Saturday, October 26, 2013

Real Humility and the Pharisee

Inspired by JMT's video blog

Lk 18:9-14

The tax collector, not the Pharisee, went home justified

A reading from the holy Gospel according to Luke
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.”

Some proud people believe that 'humbling' themselves before God is good enough, but are like this Pharisee.  This scene shows the Pharisee bragging on all the works he has done to express his devotion.  Jesus’ statement that the lowly sinner was more justified would have been a shock to at least some of his listeners. How could God like a blatant sinner more than a highly respected religious official? This was pretty close to saying that a convicted conman who was sincerely penitent meant more to God than leader of a super-sized church or cathedral who was prideful to poor sinners – even when he faithfully fulfilled his usual duties and was genial in his dealings with his preferred circle of society.  Even today, such a plain assessment from Heaven would shock people. In general, I would expect them to resist this Word as being the real deal, even if God freshly sent a prophet to them to say exactly that.

After all, not everything the Pharisee did here is wrong. He was reminding God of all the ways he acknowledged the most High and God’s laws.  He made a public confession of his faith and his testimony.  This kind of statement may have played well with the local priesthood, but the government of Israel as a satellite state of Rome was far more pagan/secular. He knew his stance would have limited his upwards progression within the Roman Empire. The Pharisee has sacrificed all higher ambitions to stand for God. That’s praiseworthy.

 So what was messed up?

# 1 Well the testimony itself sounds a bit egotistical doesn’t it?  The Pharisee sounds like he is demanding God recognize how special his service to heaven has been (or else?) Even then, Godlessness was so prevalent in Israel (thanks to the occupying Romans) that the Jews often figured God ought to especially appreciate that they still live in a way that ‘officially’ honored His name.  Many had been persecuted to varying degrees for remaining Jews. That Pharisee could have aimed for a state career if he hadn’t valued serving God more, so choosing to honor the Faith of the Fathers in such a detailed exacting way ought to be worth extra credit. God should be impressed!

Go ahead and laugh, but people still feel that way. 

Today Christianity is mocked and marginalized in many places, and rather than realize that this means that whole world really is leaning towards hellish attitudes, people think they are doing God a favor for even considering worshipping Him when His stock has slipped so much in society, TV shows, movies, and the news media. He doesn’t seem as great to a population propagandized against him since their earliest school years.  Some of that dismissive attitude bleeds over into church living. Even though most believers had a sense of their own sinfulness and extreme unworthiness once, probably when they seriously converted and accepted Jesus as their savior, this sense is easily lost.

Every now and then, it hits me hard that the whole Earth is incredibly messed up, hate-filled, ignorant, selfish, and just plain sinful by God’s standards. THAT is when I freshly appreciate how amazing, how strong, how HUGE a deal is God’s Love and Grace. I figure these moments of clarity are a gift of the Holy Spirit, because it doesn’t take long for that awareness of the filth to fade away. I reacclimatize to my current world, and then society doesn’t seem to be so bad. Time goes by and I start to feel pretty good about my ethics and progress compared with others. That’s when God’s judgments and requirements seem a little extreme.  Seriously, everyone is prone to this. As long as we look around us more than we look at God, we will overvalue ourselves and undervalue God’s patience with our flaws and our horrendous situation. We forget how miserable we were. We forget that we needed saved from the very world that says God’s opinion doesn’t matter, and the Hell that the world is headed toward. We even forget how much He loves us.

     That Pharisee wasn’t an idiot. He was just couldn’t imagine how lowly he really was compared with God. The Pharisee didn’t see how loving and gracious God had been in creating the Abrahamic covenant he depended on. God had set terms to show man his own tendency towards lawlessness; God was making a pathway that allowed Him to be officially pleased with a fundamentally flawed lowly creation like him. God didn’t need his tithes or herbs. The Pharisee was more open with that his ‘God had better appreciate my sacrifice or I can find a god I like better’ attitude because he was on the earlier covenant, which didn’t include the inward warning of the Holy Spirit about the inappropriate pride his attitude expressed. The Comforter had not yet come to Earth to abide in the hearts of God’s people. The Holy Spirit makes us aware sometimes of how silly we are, how hard-hearted and prideful we prefer to be, and He does it because He loves us. It’s the abiding comfort, love, and peace that make the remonstrations bearable.  It’s shocking that any Christians could make this mistake, but we do; we just aren’t as blatant about it, because we feel that internal correction.

# 2 -- Today we can see the pride in the Pharisee’s assertions but many still don’t get the whole picture. The Pharisee was trying for higher heavenly status the same way he networked and maneuvered into Earthly status.

