Humble Thyself

Dear Friends,
For years at Bible camp, on mission trips, at confirmation large group gatherings, in Sunday morning worship, and in the quiet of a small group gathered at our home, I’ve led and sung the song, “Humble Thyself.” The song reminds us from scripture to “humble thyself in the sight of the Lord … and He shall lift you up … higher and higher!” It’s always been a favorite song for many and a powerful song to experience the presence of God’s Holy Spirit while singing.
The scriptural reference for that song is from Luke 18:9-14. It’s a parable about prayer in which Jesus holds nothing back, beginning right away in verse nine, “To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable…” The parable then ends with verse 14, echoing the words of the song, “Anyone who exalts themselves will be humbled, and anyone who humbles themselves will be exalted (lifted up … higher and higher!)”
It’s amazing isn’t it, how seemingly, in all the years since Jesus told this parable, that not much has changed regarding how we act towards one another?
It’s clear that there have always been those who think they are better than others. And it’s clear that there have always been those who are “in” and those who are “out.” We begin to notice this mostly I suppose in middle school – when it becomes so important to “fit in” and when it’s often obvious who is left out or looked down on by everybody else. This often happens in the form of bullying, which we know, continues to happen on the playground, on the bus, in our neighborhoods, and now even, and perhaps especially, online. People are made to feel that they are not as good as everyone else.
So again, the parable addresses this, “To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable…” It’s a parable about a God who does not play favorites for people who do – a parable directed to those, as Pr. Eugene Peterson in The Message phrases it, “who are complacently pleased with themselves over their moral performance while looking down their noses at the common people.” So the parable has the Pharisee standing and praying aloud in the temple, “I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evil doers, adulterers – or heaven forbid, like this tax collector.”  While at the very same moment it has the tax collector in question quivering in the corner, perhaps trying to hide. He’s not showing off. He’s not trying to get others to notice him or see that he’s come to Temple. All he can do is gaze blankly at his feet, his tears falling in big, wet drops down his face. “God,” he cries out, “have mercy on me, a sinner.” Jesus then concludes, “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God that day.”
It’s another parable that turns upside down the usual standards of society. Jesus’ listeners would never have expected the story to turn out the way it does. They would have expected Jesus to say the exact opposite! Sure, everyone knows that Jesus has His quarrels with the Pharisees, but, at the end of the day, even Jesus has got to admit that they are really good at the righteousness thing. There’s no one who can keep the religious Law quite like a Pharisee. And we know that Jesus had a soft spot in him for the poor and needy and outcasts of the day, but seriously – this tax collector?? Everyone knew tax collectors to be perhaps among the most hated and despised members of Jewish society. Remember there was no IRS at this time. There were no tax laws to insure, at least, some degree of fairness. Every tax collector had a quota to meet. Whatever he could collect, over and above his quota, was his commission and there was no limit to it! It was like a license to steal, that tax collectors took full advantage of.
So, knowing what we do about Pharisees and tax collectors, it’s hard to imagine Jesus’ listeners expecting any other outcome other than the Pharisee in the parable being justified that day. So, when Jesus declares that the tax collector is justified and the Pharisee is not, He’s completely turning the tables. And how fortunate for us! What a relief for all of us sinners who know we can’t measure up on our own! What a blessing it is for us that we have a God of love and mercy who, because of the sacrifice of his Son, our Savior, forgives us from our sin and releases of from sin’s hold on us, every single day.
I was the youngest of four brothers in my family. When I was young and in elementary school, I remember vividly my older brothers thought it was fun to pin me down on the bed or on the floor, sit on me, and tickle me until I would say the magic word. Remember the magic word? “Uncle!” That’s right. During these childhood wrestling matches or “tickle treatments (as we used to call them), it didn’t matter how you said it: whispered, shouted, breathless, laughing—as soon as that magic word made it out of the mouth, the fight was over. “Uncle” in this context, means something very similar to “Mercy.”  It means, “I’m beat, it’s over. I’m pinned, I can’t recover.” It means, “I can no longer help myself, so you help me, please!” 
“Uncle”—or “Mercy!”—is the very prayer the tax collector is uttering in the Temple in this parable. Who knows what he’s been going through in his life, how he’s happened to hit rock-bottom, what depth of repentance has brought him to this place? Yet, as Jesus tells the story, Jesus leaves no room to doubt that the tax collector’s repentance is real. There’s not a lot more the tax collector could add to that simple prayer, but he doesn’t need to. “God, have mercy on me, a sinner” is a prayer that says it all. And the good news in the parable is that God is merciful to him, and that’s something that we can all count on!
Jesus went to the Cross, so we could fully realize the mercy of God. For this, we ought to be beyond grateful, and respond accordingly. Because this good news assures us that when it comes to those times in our lives, when we have made serious mistakes, we can repent and rely on God’s promised mercy!  However, as the parable also points out, while many of us have come to trust that God’s mercy is available to us, and that it’s always going to be there in the future, when it comes to others, the situation may sometimes appear very different. Sometimes we are not so eager to see mercy offered when some big name celebrity or politician makes a mistake or if we ourselves are the ones who have been wronged. Notice that the tax collector gives no reasons why he should receive mercy. He makes no argument in his defense. Unlike the Pharisee who is busily preparing his legal brief, listing his life’s achievements in full detail—the tax collector simply sobs and beats his breast. He knows that sin has beaten him. He knows that he can’t beat his own sin. And he knows he must Fully Rely On God – which is a great acronym to remember by the way – F.R.O.G. – to Fully Rely On God – to Fully Rely On the Grace of God – like the tax collector did A lesson that the Pharisee has not yet learned, apparently. He has yet to learn or understand that everybody – himself included – are all dependent on God’s mercy!  And because the Pharisee is not able to be merciful to the tax collector, he’s also blind to the similarities between himself and the tax collector – that both men are human beings and that both are sinners in need of God’s grace.
I remember being stubborn sometimes when my brothers were sitting on me and tickling me – stubborn to point of not saying the magic word. This usually ended up with me needing to go to the emergency room with an asthma attack for a shot of adrenaline! But for whatever reason, sometimes I would dig in my heels and not cry out “Uncle!”. I would not plea for the mercy I knew was available if needed. The Pharisee’s stubbornness and self-righteousness separated him from his neighbor and from God! One of the important truths of our Christian faith is that, in drawing near to God, we also draw near to one another! We come to see that we are all in the same boat, and that God loves each of us equally – no favoritism.
I’ve reminded you of this before, and I’ll do it again – simply put, according to the famed author and theologian, Paul Tillich, a Christian is simply one beggar showing another beggar where to find bread. We are all in the same boat. God loves us all equally! All of us – brothers and sisters – in Christ, looking for bread – in need of forgiveness. And to receive this bread, this mercy, this expression of God’s abounding and steadfast love – sometimes we just need to say the magic word (Uncle) or words (Have mercy on me, a sinner). And in doing so, we can breathe again, and we are made right with God again.
Blessings to you. Peace,
Pr. Dale