Sermon for the Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost

The Rev. Matthew I. PottsThe Rev. Matthew Ichihashi Potts, Ph.D., Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church, Plummer Professor of Christian Morals in the Faculty of Divinity. File photo by Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Gazette



By the Rev. Matthew Ichihashi Potts, Ph.D.
Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church
Plummer Professor of Christian Morals in the Faculty of Divinity

(The following is a transcript of the service audio)

The name of God Almighty, the one holy and undivided Trinity. Amen.

So our gospel lesson this morning is about humility. If you indulge me for a moment, I'm going to be boastful. I'm going to boast about my kids. Parents are allowed to not be humble about their kids, right? My boys, Danny and Sammy, are downstairs. That's better. They won't hear this, but Cami's up here still.

So we, Colette and I, are lucky to have three really gifted children. They each have unique gifts. Cammy has this great gift. Cami's our oldest. She has a great gift for patience, for delayed gratification. Sammy has this remarkable gift for attention and focus. Since he was a toddler, he could just focus on something for hours at a time. And Danny, let's say he has an abundance of confidence, the opposite of humility.

So just to give an example, one example from the summer we were traveling and in Colorado the summer, and a friend of mine works with the Colorado Rockies, the Major League Baseball Team and we were at a baseball game and this friend got us, got Danny and Sammy and I, right behind home plate during the game, like at the backstop, right behind home plate, so we could see the pitcher pitching the balls in. And they're coming in 95 miles an hour with unbelievable movement and so we stood there watching a few pitches and I turned to Danny and said, "Boy, that's pretty fast, isn't it?" And he said, "It's not that fast. I could probably hit that." This Danny's pridefulness, his abundance of confidence, as I said.

There's another time, and this one's for our choristers. And there was another time when he, he started singing this Frank Sinatra song and he had this baritone that just came out and started singing and Colette said, "Boy, Danny, you could be a singer." And he reflected for a moment and he shrugged his shoulders and said, "If I became a singer, I'd probably win the opera."

This is lessons about humility. Jesus tells us right at the end in this lesson that Theo read so well, that it's about humility. Those who humble themselves will be exalted and those who exalt themselves will be humbled. But humility is sort of a problematic virtue, isn't it?

What do we mean by humility? I mean the one hand, there's the idea of sort of a false grace, a cheap grace, to humility. Well, if I say I'm sorry and act humble, then all the other things I've been doing, they don't count. They don't matter. Humility is like a cheap grace. As long as I act humble on the inside, I can be proud and then everything's fine. All the wicked things I do are not important.

And there's the other perhaps more insidious problem of the valorization of certain forms of humility. People who have experienced histories and generations of suffering and marginalization, we tell them, "It's okay though. You're humble, so that's good. You'll end up exalted." That sort of valorization of humility I think is problematic and certainly part of our tradition.

But I don't think that's what humility is and that's not what Jesus is talking about in this lesson. Even though we see the tax collector beating his breast and standing far off, I don't think that kind of self-abasement is humility because if you were here with us last week, we had the lesson of the widow, the relentless widow, who day and night cries out for justice to the judge and Jesus holds her up as a model of virtue, crying out for justice day and night. So whatever humility is, it's not sheepishness. It's not resignation. Jesus is talking about something else here, I think. So what is that?

Let me start with these two characters, these characters in this parable, and I say characters, but they really are caricatures. These are figures in a parable. They're meant to stand for certain things, right? And it's important to remember that because first of all, of the figure of the Pharisee.

The Pharisee in the gospel of Luke or the Pharisees in the Gospel of Luke, are Jesus' regular antagonists. But what we know historically is that the Pharisees were actually very like the early Christians. Much like the early Christians, they were dedicated to seeing God, not just in the temple, but to seeing God in their daily lives, in the movements of their daily lives, and in the movements of common peoples. God was not just in the temple but in our own lives and their adherence to the law, their faithfulness to the law, was a commitment to seeing God in the lives of common people. And in fact, they were, they tended to be common people. The Pharisees came from the poor neighborhoods of Jerusalem. There were sometimes religious leaders in synagogues but they weren't the priests. They weren't the ones making sacrifice. And that's why they call for mercy, not sacrifice, just like early Christians.

And we also have in the gospel of Luke, although they are the traditional antagonists for Jesus in the gospel of Luke, we can see hints that they're actually a more complicated group than the gospel gives them credit for. They invite Jesus to dinner. They ask him honest questions. They try to protect him from Herod.

It's important to say all this because the descendants of the ancient Pharisees are the rabbis. Jewish people today are the spiritual and actual descendants of the Pharisees and generations upon generations of Christian antisemitism are based upon this caricature among other things.

So we have the figure of the Pharisee and we also have the figure of the tax collector. Now tax collectors, I think I've mentioned this before, but tax collectors were Judians, who worked for the Roman government and they collected taxes. As is obvious, they collected taxes for Rome, taxes for Caesar, and they gained their income from whatever surcharge they put on top. And so if they became very wealthy, that's because they were charging a large surcharge and had the weight of Roman imperial power behind the taxes that they levied. And so they were seen by common people in Judea, not just as wealthy folks, not just as the rich, but as betrayers, as people who are making their money off the backs of the suffering of the Judian people who are taking advantage of their own people and in cahoots with Rome to become wealthy.

