Three years ago, Leroy and I arrived on the island of Cyprus to begin a three month sabbatical journey. Our plan was to just relax the first week, but I heard about an ancient Greek Orthodox monastery high in the mountains about our coast village that I didn’t want to miss. Leroy was the rental car driver, and he struggled with staying on the right side of the road which is the left side of the road in formerly British-controlled Cyprus. After two very difficult hours of driving through forests and up steep mountains, we arrived at the Kykkos Monastery and toured the historic complex. Then we had to drive back to the coast. I had a map that showed a shortcut that looked good to me. Since I was the navigator, I pointed in a direction that didn’t seem right to Leroy. I persisted, and he reluctantly agreed to take a paved road which quickly turned to gravel. We descended rapidly into an unpopulated canyon as the road narrowed and turned from gravel to dirt. I was faced with a dilemma. If I agreed we should turn around, I would ruin a nearly perfect record for accurate navigating. So I insisted we were on the right road and we kept going. A short distance further, the dirt path became nearly impassible, so I gave in. We were wedged between a cliff and a steep drop off, so I had to get out of the car to help Leroy turn around. When we were finally pointed in the right direction, I heard those dreaded and humbling words (do you know what they are?): “I told you so!”
As if my own experiences were not enough to keep me humble, I was reminded one day of my apparent place in life by a license plate. The person driving in front of me had a very sleek, very red, very new car. I instantly imagined myself behind the wheel, tooling down the highway, perhaps with the wind blowing through the open roof. That’s when I saw the license plate; a vanity plate, of course, with just five letters: I C U N V. I did feel put in my place. Humbled in my average, utilitarian car. In my defensiveness, I thought about the person driving the car and wondered what sort of pridefulness would cause a person to flash their good fortune before others and then say “gotcha! With their license place” But mostly I was just embarrassed that I had been caught in the act of NVing.
Humility and pride are part of the daily experience of being human. Pride is one of the notorious seven deadly sins, but we know that pride isn’t always bad. We can be proud of our work, our heritage, and our family without that pride taking us to some dark place. The opposite of the famous “deadly sins” might be a list of lofty virtues. Ben Franklin composed one, and on his list is what he called the Virtue of Humility. As a virtue, it is something to aim for: a quality to value in ourselves and others. It serves to protect us from the hurtful extremes of pride.
Speaking of extremes, the Gospel lesson this week is another parable, and in it Jesus presents two characters: a Pharisee and a tax-collector. The two men are true to life, but they represent the extremes. Pharisees were known to be hyper-religious, but this Pharisee goes well beyond what was expected in his spiritual habits. Tax-collectors were social outcasts due to the almost universal habit of cheating and pocketing money for themselves. Jesus describes the Pharisee as one who boasts proudly of his spiritual achievements. And he depicts the tax-collector with his eyes cast down, literally beating on his chest as he begs God for mercy.
There are two prayers in this story. The first, by the Pharisee, makes a passing reference to God as the man lists his qualifications to receive special treatment by God. It’s really more of a resume of his achievements than a prayer. In contrast, the prayer of the tax-collector only mentions one thing about himself: he is a sinner. And therefore he humbly asks for forgiveness.
As if the whole praying in the temple scenario wasn’t disturbing enough, the Pharisee made a point of actually comparing himself to the tax-collector, essentially praying “God, I thank you that I’m not like other people, including this tax-collector who is an outstanding example of sinfulness!”
The Pharisee’s pride was mixed up with the practices of comparing and judging. Doing that always gets us in trouble, doesn’t it? When we find ways to criticize others or judge other people, we miss an opportunity because we glide right on past our own shortcomings. The Pharisee was completely oblivious to the fact that self-righteous pride had robbed him of compassion for another human being.
Comparing always messes with perspective. There is an old story about a city slicker who visited a farm in the winter and saw some sheep in a field with a backdrop of blinding white snow. “Look how filthy those sheep are!” he exclaimed. In the spring, the backdrop changed to lush, green grass.” This time when the city slicker visited, he remarked, “Look how clean and white those sheep are!” Same sheep, no cleaner, just a different background for judging. We know that when we compare ourselves with someone really bad, we look good. And vice versa. The lesson of the sheep and perhaps the point of Jesus’ story is to stop comparing ourselves with anyone and just be concerned about how we live our own lives.
Humility isn’t really about being lowly and blushing at compliments from others. Being humble does not mean that we are unaware of our own abilities or that we are not rightly proud of them, or that we are not grateful for what God has given us to make us what we are. Instead, true humility means that we are not overly focused on ourselves in a way that is either positive or negative.
Thirty-three years ago when I was a newly-minted pastor serving a tiny country church, I was grateful for a remarkable women in the congregation who I will call “Mabel.” Incidentally, I do not make it a practice to tell stories about former parishioners, in case you are worried that I may tell a story about you some day. At least I’ll wait at least thirty years before doing so, as with this story, and by then I expect to be long-retired anyway. Mable has been deceased now for many years.
Anyway… Mabel taught Sunday School, she worked in the kitchen at the ham dinner in the fall and the chicken supper in the spring, she served on the church council, and she sang in the choir. Most importantly, she provided a wealth of information and was a needed voice of wisdom for this very green pastor who really had no clue what he was doing. One Sunday in October, the Lectionary reading was the story the Pharisee and the tax-collector. It was eleven three-year Lectionary cycles ago. I preached my heart out and said everything I was able to figure out about this parable.
As October turned into November, I noticed that Mable seemed different. She was distant. She no longer spent extra time at the church, and she was unavailable when I needed to talk with her. Finally, I asked her if something was wrong, and her answer was this: “I know you were preaching that sermon on pride about me.” I was stunned. Nothing could have been further from the truth; partly, because even then I knew not to address issues regarding an individual from the pulpit, but mostly because Mable was one of the mostly genuinely humble persons I knew. I was confused and saddened, and nothing I said could persuade Mable that what she believed I said about her in a sermon was not true. I wondered what was going on in her heart and what made her so distraught inside. I never found out, since she withdrew from most church activities and I rarely saw her again.
It is often said that we can be our own fiercest critics. That’s probably true. What would it mean to live more lightly in regard to self-assessment? Simply receiving life as a gift to be lived with gratitude and earnestness might keep us from the extremes of prideful self-indulgence and morbid self-criticism.
It occurs to me that when we are excessively hard on ourselves we might still be doing what Jesus cautioned us about in the story of the Pharisee and the tax-collector. Destructive pride is an inordinate focus on self, even if we see ourselves in a very negative light.
The Pharisee and the tax-collector are caricatures to make us think about how we approach God and also how we relate to other people. As we gather in a sacred place today as the two did in the story, how do you see yourself in relation to God? Do you feel loved and affirmed? Do you see God as a judge who disapproves and condemns? Are you inwardly upright in posture, or are you thrashing yourself and standing at a distance? I believe that God invites you into the holy presence just as you are: confident; confused; proud; embarrassed; devoted; angry. We are most human when we give up the need to tout our qualifications to God or anyone else and when we stop beating ourselves up for being finite and imperfect.
May we always experience God’s sacred places as a refuge where we can be who we are without fear and where we can learn to love others without condescension or judgment. Thanks be to God who created us as we are and loves us without condition.