himself as “part of the solution” to society’s problems while the riff-raff were just holding everyone back. The Pharisee correctly and accurately concluded that the world would be better off without scumbags like that tax collector.
But therein lies the problem with the sin of pride: one can be totally right about what makes a person better than others and still wrong in one’s relationship to others. The Pharisee in the story was correct in his assessment of the situation (i.e. “This tax collector is a sinner and I’m not like him. Thank God!”) but his unhealthy pride was preventing him from having a relationship with his neighbor. That’s why Jesus said he was not “justified” that day.
The word “justified” is an interesting one. It has nothing to do with “being right” and everything to do with “being in right relationship”. The word comes from the Greek dikaion which literally means “to set right.” In sailing, sailors talk about “righting” a ship that has a list to the port/starboard. The ship’s mast, no matter how good of a mast it is, is only “justified” or “upright” when it sits perpendicular to the water line, that is: when it stands in right relationship to the water. Only then can your ship go anywhere.
In the same way, the Pharisee in Jesus story was right: he was an educated and religious person, he was theologically correct and morally spotless, but he was not justified (i.e. he was not in right relationship with God and his neighbor).
The tax collector, on the other hand, was not theologically or morally right, but he went home justified that day, according to Jesus. He was in right relationship with those around him. His mast was perpendicular to the water.
Jesus doesn’t give us a lot of details about the situation, but we can use our imaginations to flesh out the story in our minds, based on what Jesus does tell us. First of all, the story takes place in the great temple in Jerusalem, the epicenter of Jewish religion in those days. People made pilgrimage there with a sense of awe and reverence. I imagine it looked something like photos I’ve seen of Muslim pilgrims at prayer, circling around the Kaaba in Mecca. In the same way, the Jerusalem temple was the holiest place in the world for Jews. It was the place where God lived.
I imagine that the tax collector made his way to that temple with no small amount of fear and trembling that day. Maybe he couldn’t even name the inner longing that drew him there. Jesus tells us that he stood “far off” and “would not even look up to heaven.” I imagine that he was overcome in that moment with a sense of transcendent wonder at the mystery connecting him with everything and everyone else in that moment, reaching out from that epicenter to the ends of the earth. And then he addressed that mystery by name: “God.”
I wonder if maybe in that moment, he sensed something at the center of that mystery, that in the very heart of God there can be heard the constant, rhythmic pulse of unconditional love and amazing grace? I think he must have sensed such kindness because, in the very next sentence, he appeals to that heartbeat of love in spite of his obvious unworthiness. Like an infant who will only cry out in the night if it believes that someone will come, that there will be arms to hold and a voice to soothe, so this tax collector cries out, “God, be merciful to me!”
And it is then, and only then, held by the arms of grace that reach out from the center of the universe, that he is able to name that which his lips tremble to speak; he is ready to tell the truth about himself and acknowledge what he is: a sinner.
“God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” With this short prayer, he is saying in substance, “I ain’t perfect, but by the grace of God, I is what I is.” In this moment, accepting himself as he is and reality as it is, our friend the tax collector is both humbled and exalted. His humility is his exaltation and his exaltation is in his humility.
Humility is an often misunderstood word. Too often, we take it mean someone who doesn’t think much of himself or herself. We think of people with low self-esteem and unremarkable talents, but this is not humility. The Latin root of the words humble and humility is the same as the word for humus, that rich topsoil in which plants grow. Humus literally means earth or ground. In the same way, when we meet a person who is kind and disarming, an open-hearted individual who doesn’t put on airs but makes you feel at ease, we might say that person is “down to earth.” Earth… humus… humility.
Also, I think it’s no coincidence that both humus and humility share that same Latin root with the words human and humane. Based on this linguistic connection, I like to think of a truly humble people as those down to earth human beings who know that they are loved in spite of all past sins and imperfections and are able to accept themselves and honestly say, “I ain’t perfect, but by the grace of God I is what I is.”
Such people are both humble and exalted at the same time. They are set free from foolish, sinful, and unhealthy pride of pedigree and performance. Those who know they are loved and accepted by God are free to love and accept others with reckless abandon.
This is what it means to be justified (i.e. in right relationship with God, neighbor, and self), to be set right with mast of your ship perpendicular to the water. It has nothing to do with being right or perfect. Theological correctness, moral integrity, salary, education, and shoe size are all secondary concerns. I pray that we the people of this church would be people of faith whose lives have been touched and transformed by this amazing grace. And I pray that you would leave this place today having heard in your heart once more the central truth that sustains us on life’s journey and empowers us in our various daily ministries:
That I love you, God loves you, and there’s nothing you can do about it.
Be blessed and be a blessing.