A recurring theme in Luke, and indeed in much of Scripture, is the lowering of the proud and the raising up of the meek. Mary’s Magnificat and the parable of Lazarus and the rich man have already brought us this theme. This week, the lectionary texts bring us a couple more examples of humans who exalt themselves and those who humble themselves.
Jesus noticed that some people around him trusted in themselves and viewed others with contempt (Luke 18:9). Sadly, this is a common phenomenon in the church. Frequently, Christian leaders of all kinds, denominations and political persuasions can fall into the trap of thinking that they have everything figured out, and they disdain others who aren’t as wise or enlightened. This posture and high opinion of self is literally anti-Christ.
Jesus told a story of two men who walked into the temple. The Pharisee thanked God that he wasn’t rapacious, a practitioner of injustice, a sex criminal or a collaborator with the empire. He fasted and paid tithes on everything he owned, which were given to the temple and to the landless poor (11-12). This sounds like a good guy to my progressive mind. He wasn’t greedy or violent, and he practiced economic justice. But he knew he was doing everything right and was proud of himself. Meanwhile, the tax collector, a collaborator with the forces of the empire, stood far off, not looking toward heaven. He hit his chest and begged God to have mercy on him, a sinner.
Jesus said the latter man went home justified, not the first. How can this be?
The Pharisee did everything right, devoted himself to justice, and resisted violence and the empire. The tax collector certainly didn’t lie when he called himself a sinner. Yet, Jesus says those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted. Despite doing everything right, the Pharisee in Jesus’ parable trusted in himself and viewed others with contempt. This is simply not allowed for the people of Jesus. We don’t get to think this way. If a minister or other church leader is reading this and feeling convicted of viewing with contempt those whom God has entrusted you to serve, please seek out your spiritual adviser and talk this through, for your sake as well as that of your people. The tax collector saw the truth: he was a sinner in need of mercy, as we all are.
Jesus says those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.
The poetry in Jeremiah provides an excellent example of communal lament and request for God to return to help a humbled people. Interestingly, it seems that God provided this language as an example to a people who were too stubborn and self-reliant to listen, as God spelled out what proper repentance might sound like. God longed for the people of Judah to confess that their wrongdoings testified against them, their apostacies were many and that they sinned against God (Jeremiah 14:7). The people should have longed for God to dwell with them permanently, and not just be like a stranger passing through town (8).
God gave Jeremiah the pattern for what the people should have said to God. Instead, they loved to wander from God’s call to humble themselves (10) and listened to false prophets who promised peace and prosperity instead of punishment for the people’s arrogance (13-14). Eventually, the people learned to confess their wrongdoing (19-22)—but it seems it was too little, too late.
Those who exalt themselves will be humbled. That is exactly what has happened to every kingdom on the face of the earth so far. The ancient Egyptians, Romans and all other empires waned in power eventually. The kingdom of heaven calls humans to a different kind of posture. Instead of standing proudly, looking around at all those who don’t measure up to us in power, wisdom or even in the pursuit of justice, Jesus points to the one who acknowledges that he is a sinner and doesn’t know how to free himself. Only through the humble admission that we are lost and cannot save ourselves will Jesus justify us.
Even in our justification, we remain always sinner and saint, perpetually in need of Jesus, and never able to trust in ourselves or view others with contempt.