There’s a rather awkward thing about today's Gospel (Luke 18:9-14); and it’s set up by the fact that our narrator, Luke, gives the game away right off the bat:
Jesus told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt. There you have it. Just to make sure no one misses the point here.
And then we are presented with two characters, two types of people: first, a Pharisee, that is, a devoutly religious person, a regular church-goer, a good, upstanding citizen. And secondly, we have a tax collector, someone who, in those days, was despised by his fellow Judeans for taking their money and giving it to the hated Roman occupiers. He was a traitor, a thief, a social pariah.
So basically we have here a good person and a bad person - in fact, the very best sort of person and the very worst sort of person.
And yet, because of Luke’s introduction (and Jesus's summary at the end), we actually know that it is the proud, self-righteous Pharisee who is the bad guy here. The tax collector is the good guy, the exemplar of true faith because of his humility.
And so the awkward thing about this Gospel is that we are in danger of making the very same mistake the Pharisee did. As soon as we hear his words, do we not say to ourselves: ‘God, I thank you that I am not proud and self-righteous like this Pharisee.’
So what is the problem with the Pharisee’s prayer?
The word that occurs most frequently in his prayer is the word ‘I.’ ‘God, I thank you that I am not like sinners and criminals.’ ‘I fast twice a week.’ ‘I tithe.’ I, I, I, I.
You see, though he makes a show of thanking God, he reveals that he is actually satisfied with his own righteousness, content with himself, with his virtues and religiosity. He really has no need of God. And that’s the issue.
By contrast, humility is at the heart of the Christian faith because humility is basically about acknowledging both our fallen nature and our dependence on God.
The word 'humility' comes from the word ‘humus,’ meaning ‘ground’ or ‘earth.’ To be humble is to remember that you are but dust and that God formed the first human from the dust of the earth and breathed into us the breath of life. By praying in a spirit of humility, by getting into the habit of confessing our sins on a daily basis, we give that breath back to God (George Herbert, Prayer) so that He might re-creates us by His Spirit (Ps. 104:30). We acknowledge our need for God our Creator. We depend on Him for life and sustenance; for forgiveness, healing and restoration to new life. When burdened with guilt and shame, our frailty and brokenness, like the tax collector, we can only turn to God.
It has been said that the Christian faith is somewhat like Alcoholics Anonymous in that the very first steps are as follows:
There it is: humility, dependence on God, the move from being self-centered and self-righteous (like the Pharisee) to being Christ-centered, trusting in His perfect goodness, His power to forgive sins and His Spirit's work to restore you to new life.
So the first step towards true humility is to say together with the tax collector, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner.’ But the next step, the ultimate step, is to say together with St Paul: It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me, who died for me while I was still helpless and sinful, in whom I am made a new creation (Gal. 2:20; Rom. 5:6; 2 Cor. 5:17).
Artwork: John Everett Millais, The Pharisee and the Publican, from Illustrations to `The Parables of Our Lord’, 1864. Relief print on paper, Tate Collections, London.
Source cited in sermon: John Behr, 'The Sunday of the Publican and Pharisee,' The Cross Stands While the World Turns: Homilies for the Cycles of the Year (SVS Press, 2014), p. 13-16.