In the time this was written, toadying was highly acceptable behavior. It still is, but people are often slightly more discreet with their flattery these days. To gain an influential person’s ear, it helped if presented yourself as a valuable person to the VIP, so working in a certain amount of bragging in between your bouts of flattery and other seductive behaviors is generally a successful tactic.  You want them to see you not only as a loyal supporter, but a valuable one, as close to the leader’s status as you can manage. As part of your claims of fealty you would work in mentions of the many resources you’ve put at their disposal, or otherwise put to work for them. At the very least, you would still sell yourself as an extreme ‘fan’ and remind them of how you supported them publicly. [Celebrities feel entitled to everyone’s adulation, devotion, and affection, so the bit that stands out is your own ‘higher’ status and gifts – which they won’t even recognize as your contribution if you didn’t point it out directly.]  Look again at what the Pharisee is saying. He’s exactly in this format, selling himself as a valuable ‘fan,’ blithely unaware that God already knows all about him. Nor does the Pharisee take in that God doesn’t require a human PR department. God doesn’t really want us to ‘flatter’ Him.** We can’t anyway, because flattery implies that the praise we give is excessive, but no praise is too little for the Almighty, Holy, and True.  If we think we are flattering God, then we are actively failing to recognize how awesome He really is! God will always be the greatest being – beyond our imagining – whether we worship Him or not. God’s main interest in telling us about Himself is so we can development a proper relationship with Our Father, God, the one who made everything we have and who is also the being who has already condescended to meet with us and care for our neediness individually.  Not many worldly celebrities, even really minor ones like a regional boss or a homecoming queen, truly care about their fans. Worldly leaders often see followers as exploitable, expendable resources, and feel little or no loyalty towards those they use and discard. This is probably why God stresses that HIS leaders should consider themselves as shepherds who protect and guide their sheep. God has strong angry words for those leaders who call themselves Christians but view their ‘flocks’ in that heartless carnal way. 

If you - as a influential societal leader/celebrity - figure that you can set your followers to attack a poorer person because you don’t like what he said to you, you are not humble. You are a user and not a shepherd.  If what you didn’t like to hear was a word from God given through a poorer, weaker person (and God LOVES to send brave impecunious believers with a Word) and you tried to ‘get back’ at him or her for it instead of going to God prayerfully to discern what if anything you needed to fix, then you’ve chosen a path that has more in common with the heathen Haman than with Jesus. This you’d-better-kowtow-to-me-or- else attitude was what initiated the crisis in Esther. Mordecai would not worship Haman,  and told Haman what God thought of such practices, so Haman griped to his fans/followers, friends, and family until they came up with a plan to kill Mordecai – and all the Jews with him.

**People still try to manipulate God to gain favor the same way they would an easily flattered foolish fellow human too. Seems crazy to me to try that on with Omniscience, who sees all hearts, but I have seen folks who give it a go!

#3  So far I have talked only about how the Pharisee approached God in pride, holding way too high an opinion of what he was offering God and much too high an opinion of himself generally, but now I think we should talk about the pride the Pharisee displayed toward the other fellow worshiping God in that service.  

The Pharisee’s egotism was obvious, but he was talking mostly to himself/God about how messed up the other guy was, and even thanked God for allowing the Pharisee a higher social status. People still do this, just not out loud.

Here is a simple fact, although the Pharisee acknowledged that God was greater than himself, he still felt he held a much higher slot in the spiritual hierarchy. If he was a dog, you’d say he was an alpha dog, submitting to the Master, but not to other dogs. He is secure in his belief that he holds a much higher place in life. He submits to strength greater than his own, never to dogs weaker than himself. Those who fall to any weakness are beneath him.

That’s very carnal behavior, the inner ape-man bellowing and beating his abs.

The crazy bit is that many believers feel they have been humble enough to satisfy Heaven as long as they acknowledge God – and social equals/superiors- with any kind of deference.  In truth, this isn’t humility at all! That’s just a practical acknowledgement of personal relationships and power bases that can hurt you if you act ugly to them. ANYBODY will do that. Dogs, zebras, and peach-faced lovebirds will do that. The only reason most people don’t defer to God now is because they don’t think He exists!

No, humility means recognizing AS EQUALS OR SUPERIORS people who do not have your advantages in life. Humility is recognizing God in every one of us, to the lowest beggars on the street. It means being willing to love others as God loved your otherwise worthless hide.

The rich and Pharisees ‘believers’ in Jesus’ day had lost any idea of remembering God’s calls to humility in the Old Testament. Some still shared food or clothing with the poor, but very few felt any obligation to spend any time with them.

This is why the Pharisee disrespected the other believer, the repentant taxpayer. The Pharisee saw a worthless lowlife and sneered at the man’s tears before Heaven. He didn’t realize God loved that sinner as much as God loved him. He didn’t see that God was willing to remake both broken lives into something much more beautiful, but this required willingness to change and willingness to take the relationship with God seriously. The Pharisee sure didn’t realize that the taxman was making the right choice and he was not.

Those raised high in Christian hierarchies or in church ministries often feel pretty blessed. Their Moms and Dads often have great standing with God and man. All recognize they have a huge advantage in knowing about Jesus from an early age. All that is actually fine, great even, but they are at risk of developing the idea that their family legacy includes being pretty awesome from birth - compared with the ‘outsiders’ and the ‘little people’ – especially those they see as lower caste sinners.  We have got to watch out for that attitude, as it can lead to the Pharisee’s failing. God can greatly use anyone who truly seeks His Face. Those who have grown up comfortable, in grace, are often not as strong in faith or wisdom as those who have been in the spiritual wars and found Jesus’ support is as faithful as He promised it would be.

Any trial another brother or sister in faith faces could be or could have been our fate. We should see Jesus in their midst. We should identify with and help those we can, as good neighbors, not as Lady Bountiful condescending to drop a few goodies to the starving serfs from our safe proud perch on the high balcony. Fake humility mouths some platitudes, congratulates itself on how much better its own life is, and keeps emotional distance from the losers shoved into its awareness. Real humility looks our fellow humans in the eyes and sees mirror of our own flawed humanity. Real humility loves others as much or more than it loves itself.

God prefers real humility.

We had better be glad of this, because it is in God’s incredible humility that we find His miraculous love, acceptance, interest and concern for us.  God’s not asking us to do anything He isn’t doing Himself for us, every single day.

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