Building a New Way:
The Humble Road to Transformation
Fourth Sunday After Pentecost • June 17, 2018
Scripture Lesson: Luke 18:9-14
(adapted from The Message)
Pastor Jeff Wells
You may think, on a first listen, that this story is about the proper way to pray. Or we could describe the lesson as the right attitude with which to approach God. The parable poses the supreme confidence and self-righteousness of the Pharisee against the humility of the tax man. But is it just about being proud or humble? So often, preachers and interpreters leave it at that. But I want to challenge us to read beyond what we receive in the Gospel story. Let’s think about the implications of what Jesus says. Here we have a very righteous and upstanding religious leader who Jesus tells us needs to go home and think about his relationship with God. At the same time, Jesus said, the despicable tax man was made right with God. The traditional theological term for that is justification. The tax man was justified before God, in spite of his bad behavior.
To know that you are made right with God – isn’t that awesome? I love being justified! I have failed to live up to God’s desires for my life and my relationships with others. It’s a great feeling to know that, in spite of all that, God forgives me and loves me unconditionally for who I am. God forgives and love each one of you, too. You are right with God. And it is all grace – God’s grace. Now, we could just bask in our rightness with God. We could say, “OK, I’m good. I am cool with God and I can just sit back and enjoy my unearned status.” Well, we could, but that doesn’t look like a very humble attitude. What’s more, do you really think Jesus wants us to stay there? Did Jesus really mean that the tax man could now go home and just continue making a living off of the oppression of his fellow Jews and on behalf of the Roman empire?
No! Justification is an aspect of God’s amazing grace, but it is not the end of grace. Once we are right with God, God says, “Beloved, I have forgiven you, now open yourself to having your heart, mind, and spirit changed.” You see, God intends that justification be followed up with sanctification. That’s another big theological term that means we are transformed. We are made more holy over time. God wants us to let go and to grow. God longs for us to let go of the behaviors, attitudes, prejudices, addictions, and other afflictions that are keeping us from fully loving ourselves and our neighbors. They are, in fact, keeping us from growing in holiness and experiencing life abundantly.
If we bask in our own righteousness and have contempt for others, then we will also be inclined to rely on our own powers and have contempt for God’s grace. We thereby cut ourselves off both from other people and from God. On the other hand, if we recognize our need for grace and forgiveness, it will be much harder for us to look down upon others.
So, if we look beyond the parable, we see that Jesus’ story is really about the tax man being humble enough to recognize his need for God’s grace and his need to be transformed. The tax man needed new beginning. In fact, Jesus is telling us that both men need transformation, but only the tax man is ready to begin the journey.
So Jesus message is not just that we ought to pray with humility. The message is that humility makes it possible for us to be honest with ourselves and begin to see the ways we are harming ourselves and others. Humility helps us to see the ways we need God’s forgiveness and God’s help to change. Most of us who journey through this life come to points along the way in which we painfully admit ways we have been wounded or have wounded others. We see the parts of our characters that we do not like very much. We recognize that we have emotional or psychological issues that we cannot overcome on our own and, like the tax collector, we want to be “made right.” Such recognition is not a small thing. Recognition is the place where change begins. That is the place where the tax collector found himself when he prayed, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” He recognized who he had become and he wanted to change. This, friends, is the humble road to transformation.
Unfortunately, the virtue of humility, the blessing of meekness, and a willingness to admit one’s own errors are severely diminished in our current social context. Instead, we are becoming a nation of humiliation. Humiliating someone else has become something to be valued. This attitude was epitomized for me in a magazine advertisement I saw several few years ago extolling the need for a “kill or be killed” approach in business. The ad pictured a booted foot looming ominously over the mud-spattered face of a man with broken wire-rimmed glasses laying on the ground. The slogan read, “Sorry, but the meek will definitely not inherit the earth.”
We see this attitude being played out in the Trump administration’s immigration policies. The policies are fundamentally based on contempt for other human beings. Those formulating and carrying out the policies see undocumented immigrants as unworthy of love, respect, or simply human dignity. Their contempt leads to inhuman cruelty, as persons who have never known anything besides life in the U.S. are deported to places where they do not know anyone and do not speak the language. Among the cruelest acts, we now witness children being forcibly separated from parents – babies literally torn from their mothers arms.
How wrong that is! We know that Christ is for losers, as the song says. The God we love and serve is the God of the the depressed, the repressed, and the oppressed. Jesus is the savior of the outcast, the downtrodden, the marginalized, and the immigrant families torn apart by greed, prejudice, and politics. And that means that the kin-dom of God is for losers, too – as the world defines losers. Remember what Jesus said: “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” Jesus is for everyone who is willing to be meek – and meek does not mean weak. Yes, Jesus is for everyone who is willing to humbly confess their own failings, to consider the needs of others before their own, and to love their neighbor as themselves.
Of course, we Progressive Christians, too, can fall into adopting a self-righteous, holier-than-thou attitude. It’s like praying, “O God, thank you, that we are very humble and pray like the tax collector, not like that self-righteous Pharisee.” We have to check our self-righteousness. That doesn’t mean we let people get away with practicing injustice and contempt for other human beings or groups, but it does mean we need to do justice with an attitude of humility and love. We experience God’s grace when we learn how to practice mercy and graciousness toward others.
The humble road to transformation is also the road to the kin-dom of God. If you want to be kin-dom people, embrace humility. That’s not just because God loves our humble attitude, but because having humility opens us to God’s amazing grace. It opens us to being able to accept God’s love and guidance for our lives. And humility is not just for individuals, but also for communities. Our community at the Church of the Village is pretty wonderful and I have to restrain myself, at times, from being too prideful and boasting about it. But we are not a perfect community and I we have shown we are humble enough to recognize we need to be transformed. That recognition opens us to the ways the Spirit of God is leading us and inspiring us to be the best we can be.
At the point where we meet him the tax man in the story, he is just getting started. Jesus didn’t relate the end of a story, but the beginning. God rejoices with us in our new beginnings. The Pharisee’s problem was not just that he was prideful. The more serious problem was that he was not honest enough with himself to recognize he needed God’s mercy. He wasn’t even ready to embark on the road to transformation.
Sin is not something Progressive Christians talk about much but, the truth is, we are all sinners. We are all in need of God’s grace and forgiveness. Every day, as hard as we try to avoid it, we sin against others or against God, mostly in small ways, sometimes in larger ways, by the things we say or do and by the things we fail to do. That’s a truth we can admit and recognize only with a large dose of humility. We are all in need of God’s mercy and God’s transforming love. Humility is the place where transformation begins. The wonderful thing is that God does not see us and our community only in our current broken state. God sees what we can be – all of our wonderful potential, all of our ability to love, all of the positive impact we might have in the world. Friends, let us pray for humble hearts and walk together on the humble road to transformation – the road to the kin-dom of God.
Copyright © 2018 by Jeffry L. Wells
All rights reserved.