Reading: Saint Luke 15.1
“Be clothed with humility”
The humility of God’s charity calls us to humility over and against our pride. Pride is that grand delusion whereby we think we are sufficient unto ourselves, whereby we think we stand in need of nothing but presume to be the center of everything. The self-giving love of God stands altogether opposed to the self-centeredness of our pride. It is our pride which stands utterly opposed to God and to God’s ways with us. “For God resisteth the proud and giveth grace to the humble.”
In the Gospel for today, “all the publicans and sinners drew near to hear Jesus.” But “the Pharisees and Scribes murmured, saying ‘This man receiveth sinners and eateth with them’.” In other words, the Pharisees and Scribes - the self-righteous in the pride of their religion - complain about the company which Jesus keeps - the company of publicans and sinners. It is in relation to this division between publicans and sinners, on the one hand, and Pharisees and Scribes, on the other hand, that Jesus tells this parable.
Publicans are not the keeper of pubs, but the collectors of taxes - taxes which belong to the res publicae, the public things in the order and rule of the state. Now tax collectors can hardly ever be regarded in a favourable light, but much less so in the context of the Gospel. For then, they were seen as traitors to Israel because they were co-operating with their foreign Roman overlords. And beyond that, they were also seen as extortionists. The business of tax collection was hired out by the Roman Government to local agents - Rome may have been the first government to outsource taxing! They were given a quota which they had to meet; anything above that was for themselves. Thus the publicans were out to get whatever they could from an unwilling population. No-one could be more despised than a publican.
Hardly respectable company for a teacher of religion, or a least so the Pharisees and the Scribes thought. Their complaint was that they were the worthy ones, the respectable company with whom Jesus should be, not this rabble of unworthy “publicans and sinners”. Their complaint reveals a feature of pride. It cuts us off from others and from God. As Hagar Shipley Currie, in Margaret Laurence’s classic novel The Stone Angel, puts it, “Pride was my wilderness”, a wilderness in which we are lost to ourselves, to others and to God. There is nothing more empty and more isolating than pride - the pride that is so completely focused on oneself whether in boasting “how great I am” or in whining “how poor, sad, mad and miserable I am.”
Jesus’ response is to tell two stories - three actually - the story of the lost sheep, the story of the lost coin, and the story which follows those two, the story of the lost or prodigal son. The lesson is plain. Salvation is for those who need salvation, for those who are lost. “There shall be more joy in heaven over one sinner that repenteth than over ninety and nine just persons who need no repentance.” To know oneself as a sinner is to stand in need of salvation, to be looking for it and to be where it is proclaimed. To know oneself as such is itself an act of humility, an act of the grace of God in one.
Jesus tells this to the Pharisees and Scribes who, like the “publicans and sinners”, also need repentance and salvation. But unlike the “publicans and sinners” they don’t think that they need anything whatsoever. They stand and murmur against Jesus in the pride of their self-righteousness, claiming a worthiness on the basis of their observation of the law. Keeping the law, however, is not their sin. Their sin is in despising the “publicans and sinners”, in presuming their own self-sufficiency and in murmuring against the ways of God with men in Jesus Christ.
The gospel shows us that Jesus is the infinite charity of God towards us, reaching down to seek out the lost, from the greatest to the least, and to draw us back out of the wilderness to which our sins have exiled us, to bring us into the company which we have forsaken. He is the humility of God’s charity. But in this reaching down of God to us, there is also his reaching down in us. Humility is God’s grace opening us out to the pattern of his love in us. It is the inner clothing of the soul.
And it changes everything. “Be subject to one another”, Peter tells us. How different that is from the Pharisees and Scribes. They would stand over everything else - lord it over us all. But if it is not so with God, then how can it be so with one another? “Be clothed with humility: for God resisteth the proud and giveth grace to the humble.”
But being subject to one another does not mean mindless submission. Humility must also mean a confident openness to the truth which one has been given to see and a confident willingness to act upon what one knows. Humility is not grovelling subservience.
The point theologically is the total primacy of God’s grace in the work of salvation. It is not our worthiness but the infinite generosity of God that is at work for us and in us. And this is something which we have to want if ever we will discover how it is all God’s work in us. Pride can have no place with God for it stands opposed to God and murmurs against God for the company he keeps. But the company he keeps is you and me - sinners all, whether publicans or not. And if we think that we are not sinners, then we exclude ourselves from his company and presume to be better than one another. Such is not of God.
The lesson Jesus teaches illustrates the gentle humility of God’s way with us even in the face of the hardness of our proud hearts. He shows us the infinite extent of the humility of his love for us in his seeking out the lost. And he shows us that the way of his love must be his way in us.
He has reached down to us in the lost wanderings of our ways, but he has reached down to us that he might redeem us, that his humility might be both his example and the workings of his grace in us, that he might be in our company - sinners all - and we in his company - gracious in the sight of God by virtue of God’s reaching down to us. Such is God’s humility towards us. Such is the humility with which we should want to be clothed.
“Be clothed with humility”
Fr Ed Bakker