II Timothy 4:6-8,16-18
The story from the gospel this morning tells us of the triumph of humility; the humble tax collector acknowledges his many faults, asks God for mercy, and goes home justified, while the cocky Pharisee reminds God and everyone else of his accomplishments, belittles the tax collector, and does not go home justified. The point of the story is that while we should never pull ourselves down into a spiral of despair by constantly dwelling on our faults, we do need to be aware of them, honestly confess them, ask God to heal them, and then work on them (cooperating with and fostering the healing that only God can give to us). Doing all that sets us on the road to freedom and maturity.
On the flip side, the road to bondage and immaturity is shown to us by the Pharisee, because when we brag only of our supposed triumphs, we blind ourselves to the parts of us that need to be healed. Everyone else sees our sins, and God sees them, but we are too busy gloating to notice our open wounds that are getting worse everyday, making life difficult for those around us, and eventually crippling us. We don’t need to hide or deny our good qualities (for that is just as dishonest as hiding our sins), but we do need to realize that everyone has basically the same amount of virtue as well as the same amount of vice. It is merely the particular virtues and vices that differ from one person to another. But the cocky Pharisee didn’t understand this because he was so busy yelling: “Hey everyone, it’s all about me!” that he could not hear the humble tax collector admitting: “It’s not all about me – it’s all about God.”
Humility allows us to be grateful for our virtues as gifts from God that we can foster in order to receive ever more of them, rather than gloating over them as if they were our own accomplishments, and humility allows us to be honest about our vices as problems that God can heal, instead of overwhelming obstacles that must out of necessity lead us to hell. Humility allows us to say with confidence: “I am a beautiful, wonderful child of God, and so is everyone else. I am a sinner saved by the grace of God and the blood of Jesus, and so is everyone else. I have vices that need healing, as well as virtues that need expanding, and so does everyone else. Only God can do those things for me, and only God can do it for everyone else.” Humility allows us to follow the advice of an ancient desert monk in an old story who answered the question of how to be saved with the simple answer: “Keep silent, and do not compare yourself with others.”, rather than following the example of the pharisee in our gospel reading, who opened his mouth solely in order to make himself look better than the tax collector.
Saying all of that is in no way meant to be a defense or excuse for wrongdoing. Since we are children of God, having low expectations for our own or anyone else’s behavior amounts to disrespect and shows misunderstanding of our true potential, We all fail and we all sin, but seeing that as no problem degrades humanity. If we are honest about it, we can all say that ninety-nine percent of the time we know full well when we do something wrong, and yet we go right ahead and do it. That is why we need the humility to say that although we are made in God’s image, we don’t always live up to our calling, and we need help, like the tax collector in the gospel.
We need to be more willing to confess our own faults and less willing to point at others’. We are too apt to change rules, ignore traditions, and interpret some parts of scripture literally while interpreting other parts figuratively or simply ignoring them in order to make our lives easier and soothe our own consciences while at the same time accusing those with whom we do not agree of abandoning the same scriptures and traditions. That happens on all parts of the supposed spectrum that runs from conservative to liberal; humility is needed on the left and on the right. Just because someone is a Pharisee does not mean he is bad (in fact, most of them were good), and just because a person is a tax collector does not mean he is good ( in fact, they were in collaboration with oppressors).
Humility also gives us the freedom to be joyful even in our worries, because all we can do is our best – no more and no less – and once we have done our best, the outcome is up to God. We heard Paul talk about this in our second reading this morning. He suspects that his life is coming to an end, but he is ok with that. He tells Timothy in his letter that he has: “…fought the good fight… finished the race … kept the faith.” He goes on to say: “From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give me on that day, and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing.” In other words, he knows that righteousness comes only from God, but it takes a lot of work on our part to realize and experience that gift in our lives. He also understands that many more people besides him are given the gift of righteousness, which he calls a crown. Paul talked a lot and wrote a lot and preached a lot, but when it came down to the end, all he could do was what was mentioned earlier about the monk in the desert: “Keep silent, and do not compare yourself with others.”
That is good advice. God will give us exactly what we need to cure our vices and strengthen our virtues, and the grace that we receive will never be exactly the same as anyone else’s gift. That is ok, since we don’t need to be like the Pharisee in the gospel story, worrying about other people’s sin. Instead, we need to be like the tax collector in the story, coming to God alone and defenseless, humbly trusting in God’s love to heal us. God wants to heal us, but won’t force it upon us. God wants us to bring his healing, peace, and joy to the hurting world around us, but won’t force us to do that, either. The gracious gift of eternal life is offered to us every day and every moment, but we must be humble and honest enough to confess that we need it, and that we can’t get it for ourselves. May we freely take the gift of life that comes to us through Jesus. May we freely pass it on to others, and may we freely receive it from them, as they in their turn, bring it to us from our most gracious and merciful God. We are created in the image of God, and our God was humble enough to hang on a cross for us, forgiving others for their ignorance in killing him. May we be humble, as he was. May we have standards and values, but may we also make sure they are the same as those of Jesus, and may we be humble enough to change in order to more closely conform to his image. That’s not easy — we need to admit that we don’t know everything, and that some of our most cherished ideas might need to change, but that’s ok, because it’s not all about us; it’s not all about our country or our race or our political party or our church — it’s all about Jesus. Only Jesus can help us conform to himself. Every time we come to this altar we publicly affirm our acceptance of Jesus as our Lord and Savior as we freely take his body and blood that he freely offers. May we do so seriously and allow Jesus to change us as we take him into our lives. May the meal we are about to share with Jesus and his other disciples around the world and throughout history be part of an ongoing pattern in our lives of coming to Jesus to humbly learn from him as we humbly kneel at his feet. It’s not all about us — it’s all about Jesus. May we humbly accept his humble help. May we be humble, and in so doing may we reach glory. AMEN