The Humility Trap: SALT's Lectionary Commentary for Twentieth Week after Pentecost
Twentieth Week after Pentecost (Year C): Luke 18:9-14
1) As Jesus nears Jerusalem, we’re nearing the end of a twenty-four-week chronological walk through Jesus’ teachings in the Gospel of Luke (just four weeks to go!).
2) Last week was a parable on prayer, lifting up a widow’s tenacious trust as a model - and this week’s reading is the very next passage, another parable on prayer and trust.
3) In Luke, Pharisees frequently appear among Jesus’ opponents - and in the centuries since, Christians have often caricatured Pharisees as self-righteous hypocrites, an interpretive disaster for at least three reasons. First, it overlooks the fact that the Pharisee movement and the Jesus movement were in many ways cut from the same cloth, more like kissing cousins than polar opposites. This helps explain both their spirited disputes and the fact that, according to Luke, the followers of Jesus included many Pharisees (Luke 13:33; 19:39; Acts 15:5; 23:6). In other words, for Luke, the Pharisee in this parable may be self-righteous, but Pharisees in general were not. Second, painting all Pharisees with the same critical brush reinforces dreadful tropes in the harrowing, bloody history of Christian anti-Judaism. And third, as we’ll see below, to interpret this parable in a way that looks down on Pharisees is to fall prey to the very contempt the parable warns against (God, I thank you that I am not like this Pharisee...)!
4) Jesus and Luke are up to some serious theological mischief here: the very fact that Pharisees are so often cast as opponents in Luke’s Gospel is being used to lure us into a trap.
5) And there’s a similar lure - though in the opposite direction - when it comes to the tax collector. Many Jews in first century Palestine considered tax collectors to be corrupt, treasonous collaborators with the Roman occupation, often lining their own pockets by extorting more than the Empire required - and as such, they were seen as “sinners” par excellence. But in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus is constantly associating with tax collectors, so much so that they begin to stand in as “good guys” in the overall narrative: Jesus calls a tax collector (Levi) to be one of the twelve disciples, for example, and tells the famous “Prodigal” parable in response to criticism that he’s eating with “tax collectors and sinners” (Luke 15:1; see also Luke 3:12; 5:27-30; 7:29). So just as Pharisees often figure as opponents in Luke, tax collectors often figure as friends. This week’s parable is no exception - and neither, please note, is next week’s reading, the story of Jesus and the “chief tax collector,” Zacchaeus (Luke 19:2).
6) Keep these iconic roles in mind as we move into the parable itself. As we’ll see, these tropes are actually setting the stage for a surprising twist. Beware the humility trap!
1) Luke first clarifies the parable’s addressees: “some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt” - whetting our appetitite for what’s to come (Luke 18:9).
2) As the parable opens, the two contrasting protagonists step onto the stage: a Pharisee and a tax collector. On the surface, it’s clear what these roles signify: a respectable religious “insider” and a sinful “outsider.” But at the same time, on a deeper level, listeners to Luke’s narrative know that “Pharisee” typically means an occasional opponent and foil for the Jesus movement, and “tax collector” typically means a marginalized sinner Jesus came to save. For the parable’s earliest audiences, then, the Pharisee steps into the limelight as the likely villain (boo, hiss) and the tax collector as the likely hero (hooray!). The trap is set.
3) So we can be sure to catch Jesus’ meaning here, let’s translate “Pharisee” into a twenty-first-century Christian context by calling him, “the Reverend,” i.e., a Christian religious leader and insider. The Reverend enters the temple and prays a prayer of thanksgiving - but it’s a grotesque parody of gratitude, ostensibly thanking God but actually pointing toward his own alleged virtue and religious diligence. He trusts in himself, and boasts (as if God needs to hear this!) about his fasting and tithing - but he can’t even get to the boasting without first letting slip the thinly-veiled corollary of his pride: his contempt for others, “even like this tax collector” (Luke 18:11). God, I thank you that I am not like this tax collector… Indeed, as the Reverend understands himself, he is an excellent, upstanding citizen. He needs nothing. And accordingly, he thanks God for his perfect self-sufficiency, his piety, his righteousness. The gall!
