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How Low Can You Get?
October 23, 1977

St. Paul's United Methodist Church

LUKE 8:9-14

Jesus turned biases upside down. By his actions, by his words, Jesus turned biases, prejudice, the accepted state of things upside down in very strong language and actions, a practice which eventually got him into deep trouble, especially when he attacked the leaders. Such an incident was described in our New Testament lesson today when Jesus summarized by saying, “Everyone who makes himself great will be humbled.” He told about the Pharisee and the tax collector. It's very difficult for us to understand the drama because we can't feel and experience what his words meant at that time in history. We don't have Pharisees today. Our tax collectors are not held in quite the same disrepute as the tax collectors of that day. We don't like tax collectors, but we don't have the strong opinions about tax collectors that they had in that day. So it's difficult for us to really put ourselves into the situation where Jesus reversed these roles. 

The Pharisee was respected. The Pharisee was not a bad person. Jesus never said he was a bad person. He was not an evil man. He was a good, righteous man. He was honored, respected, admired by the community, one of the pillars of the community, the person responsible for the values, a person responsible for the morality of the community, a good person, and a very religious person. In fact this particular Pharisee was more religious than most and was admired for his deep commitment. 

First of all, he fasted twice a week. According to the law, he was only obliged to fast once a year but he fasted twice a week, an expression of his commitment and his religious zeal. Secondly, he tithed. He gave 10% of his income. As we enter our financial campaign, we certainly want to lift up such a person and admire, honor and respect him/her. A tither is to be admired. So the Pharisee was a good man, honored and respected by the community. We can just feel what a good person he was. 

A tax collector, on the other hand, was a scoundrel. He was the lowest dreg in society because he was a collaborator with the Roman government, a collaborator with the foreign government who ruled the land. He was a turncoat. He was a Jew who collaborated with the enemy. He collected taxes for Rome who collected taxes by taking the highest bidder. The person who guaranteed to collect the largest amount of taxes was the one they elected as tax collector. How this person got the taxes was of no concern to them. How a tax collector filled his pockets by adding his own percent on top of the taxes he collected for Rome was of no concern to the Roman government. He could do anything—defraud, exploit, collect double the taxes, whatever he wanted. As long as Rome got their tax, the government was on his side. He could send anyone to prison he wanted to, anyone who couldn't pay his taxes. He could put any pauper, any poor person in prison. He was despised and no respectable person would have anything to do with a tax collector. 

But Jesus said, “Of these two men who went to the temple to pray, the tax collector is the one who is justified, the one who is right in the eyes of God and not the Pharisee.” On what basis did Jesus make such a judgment? Look at what the Pharisee did—the errors of the Pharisee. First of all, in his prayer he felt superior and expressed superiority over the tax collector. The Pharisee recognized and believed himself to be a far better person than the tax collector. 

His second error was in glorifying himself, taking pride in his accomplishments, filling his prayer with a bunch of “I”s—I do this, I do that. Listen to his prayer and count the number of times he mentions I, at least according to this version. This prayer was not acceptable in the eyes of God. “I thank you that I am not greedy, dishonest, or an adulterer like everybody else. I thank you that I am not like that tax collector over there. I fast two days a week. I give you one tenth of my income.” How many times did he mention I? Six times, Do you know anybody like that who has to fill their sentences with “I did this and I did that. Look at what I am and how great I am.” They have to brag about themselves because they're afraid nobody else will. It must be difficult having to work with a person like that, who can only talk about I and rarely mention you or we. It must be very difficult to live with a person like that. Such was the Pharisee who filled his prayers with “me”. 

But the tax collector would not even lift his eyes upward. He would not look into the face of God. The tax collector beat upon his breast and prayed,”O God, have pity on me, a sinner.” He didn't count his good deeds. He didn't list all his accomplishments. He asked God to be merciful to him, a sinner. And Jesus said that prayer is honored. Everyone who makes himself great will be humbled. Everyone who humbles himself will be made great. So how low can you get? 

What does humility really mean? What does it mean to be humble? A humble Christian is one who has got his or her life in order.  He's got his relationships in the proper order—his relationship with God, relationships with others, relationship to self. He has it in order, beginning with a relationship to God. The humble person, the one who humbles him or herself, is the one who puts God in the rightful place and begins his stance with, “O God, be merciful to me.” John of Ruys-broeck in “The Fruits of Humility”, defines humility as “an inward bowing down or prostrating of the heart and of the conscience, before God's transcendent worth.” 

