Sunday, October 28, 2007

The Shape of Humility

Jesus said, “all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
(Luke 18:14) Amen.

The parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector is a scandal to good, religious people. At least, it should be. It calls into question our assumptions about what it means to be in right relationship with God. It challenges us to embrace real humility. And that is never easy.

Looking deeply at this parable, we discover that the Pharisee is not a bad guy, the caricature of the self-righteous prig that the history of interpretation has made him out to be. It would be so much easier if he was, but he isn’t. He is doing all the right things. He is filled with good intentions and noble actions. But there is something missing.

While the Pharisees’ prayer may sound arrogant to our modern ears, on its own terms it is really just a version of “there, but for the grace of God, go I.” Who among us, observing the suffering of others, hasn’t uttered some form of that prayer? And please note that the Pharisee is far from indifferent to the suffering of others. In fact, he has a real concern for the poor.

In his supererogatory acts of fasting and tithing, the Pharisee far exceeds the expectations of religious observance. Instead of fasting on the appointed holy days, he fasts twice a week. Rather than tithing only on the required portion of his income, he gives away ten percent of everything he acquires. In so doing, he is making a sacrificial offering for the sins of his people and fulfilling the religious obligations of those who are too poor to fast or tithe.

I would even go so far as to suggest that the Pharisees’ very public prayer in the Temple, differentiating himself from the tax collector, can be read as a prophetic denunciation. Tax collectors were notorious for lining their pockets by charging exorbitant sums far beyond the required tax. Such fraud and embezzlement made it difficult for the poor to maintain a subsistence income and impossible for them to demonstrate the kind of piety the Pharisee exemplified. In taking their side against the tax collector, the Pharisee is announcing good news to the poor.

So if this Pharisee was such a fabulous guy, why did the tax collector return to his home in right relationship with God, while the Pharisee did not? For all his goodness, the Pharisee lacked a sense of his own need for the mercy of God. For all his concern about justice, he didn’t really allow the suffering of others to touch him at the level of the heart. His goodness actually served as a barrier between himself and others, defending him against the vulnerability that real relationship with God and others requires. The Pharisee had not yet allowed his heart to be broken.

The tax collector was truly a bad guy. He’d no doubt done some awful things, and he new he was complicit in the suffering of others. He didn’t need the Pharisee to tell him that. He knew how desperately he needed the mercy of God to bridge the gap between him and those he had harmed. He understood deeply and painfully how tragically involved he was in the suffering of others. His heart had been broken.

The Pharisee cares about the suffering of others, but for him they remain “other,” a foil for his own goodness. He is unwilling or unable to acknowledge how deeply he is connected to their suffering at the level of the heart. In this, the tax collector is way ahead of him, and so the possibility for a real relationship with God and others is open to him. The Pharisee is unmoved by mercy – it leaves him unchanged. The tax collector is being transformed by mercy. He will never be the same again.

Humility is the sign that we are being transformed by the mercy of God. Humility isn’t simply an interior disposition, a kind of self-knowledge or proper valuation of one’s self. Humility is something concrete and tangible. It is given expression in our decisions and actions. Humility is like real estate: it is all about location, location, location; in this case, social location. Humility is an actual physical and spiritual movement to a new place, in which we close the distance between ourselves and the suffering and hope of the world.

However, in the economy of God’s mercy, humility is just the opposite of real estate in terms of its valuation: the value of humility increases as it moves us more deeply into the “wrong side of the tracks,” the places where others fear to live. Humility can be quite costly in material terms, but it yields an amazing spiritual return. It places us in a position to experience the mercy of God.

We tend to judge ourselves by our intentions, but the world judges us by our actions. The test of humility is not what we think about ourselves, but rather where we locate ourselves in the world. It is a question of how deeply we allow ourselves to be connected with the suffering and hope of the world, which is, of course, our own suffering and hope. They are one, and in discovering that they are one, we wade into the flow of divine mercy.

God is far more interested in a broken heart than in a resume of pious good deeds. Or to put it another way, we can’t even begin to be good until our hearts have been broken. But this breaking of the heart is not an event; it is a process of deepening compassion that opens the floodgates of mercy as we move more deeply into relationship with God and others. It is costly and, yes, painful. But it is the only way to be truly, fully alive. In embracing humility, we really do experience a paradoxical exaltation. We are alive in the endless flow of divine mercy that sustains the cosmos.

Since my return from Uganda I have been wrestling with the challenge of this parable. Am I willing to have my heart broken? What would it look like for me to embrace real humility? It is tempting to retreat into unconsciousness, to pretend that I don’t know what I now know. But that way leads to death, and I want to choose life.

What I can no longer deny is that I am rich: wildly rich by any comparative global standard. The average Ugandan has an income of $300 annually. I earned nearly that much money in the time it took me to prepare and deliver this sermon. As people there and in other parts of the developing world strive, quite understandably, to attain the quality of life that I enjoy, we risk exceeding the planet’s carrying capacity for human life.

What I can no longer deny is that my lifestyle is unsustainable on a global scale. Kampala’s air quality and traffic congestion are comparable to Los Angeles or the Bay Area. In the race to mimic Western lifestyles, carbon emissions, desertification, deforestation, and species extinctions are approaching the tipping point of global environmental disaster; all because people want to live like me.

Just this past week the United Nations Environmental Program released a report warning that “the human population is now so large that the amount of resources needed to sustain it exceeds what is available at current consumption patterns.” Climate change is turning semi-arid land to arid land in Africa at rates that further threaten an already precarious food supply. Himalayan glaciers are shrinking, diminishing the amount of water supplying the expanding populations of China and India. At current rates of harvesting, all species being fished will be extinct by 2050.

The brunt of such calamities will, of course, hit the poorest of the poor first and hardest. Regional conflicts over resources will escalate, and the pressures on population migration will mount. Charity is no longer a sufficient response to the suffering of the world, if it ever was. We can no longer keep our distance, removed from the suffering of “those people,” while the whole earth groans in anticipation of new creation.

As 21st Century North American Christians, the practice of real humility requires a global consciousness and a sense of participation in the suffering of other species and of the earth itself, as well as human suffering. Our hearts must be broken at a depth that far surpasses anything required of our forbears in the faith. The whole planet is in need of the mercy of God.

What kind of future will we choose? Where will we locate ourselves in relationship to global suffering? Will we be willing to live with less so that others will be able to live with dignity, or live at all?

These are large and difficult questions, and they require a collective, political response guided by a spiritual vision of our need for the mercy of God. Like the tax collector, we must begin by acknowledging our tragic complicity in the suffering of the world, our powerlessness to heal what is broken on our own, and our dependence upon the mercy of God and of others. We must be willing to embrace humility, to move from the center to the margins, to make room so that peaceful and sustainable life can flourish for all creatures on this planet earth, our island home.

The vision that the Church must offer the world today is a vision of self-denial and sustainability for the sake of the whole. The age of gratuitous consumption has reached its nadir. That false god must be renounced so that we may worship the God of life anew. Learning to live within the limits of renewable resources and the requirements of global health is the shape of true humility in our time. Mercy is contagious, and humility is the means by which it is spread. May God grant us the wisdom and the courage to practice true humility. Amen.

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