4) And in contrast, the tax collector’s prayer is nothing but a declaration of need, and a demonstration of complete trust and dependence on God’s mercy. He stands “far off” from any position of prestige, not even daring to “look up to heaven”; we can picture him standing outside the temple gates, so to speak (Luke 18:13). God, be merciful to me, a sinner! And yet he is the one, Jesus insists, who is “justified” (or “pronounced righteous in the divine court”): “for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted” (Luke 18:14).
5) Now the trap is ready to spring shut: Behold, the tax collector, the humble sinner, is the one who is justified! The arrogant, holier-than-thou Reverend returns home empty-handed! And the moral of this story, of course, is that we should be humble like the tax collector, not prideful like the Reverend, for “the humble will be exalted.” Right? (The trap snaps closed - and we’re caught.)
1) We fall into the trap when we look down on the Reverend, or feel a twinge of schadenfreude at his comeuppance; in this way, we exemplify the very contempt the parable condemns. But there’s also a more subtle snare in this story, a trap within a trap. For when we draw from it the lesson, Go and be humble, or Pray for mercy like the tax collector (for then you’ll be exalted) - we thereby substitute a disguised attempt at exaltation for a brazen one. That’s the humility trap: whenever we try to act with humility because we believe humility to be a “superior” course of action, the “right” way to be, the path God approves and exalts - we thereby enact a camouflaged form of pride. It’s right there in Jesus’ epigram at the end of the parable: we humble ourselves - in order to be exalted.
2) Try as we might, wriggling free from this trap is easier said than done. Well, OK, then I won’t be humble in order to be exalted - I’ll just be humble for humility’s sake. That’s true humility, after all, pure humility. The kind God approves… (Argh! Foiled again!)
3) There’s no end to this shape-shifting logic of superiority, and no end to the troubles it can cause. We step out of one trap - and into another. Think of it this way: the Reverend’s underlying mistake is to put the emphasis on his own work, on what “I” do (fasting, or tithing, or what have you). But we replicate the same mistake when we focus on performing humility (standing “far off” at the temple, or praying strictly for mercy, or what have you). These “humble acts” become another form of works righteousness. The spotlight is still on what “I” do. The trick, then, is to quit the “what I do” game entirely: for salvation is God’s work to do, not ours. But beware - for the mistake can also replicate into a focus on holding theological ideas like “salvation is God’s work to do, not ours”! Beliefs as well as actions can be occasions for this arrogant brand of humility, this humble bragging, this looking down (however implicitly) on others with contempt.
4) But if the humility trap shape-shifts and replicates into different forms - is there no way out? Is it even possible to quit the “what I do” game entirely, and truly leave salvation to God? What would it look like to be vibrant and active, doing good and living with love, but at the same time not carrying out our “works” as steps up a self-saving ladder to heaven?
5) Here’s one answer. What do we typically call vibrant activity that isn’t “work”? We often call it play, and we think of play as a specialty of young children: fully trusting and dependent on the love and care of their parents or guardians, but (ideally) unabashed and unselfconscious about that dependence and trust. They aren’t trying to climb their way up into their parents’ love; rather, their parents’ love is the starting point, the foundation, the ground on which they stand, and the liberating context for all their work and play. And sure enough, this is precisely where Jesus goes in the verses immediately following this week’s parable: “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child” - that is, with unassuming openness, vulnerability, and a playful, free, utter reliance on God - “will never enter it” (Luke 18:17). It’s as if Jesus says: Want out of the humility trap? Then let go of your all-too-adult, all-too-serious attempts at self-justification - and instead become like a little child, God’s child, which is exactly who you are…
6) In the end, then, this parable is an invitation, not a condemnation, for the Reverends of the world. Let go of your pretense, dear Christian, and receive God’s kingdom as a child would receive it: as a delightful, undeserved gift. The good news of the Gospel is that salvation isn’t your work to do, it’s God’s - and God loves you as a parent loves her children. If the Reverend in this parable is a sinner - well, he can join the club. In that regard he is no different that the tax collector, and come to think of it, since the tax collector went home justified, who can we exclude from God’s mercy? There’s hope for the Reverend, too! If the work of salvation is truly God’s work to do, not ours, then who shall be lost? As if to underscore this point, in next week’s reading, Jesus turns to Zaccheus, the “chief tax collector,” arguably one of the greatest sinners of them all - and yet Jesus seeks him out, and welcomes him home. Let the little children come to me…