These scripture passages this week, got me thinking about the question, “what is required?” And they got me thinking about how that question is answered. For how that question is answered profoundly shapes how we are to live.
These scripture passages got me remembering when I was a teenager and how our high school had this rather nerve wracking ritual that they put us through every fall and every spring for each of those three years. It was a ritual that answered that question “what is required?” in no uncertain terms.
Twice a year, in our homeroom period, our teacher would ask us all to quiet down and would go over to his desk and pick up stack of index cards. Turning to the class he would then walk solemnly down the rows placing face down each student’s card on desk before us. As he did this, you could have heard a pin drop, so absorbed were we in this most grave moment. When all the cards were distributed we were given permission to look at our card. And there, under our name, was a number.
The number was our class rank, — a number one to however many students there were in our class. The number ranked us in relationship to all the other student’s based on our grade point average.
“What was required? The school was unequivocal — what was required was a high rank. And we all understood why. Because that rank told us how good (or bad) we were. How likely we were to succeed. How good (or bad) our future would be.
“What is required?” Most often we are told that what is required is that we measure up, be the best, get ahead and if we don’t? Well – you have no one to blame but ourselves, right?! This is my story but I bet you have one, right? And I bet our young people have one too.
The Pharisee in the Gospel passage from the book of Luke, certainly knew what it was to measure up. He lived what was required, what was prescribed by religious law. He fasted twice a week; he gave a tenth of all his income. But it is not just his personal piety that makes him so worthy, it is his professional status as well. He was a Pharisee after all, a real somebody.
So as he went up to the temple to pray, as he passed through the outer gate and entered the courtyard of the temple, why shouldn’t he stand a bit apart from the rest? Why shouldn’t those around him draw back a bit in deference to his position and rank? And when he prayed, why not thank God that he was so good? That he had made something of himself. What’s wrong with a bit of pride when one succeeds in what it is that is required!
Well maybe nothing, but potentially everything. For there is something in this Pharisee, something in my teenage experience, something in this cultural insistence to measure up, that Jesus is asking us to reconsider.
The Gospel passage opens with a bit of framing, Luke tells us that Jesus told this parable to some who “trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.” Jesus uses this parable as a teaching device to get those listening to him that day to take a look themselves as reflected in this Pharisee. For the Pharisee, it turns out is not the one who was justified by God. He had gotten it wrong. Trusting in oneself actually gets in the way of what is required, gets in the way of getting it right with God.
Not only does “trusting in oneself” get in the way of getting it right with God but it is also a terribly precarious way to live. For if one believes that one’s worth and future is tied up with what one has done or earned, then one must continually do and earn in order to continue to be worthy and to have that future. And if God forbid, something happens, if illness strikes or a relationship falls apart, or a job is lost, or a test is flunked, if humiliating posts start showing up on facebook, if something interferes with all our ardent doing and earning, then one’s sense of worth may collapse and future seem to just implode.
Trusting in one’s self as a life strategy is akin to building your house on sand, to borrow another image Jesus used. For what will happen when the rain comes, and the streams rise and the winds blow and beat against that house? Will that house have the power to stand? (Matt 7:24-27). Under the hard outer shell of self reliance and promotion flows a river of fear. Fear of what will happen if self alone turns out not to be enough.
A couple of years ago, I had one of the saddest conversations that I have ever had. It was one of my son’s good friends. We were standing in our kitchen. College acceptance letters had just come out the day before. My son’s friend had wanted nothing more than to go a particular top school and to get there he had worked really, really hard. In fact he had gone over the top on just about everything. He had a four point something grade point average, top rankings in his class, and then there were sports and band and student government and tutoring and volunteering at Children’s Hospital, it went on and on.
But the acceptance letter that he had worked so hard to get, did not come. And in the wake of that rejection, I could see his sense of self worth and his future tumbling down around him. I’ll never forget him asking plaintively “what was the point?” If all his hard work did not get him what it was he wanted most then what was the point of doing anything at all? So convinced was this young man that the future was to be of his own making that when he could not make of it what he wanted he was convinced that there was no future.