Humility is getting a vision of God's transcendent worth followed by a response of bowing— a vision of the majesty and the wonder of the God who made all that there is, universe upon universe, the God who made your life, who created you—the wonder of this Almighty, magnificent, loving, good God who loves you. To get a sense of that—out of all that he has created, he loves you. The only proper response to the magnitude, the majesty, the wonder, the love of God, the grace of God is to bow in submission, in worship and in service. Worship means that we give God worth—worthship. Worship is when we bow our heads in prayer and bow our hearts. 

Can you imagine the audacity of the Pharisee in the presence of God, of the good Almighty God, to list his good deeds! Would any of us have the audacity to claim any kind of righteousness and goodness in the face of God? Our response is worship, humbly bowing our heads and hearts, accepting God's priority in our lives. Humility is the result of getting our priorities straight where Christ is first. If Christ isn't first in your life, if your priorities are not straight, it's like a ship without a captain. It's like a wheel without a hub. If God isn't first in your life, you’re trying to dance without any music, trying to drive a car without a steering wheel. No direction. No focus. When God has been given his rightful place in our lives, the other relationships fall into place. Someone has said, “No one can truly stand erect until he or she has first bent the knee to Almighty God,” getting our priorities straight, getting our lives in order. 

Finally, humility means that no one is looked down upon as the Pharisee did. The person who looks up to God rarely looks down on anyone else. We realize we're all equal. Whatever our color, whatever our creed, whatever our morality or lack of morality, however we live, whoever we are, we are in this together. When you are tempted to be proud and arrogant of all that you’ve accomplished, when you are tempted to be proud of all the hard work you've done, and all your success, when you're tempted to look down upon other people because they're not quite up to your standards, then take this lesson from subtraction. Someone has written, “Subtract from the great man all that he owes to opportunity, all that he owes to chance, and all that he has gained by the wisdom of his friends and the follies of his enemies, the giant will oftenseem to be a pygmy.” Take away chance, opportunity, take away the color of your skin, take away the place of your birth, take all those advantages away, we’re all just like everyone else. The person who has God in the rightful place never looks down on anyone else. 

Nor do we look down on ourselves. I like what William Temple has written. “Humility does not mean thinking less of yourself than of other people.” How low can you get? Humility does not mean thinking less of yourself than other people. He goes on, “Nor does humility mean having a low opinion of your gifts. But rather humility means freedom from thinking about yourself at all.” The self effacing person, the meek, mild person is not necessarily humble. It’s wrong to fill our lives with all our accomplishments—I did this, I did that, I am so good. It's just as wrong to fill our thoughts and our minds with “I'm no good. I can't do that. I am unworthy. I am a sinner” because our lives are still filled with I, I, I. We're still preoccupied with ourselves whether we have a high opinion of ourselves or whether we have a low opinion of ourselves. We are still guilty of filling our lives with ourselves. To have God in the rightful place and our relations straight with other people, to be filled with a love of God and a concern for other people means we don't have to think about ourselves at all. 

Likewise, humility does not mean meek, mild, and milquetoast. That's not the meaning of “Blessed are the meek.” When Jesus said in the Beatitudes, “Blessed are the meek”, he did not mean self-effacing milquetoast, spineless. The newer translations use the word humble, “Blessed are those that are humble.” Both the word for meek and the word for humble in the original language means “submissive to God”. Blessed are the meek means, “Blessed are those who have submitted their lives to God, who have captured a sense of the wonder and love of God and respond in faith and obedience.” Humility means to be filled with the love of God, and concern for other people, and that concern needs to be expressed not by being meek and mild, like the little boy whose mother used to call him “My little lamb”. One day, the little boy said to his mother, “Mother, I wish you wouldn't call me your little lamb. Instead, I would rather be your little tiger.” A humble person is a tiger for the Lord, a tiger for what is right and what is good. A humble person is a tiger expressing concern for other people. 

When Jesus said in the Beatitudes, “Blessed are they that mourn,” he did not mean those who grieve over the death of a loved one. Mourn in that context means to mourn over the world. to hurt where people hurt, to agonize when people suffer. To mourn means to care deeply, to care, to hurt, to agonize that millions will die from starvation. To mourn means to agonize that children die with swelled up bellies. To mourn means to agonize that people are hurt, mistreated and oppressed. To mourn means to agonize when children are beaten or mistreated or victimized by systems. Mourn means to care. The humble person is so filled with the love of God, so filled with mourning and caring for the world that he will fight like a tiger for what is right, what is good, and what is just. He will be far more concerned with justice than his own reputation, be far more concerned doing what is right, speaking up and for standing up, than his own reputation, or what other people say. He does not have to think about himself any longer, but be more concerned about the love of God and concern for other people then for his own job security, or for his own position in the community. 

The humble person has got things in order. How low can you get? Put God in his rightful place and all other relationships will fall into order as you love, care and are concerned as a tiger.

© 1977 Douglas I. Norris