by Kurt K. Hendel
Bernard, Fischer, Westberg Distinguished Ministry Professor of Reformation History
It is all about trust, dear people of God.
First impressions can be quite accurate and incisive. However, they generally do not capture a particular reality in its fullness and can, therefore, also be misleading or they can divert us from the heart of the matter. At first glance the gospel lesson for the 22 Sunday of Pentecost seems to address two crucial human traits, pride and humility, and I have heard quite a few sermons who have focused precisely on those characteristics as they have explored the meaning and significance of this parable. Not surprisingly, all of those sermons concluded that pride is a problem and humility is a virtue. As I recall, all of the sermons were preached by men.
Jesus’ parable does indeed address both pride and humility and, as such, it speaks to our own experiential reality. Pride has been a human temptation from the very beginning, and it can be argued that the fall story indicates that fact. Adam and Eve had been given everything that they needed to live life to the fullest. In fact, they were created in the image of God. Nevertheless, they desired the one thing that God had forbidden them. This desire was not simply a matter of natural curiosity. It was ultimately a matter of pride since the image of God was apparently not enough for them.
They wanted to be even more like God. Indeed, they wanted to be God and to possess what God alone possesses. Pride, therefore, compelled them to exercise their free will and to do what God had forbidden rather than obeying what God had commanded. The consequences of their choice were, of course, dire. Rather, than becoming even more like God, they became much less than God created them to be. Rather than enjoying an intimate relationship with God, they were afraid of and hid from God. Rather than enjoying the peace and harmony of the Garden, they were thrust out into the unknown where discord, jealousy, hatred and, of course, pride manifested themselves all too quickly.
It has been said that pride is the particular sin of men, and that assertion is a defensible one, both experientially and theologically. However, the fall story, a realistic look at ourselves and the annals of history indicate that it is a sin that is clearly not peculiar to men. In fact, it affects all of humanity, and women are not exempt from it. Being accepted into a prestigious school, making the honor roll, receiving a call to the ideal parish, beauty, intelligence, a dream car, gifted children, perfect grandchildren, a compliment, a good grade, excellent course evaluations, a stellar publication record and many, many more things can ignite a spark or even a raging fire of pride within us.
Of course, pride is not only a personal temptation. It is also expressed communally since our team is always #1, our seminary is surely the best, our church is most enlightened and faithful, our country is clearly God’s chosen nation. While I trust that most of us do not like a braggart, I suspect that most of us do also identify with the Pharisee. We are proud of what we achieve, and sometimes we do not mind telling others—including God—about it. Even if we strive valiantly not to emulate the Pharisee, we may secretly hope that God is paying attention and keeping a careful record of all of our good deeds and accomplishments.
I also suspect that most of us admire true humility and respect people who receive a compliment with grace, who are more likely to celebrate others’ achievements than their own, who are perfectly willing to work behind the scenes rather than in the limelight, who are satisfied with the privilege of being able to pursue their vocation rather expecting the accolades of others. Thus we identify more with the tax collector than the Pharisee.
Pride is self-centered and thus offends and alienates. It destroys rather than nurtures relationships. Humility enables us to focus on the other, to be satisfied with the blessings we enjoy, to serve in love, to recognize our limitations, to welcome help, to appreciate the loving care that we receive.
Jesus’ parable is about pride and humility, and it challenges us to take a careful look at ourselves, to be introspectively honest rather than superficial in our self-examination, to identify with the tax collector rather than the Pharisee and to emulate the former rather than the latter.
However, the issues of pride and humility do not address the heart of this parable’s message. Pride and humility are symptoms of an even greater issue—indeed, of the ultimate issue in the divine-human relationship, and it is this relationship that is Jesus’ focus in the parable. The issue is trust. That this is the chief concern of the parable becomes quite apparent when we interpret the story in light of the gospel. Such a gospel hermeneutic is also consistent with the intention of the evangelist who clearly states that the parable is ultimately about trust.
The Pharisee was obviously a proud man, as his prayer so strikingly confirms. He offers a prayer of thanksgiving, but not for God’s mercy and grace or for the blessings with which God had enriched his life. Rather, he thanks God that he is different which, in his case, means that he is better than others, including the tax collector who had joined him in the temple. After all, he is morally upright since he is not an extortioner, unjust, an adulterer or a tax collector. He also fasts and contributes his tithe regularly.
All of these are, indeed, admirable and good works, but they inspired the Pharisee’s pride which, in turn, caused him to despise others. Even that is not the ultimate problem, however. The Pharisee was not content with striving to live in accordance with God’s law. He insisted on reminding God of his goodness, with the assumption that God would simply have to recognize and affirm his accomplishments.
And that is finally the crux of the matter. The Pharisee trusted in his own works, in his righteousness, in his obedience of the law, and he expected that he was acceptable to God on the basis of his own merit. Rather than trusting and depending on the mercy of God, he trusted in himself. Thereby, he usurped God’s place, failed to let God be God and became a theologian of glory. Indeed, he became an idolater because he was his own god, for, as Luther reminds us, our god is the one in whom we place our trust. That is why Jesus states unequivocally that the Pharisee was not justified, even as the man boasted in his own righteousness.
The story tells us very little about the tax collector. However, because of his vocation he was obviously a representative of an occupying force who assisted those occupiers as they fleeced his own people’s resources. In doing so, he likely gained substantial income which enabled him to live a comfortable life and to provide well for his family. It is also apparent, however, that the tax collector was a person of faith who was obviously troubled by the life that he lived. There is no reason to think that as a believer he did not do many of the things of which the Pharisee boasted, in spite of his chosen profession.
However, he realized that even his good works could not atone for his sinfulness. In humility, he, therefore, turned to God, confessed his sin and pleaded for mercy. The tax collector was, therefore, a theologian of the cross. He called his sin what it was—sin. He let God be God rather than usurping God’s place. He knew quite well that he could not bargain with God, that his own righteousness and piety could not save him, that he was totally dependent on God. And he trusted, not in himself but in God. Therefore, Jesus declares him to be justified. Pride was not the Pharisee’s ultimate problem. His misplaced trust was. Humility did not justify the tax collector but his trust in the God of mercy did.
That is still true today, dear people of God. When it comes to the divine-human relationship, it is all about trust, and only faith, that gracious divine gift, enables us to trust the promises of God. Only faith justifies. That is the good news of the parable. That is the familiar, yet radical, good news that I share with you this morning. That is the gospel we are called to proclaim and to live in the name of the Christ, for our sake and for the sake of the world. May it be so. Amen.
Jer. 14:7-10; 2 Tim. 4:6-8,16-18; Ps. 84:1-7; Lk. 18:9-14