I believe, that we do our children and ourselves a deep disservice when we uncritically buy into the cultural myth that we are to be self made men and women and that the future is of our making. We do the world and every living creature in it a deep disservice when we think that in order to really make it in this world we must be the best, the first, top in this, first in that — that we must do, earn, achieve and the sign of having made is to stand apart and be recognized for how unlike the others we really are.
Jesus told this parable that day, he tells us this parable this day, I believe as a warning against that kind of self trust, but Jesus also tells this parable today, I believe, as a heartfelt invitation to consider another way of being with our selves, with each other and with God. Remember Jesus came into the world not to condemn us but to show us the way to fullness of life with each other and with God. And what is this way? It is the way that that other man chose when he came up to the temple to pray.
It is the way of humility.
I think it important to take a moment and talk about what humility is and what it is not. Humility is not humiliation. It is not about self deprecation or debasement, or about thinking too little of oneself. The true meaning and gift of humility has been twisted to mean a kind of self sacrificing suffering or submission. Humility has nothing to do with humiliation.
To get at what humility actually is, it is interesting to note that the world humility is derived from the word humus which means of course “earth.” And it carries this sense of being grounded. It is from this place of groundedness that humility allows one to have a clear perspective on one’s self and on one’s relationship to others. Author John Dickson puts it this way “Humility is more about how I treat others than how I think about myself.”
Joan Chittister, Benedictine nun and Catholic theologian describes humility this way. “True humility is simply a measure of the self that is taken without exaggerated approval or exaggerated guilt. Humility is the ability to know ourselves as God knows us and to know that it is the little we are that is precisely our claim on God. Humility is then, the foundation for our relationship with God, our connectedness to others, our acceptance of ourselves, our way of using the goods of the earth and even our way of walking through the world, without arrogance, without domination, without scorn without put downs, without distain, without self –centeredness.”
And Humility it turns out is what the Lord requires. Listen again to that beautiful passage from Micah
“With what shall I come before the LORD, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”
He has told you, O mortal what is good: and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” Micah 6:6-8
Humility at its most basic level makes for civil discourse and at its most sublime, humility makes for communion. Can you imagine how those debates in Washington over debt ceiling and those debates at the Waban library over Engine 6 could have gone differently if words had been spoken from a place of humility not arrogance?
What makes humility so important? Why is it taught of one of the central virtues of all of the worlds religions or practices? Why is it that living from place of humility can be absolutely transformative?
Because unlike arrogance with its undercurrent of fear, what flows through and out from humility is trust. Trust not in self alone but trust in self with God. To walk humbly with God is to know that nothing, no illness, loss of job, loss of relationship or college rejection can take the love of God in which we live and move and have our being, from us. And that is solid ground on which to stand. That is the way of Jesus and it is a powerful and power filled way to live.
Now as an aside, I just have to say, if I thought it was all up me to stand up before you week after week to offer a word I would be absolutely paralyzed by fear and would collapse under the sheer weight of my own inadequacy. But what I have come to learn is that when I trust not in myself but in God, the words will come.
So yes let’s do our best and let’s teach our kids to do their best. Let’s give life our all and help our kids to do the same. But let’s be very clear with ourselves and with our young people. We do this not out of a place of fear, fearing that the future is up to us and if we are not the best than the best of the future won’t be ours. We do this out of a place of trust and joy even, knowing that what is and what will be may very well be beyond our control but a life lived with God and with each other is a secure life, a life that is able to weather that which will come and not just that but a life that will blossom and thrive in ways that no class rank could ever predict.
So let the words that Jesus spoke to those who trusted in themselves that day be the words he speaks to us this day. May we heed his call to consider again what is required and to step into his invitation to walk in a new way. And when he turns to continue on his Way, may we go with him, walking humbly with each other and with our God.
 John Dickson. Humilitas: the lost key to life, love and leadership. ( Zondervan: Grand Rapids, MI. 2011) p.25