So in this parable that Jesus tells us, we have a good guy and a bad guy. Now we Christians 2,000 years later, are accustomed to thinking of the Pharisee as the bad guy, but that's not right. The people who are hearing this were accustomed to thinking of the Pharisee as the good guy and the tax collector as the bad guy. And I want to be clear that nothing about that characterization changes by the end of the parable. The Pharisee is still the good guy and the task collector is still the bad guy, right? The Pharisee really does fast, twice a week. The Pharisee really does give 10% of what he earns in alms. Who among us can say that we do that. He really does all these things. He's not lying or making this up for God in his private prayer. This is who he is. He really is the good guy and the tax collector, for all the beating of his breasts, is going home to his fancy home.

I mean, consider if we translated this into our present moment and if you knew of a person who gave generously to the poor always and worked for justice in public always, and if you learned that occasionally he had a private moment of pride when praying. Would you think this was a bad person suddenly? No. Just had a private moment of pride. It's fine.

Or likewise, would a private moment of penitence redeem someone you knew to be exploitative and abusive? There is pride and exaltation and there is humility in this lesson, but the goodness of the badness of the tax collector and the Pharisee, I don't think that those are things that pride or humility can undo or wrap up so cleanly at the end of this lesson. As I said, humility as a virtue if at least understood in certain ways, can be dangerous and can be cheap grace.

And yet, and yet, Jesus insists and I want to agree, that there is something that the tax collector has gotten right, but that the Pharisee has gotten wrong. So what is that? What's going on here?

The short answer is that I don't think that this is a story about Pharisees and tax collectors. It's a story about us. I'll get to that in a minute. Let me explain what I think is going on between these two characters in all their moral caricature.

As I said, the Pharisee is undoubtedly good, indubitably good, tithes, fasts twice a week, but his confidence is in that goodness, in his own goodness. Theo read it really well today. Listen to his prayer. All those I statements."I thank you God, I am not like these others. I fast. I give alms." He thanks God that he's so great, which isn't really thanks, right? It's more like, "You're welcome God. Look how great I'm doing." His confidence is not in God or in God's redeeming love. His confidence is in himself and in his own virtue.

The tax collector though, the tax collector because he knows he is evil, doesn't have the luxury of trusting in himself. The only thing he can trust is in the reach of God's love and he has to place all this trust there. I think this is what this parable boils down to and how it's not really about caricatures of ancient figures, but about us. It's about how much we trust the reach of God's love.

The good man, because his first thought is of his own merit rather than of God's love, is easily able to believe that others who do not have that merit, rogues and adulterers, and thieves and tax collectors, he gives us a long list. Because he doesn't have confidence in God's love, he doesn't have confidence that God's loves can reach any of them. These others must be beyond the reach of God's love because they are not good and so he freely judges them. He populates half his prayer with condemnations of them because he can't imagine how God could love them.

But the tax collector, because he's a sinner, knows quite well the long reach of God's love, since he tests it every day. And because he tests it every day, he knows that it easily reaches and easily touches rogues and adulterers, and thieves like him. The tax collector isn't justified because he's humble. He's justified because God loves him. Because God loves him.

And the Pharisee isn't unrighteous because he's proud, He's unrighteous because he cannot bring himself to love all the people whom God loves; rogues and adulterers and thieves and tax collectors. In other words, all the people Jesus is spending all his time hanging out with as he travels from Galilee to Jerusalem. There is no limit to the reach of God's love.

As we will see in the coming chapters of Luke, these next weeks, Christ came to call sinners and by that, he means us. If this is true, then humility is not about self-abasement. It's not about sheepishness or resignation. Humility is not about humility. It's about faith and the endless reach of God's love. And if faith is faith in the endless reach of God's love, then faith isn't really about faith either. It's also about love because if we really believed God loved others, rogues and thieves and tax collectors, and Pharisees all, then we would reach out in love to them to.

And that's why I said, I don't think this parable is about tax collectors or about Pharisees. It's about us because the parable, if you listen carefully, is a trick. It's a test. You are the one Jesus is speaking to and you are the one Jesus is talking about.

As an example, this is a story told by the Cuban-American theologian, Justo Gonzalez, who is a commentary on this parable. He talks about how a Sunday school teacher told this parable to her Sunday school class. Talked about the tax collector and the Pharisee told them what they said and talked about the virtues of humility and afterwards prayed with the children and said, "Thank you, God. We think that we are not like the Pharisee," making the obvious mistake of becoming the Pharisee.

And I heard you all chuckle, but didn't you all didn't. I think, "Thank God I'm not like that Sunday school teacher." And this is the terrible irony one I've already referred to, that our impulse to find the evil one, to find the bad one, to declare the one who is outside the reach of God's love, is the reason why the Pharisee has become the cause and basis of so much Christian antisemitic violence in history.

We are the ones Jesus is speaking to. Ours is the impulse to do exactly what this Pharisee does and to decide who is on the outs, and who is in, rather than trusting in the great and endless and merciful reach of God's love.

There is only one righteous posture before the endless love of God. It is to go home, like this tax collector, knowing that we are beloved of God and ready to recognize God's love in everyone we see.