This morning’s Gospel reading is Luke 18:9–14:
Jesus addressed this parable to those who were convinced of their own righteousness and despised everyone else. “Two people went up to the temple area to pray; one was a Pharisee and the other was a tax collector. The Pharisee took up his position and spoke this prayer to himself, ‘O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity — greedy, dishonest, adulterous — or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week, and I pay tithes on my whole income.’ But the tax collector stood off at a distance and would not even raise his eyes to heaven but beat his breast and prayed, ‘O God, be merciful to me a sinner.’ I tell you, the latter went home justified, not the former; for whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”
One of my favorite novelty songs of all time is “Oh Lord, It’s Hard to Be Humble,” by Mac Davis. Every verse and the refrain drips with sarcasm about the person singing the song, who’s clearly so infatuated with himself that he has no clue that he’s become a joke to everyone else. Davis clearly has a great time singing the song, and audiences love it as well.
Oh Lord, it’s hard to be humble,
When you’re perfect in every way.
We laugh at that, in part because it’s a reductio ad absurdum of vanity and pride, but also because we recognize the impulse. As Christians, we get torn between pride and humility, and especially between actual humility and false humility, which is an especially aggravating form of pridefulness. Selfish pride and vanity blinds us to our own reality, and makes us the focal point of the universe rather than the Lord.
I can’t wait to look in the mirror
‘Cause I get better looking each day.
In a sense, the song can be seen as a kind of prayer, being addressed to the Lord. And it’s not far off from the prayer we find from the Pharisee in today’s Gospel, either. Jesus aimed this parable specifically at those who felt entitled to judge others from the vantage point of their own supposed perfection, as some of the Pharisees treated the other Israelites. Note especially that Jesus specifies that the Pharisee “spoke this prayer to himself,” a nuance pointed out to me this morning by my wife. One interpretation of that could be that the Pharisee prayed silently, but another suggests that the Pharisee had fallen so deeply into pridefulness that he had turned himself into his own idol. In doing so, the Pharisee all but demands that God agree with his self-judgment, usurping the authority and all-encompassing knowledge of the Almighty … and making a fool of himself in the process.
Who cares? I never get lonesome
‘Cause I treasure my own company.
Compare that prayer to that of the sinful tax collector. Bear in mind that tax collection in these times (and for long periods afterward) allowed these agents to seize as much as they wanted and to pass along only what was owed, making these positions a platform for legalized theft. As such, they were bitterly despised, and being outcasts spent much of their time with other outcasts or trying to climb the social ladder of the Roman occupiers. The contrast in social standing between the two could not be starker.
And yet, it’s not the pious Pharisee who approaches the Lord with self-knowledge, but the lowly and despicable tax collector. Jesus tells those gathered that the tax collector knew and acknowledged his sinfulness rather than offer self-justifications to the Lord. Not only did the tax collector acknowledge his sins, but he also offered them up in shame to the Lord, trusting Him with mercy and guidance. Did the Pharisee trust the Lord and put his faith in Him?
The lesson, Jesus says, is that “whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” But does Jesus mean that the Lord will exact humiliation on one and not the other?
In today’s first reading from Sirach 35, we hear that “The Lord is a God of justice, who knows no favorites. Though not unduly partial to the weak, yet he hears the cry of the oppressed … The prayer of the lowly pierces the clouds.” God’s justice does not punish the strong as a balance to the weak, nor does He punish the strong merely for their strength. If that were the case, then Paul’s inspiring missive in 2 Timothy would make no sense at all:
I have competed well; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith. From now on the crown of righteousness awaits me, which the Lord, the just judge, will award to me on that day, and not only to me, but to all who have longed for his appearance.
In his life, Paul went from apparent strength to actual strength, transformed by Christ from a persecuting Pharisee to an apostle to the Gentiles and to the ages through Scripture. But Paul knew that this strength did not come from himself, but from the Lord, and He put it in service of the Lord to those living in poverty of spirit so that they may take part in Christ’s salvation. Even though all had deserted him and left Paul without any strength in Paul’s first brush with martyrdom, the Lord rescued Paul so that he could continue to put that strength in service to the poor. Now approaching his actual execution, Paul puts his faith in the Lord to “bring me safe to His heavenly kingdom,” not because Paul justifies himself, but because he trusts in the Lord for that justification.
The Lord does not inflict humiliation on the prideful; they inflict it upon themselves. The Pharisee in this parable is blinded by his own self-deception and has no room for faith and trust in God. Jesus means this moral as a warning, not of God’s wrath, but of our own folly. All fall short of the glory of God, so all need to rely on the Lord’s mercy — even those who may struggle less with sin than others. Until we understand that all of us suffer from some poverty in spirit and need God’s grace and mercy to see us through, then we will never see each other as sisters and brothers in need of love and mercy. Instead, we will see ourselves as our own idols, and our sisters and brothers as competitors to be bested rather than family as children of God. And like the Pharisee, if we go far enough down that road, we end up as fools.
On that note, maybe the last couplet of the refrain might hit closer to the mark:
Oh Lord, it’s hard to be humble.
But I’m doing the best that I can.
If we keep a clear eye on sin and our own predilections toward it, it’s really not hard to be humble at all. We’re far from perfect in every way, and God knows that even better than we do. But with that in mind, and faith in the Lord’s love for us, maybe we all can do the best that we can.
“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here. For previous Green Room entries, click here.