Luke 18:9-14 CEB
When I was younger I prayed almost like I was a pill bug. I would roll myself up and hold my hands together tightly. Back when I was younger there was much I didn't know about myself because it was wrapped up and concealed from my recollection. I didn't know my prayer methods were unhealthy personally for me. Mostly, the position I chose to use was not for the sake of humility. I was acting out of comfort. I was uncomfortable with who I was and rather than present myself before God in a way that exposed my true being, I hid within my ball of protection. I felt I was being humble when really I lacked self confidence.
We mustn’t confuse lacking self confidence with humility. For those who lack confidence, believing their lives are lived in humility could maintain issues God wants them to overcome. Humility before God is not making yourself into something you are not, but being aware of who you are and coming to prayer in open anticipation of whatever God brings. When I finally realized how I was protecting myself rather than communicating with God I opened myself up, outstretched my arms, and found humility for the first time in prayer.
I began with myself because it appears to be a contradiction to today’s scripture. To stand with your arms opened wide can be an arrogant position. I know, as a child, when I heard this scripture I always imagined the Pharisee to be praying with gold dangling and arms outstretched. After a lifetime of sermons, many of which were focused on Pharisees, I did not want to be one of those, and I still don't.
There are two characters in our parable today: a Pharisee and a tax collector. Jesus is a sneaky man. He doesn't pick his characters for his parables haphazardly. He doesn't pick the situations haphazardly either. In this one Jesus pulls off a magic trick. What we see, are two men praying in two different manners. What we get, are two men doing the exact same thing.
Let me expand: first the tax collector. The man, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God be merciful to me a sinner.’ Now, beating your breast was not some act of self chastisement. He wasn't enacting corporal punishment on himself. In the ancient near east beating your breast was a sign of mourning. We can find it in another place in the bible too: When Jesus dies in chapter 23 of Luke, the people watching beat their breasts. They were mourning their fallen Lord. The tax collector does a symbolic act in order to show he was sorry for his prior actions.
Now the Pharisee. This man was standing by himself and admits to fasting twice a week. Now a little bit about fasting. It was understood there was only one fast required by Jewish law: the Day of Atonement. Now, there were other reasons to fast, the most common and frequent being, you are mourning someone or something. It had become tradition for Pharisees to fast twice a week. It was not just this Pharisee but all Pharisees. So, the Pharisee does a symbolic act in order to show… in order to… (this is where you hear crickets.)
Both men were doing the same thing. They were both engaging in a symbolic action which typically showed they were mourning. Now this is where Jesus’ magic trick comes back in on itself again. Even though the two men were doing, pretty much, the same thing, they are also doing something completely different. The Pharisee was focused on ritual and those around him. He believed his righteousness was in following those empty rituals and comparing himself to those he "knew" are less than worthy. He was not praying to God, he was worshiping himself. He had, in essence, made himself the false idol.
The tax collector was focused on truth and God. He did not come into prayer with empty rites and strayed focus. He was truly mourning who he had been and was coming to God for repentance. They may have been physically doing the same thing but they were mentally and spiritually in two different worlds.
Humility is not in a position or a ritual. Postures and rites are only tools to achieve what you already have in your heart. Humility is honestly coming as you are. Anyway, reality is not in what we see. Reality is what we mean. Don't believe me? Look at the Pharisee. What we saw was an act of mourning. He was fasting, outside of typical times of fasting. Therefore, he was engaging in an act of mourning. However, what he meant was self-adulation. He wanting to be praised to for doing something that ultimately meant nothing. Which one was reality? Yes, we can say he physically fasted twice a week but was that really who he was? ‘All the worlds a stage and all the men and women merely players.’ (W. Shakespeare, As you like it) The reality, in any situation, is what happens behind the curtain, not in front of it. The reality is written on our hearts not on our hands.
What it comes down to is honesty. When we can honestly read our hearts and come to God as we are, we have no choice but to be humble. None of us are perfect. We all need to grow in different ways. So yes, how we achieve humility and honesty will be different for everyone. Some might need to come as the tax collector, mourning past failures and asking for help and repentance. Some might need to come open to accept what God has given them. Yes, it is a humble experience to accept God’s blessings. Humility can happen by yourself in a sacred spot, or in a room full of people where you are the center of attention. (Albeit the latter is more difficult to accomplish.)
Anyway you accomplish true humility it comes with reward. Because the tax collector came in honesty, as he was, he left with something extra- redemption. When I was able to find humility in opening myself up I found confidence. God wants each of us to be the best we can be. Honesty allows us to admit where we fail and allows God to step in and and help us grow.
Let me leave you with this thought: We are all really Adam and Eve before God. We all have our own fig leaf hiding our secrets. We can either choose to remain hidden knowing nothing is hidden from God, or we can accept our humility (our brokenness, or fear) and come to prayer just as we are. As God created us to be.
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