“…for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” - Luke 18:14b (NRSV)Have you noticed that we, as a society, have moved from, “I’m sorry,” to “Oops! My bad” ? Here’s what I mean. Imagine we’re in a crowded restaurant and I’m carrying some drinks and bump into you and spill some on you, staining your shirt. The “I’m sorry” folks stop, apologize, and offer to help repair the situation. The “Oops! My bad” folks offer that quote over their shoulder while walking on as if it hadn't happened. Remorse and responsibility are lost arts.
While on a 9 month leave from pastoral ministry, I worked in the claims center for a major property insurance company…I was ‘on your side.’ I listened to people describe car accidents for 40 hours a week. If you want to hear people totally without remorse, speak with someone who’s just been in an accident. Even when it is their fault, it isn’t.
Psychologist and Hope College professor David Meyer’s research shows one of the interesting causes of our collective lack of remorse is that we all think we’re above average. Like Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon, all our children and their parents, of course, are above average. In his research, he surveyed over 100 managers in a major corporation. Included in that survey was one question: “Compared to the other managers in this corporation, in what performance percentile would you rate yourself?” Nearly all rated themselves in the 90th percentile. He got the same response from a pool of college professors. Highly educated people who understand how percentiles work could not imagine that they’d be anything other than the best or nearly so (Intuition: Its Powers and Perils, Yale University Press, 2002).
I have a friend who has a healthy understanding of who he really is. He’s a successful financial planner for a major brokerage firm. But, if you ask him about his college career, he’ll tell you honestly: “I graduated in the part of the class that made the upper 50% possible.”
I think that’s the kind of humility Jesus is talking about in Luke 18. Two men go to Temple to pray – a Pharisee (Cheers! He’s the good guy!) and a tax collector (grumble, grumble). True to form, the Pharisee thanks God for not making him like those in the bottom half of the class…those who are below average in behavior and citizenship, especially that tax collector. Jesus knew that most people hearing this think they, too, are in the top half of the class when it comes to behavior and citizenship and will identify with the Pharisee.
But, then there’s this tax collector (grumble, grumble) who says simply: “Be merciful to me a sinner.” No boasting. No excuses. No comparisons.The Pharisee is saying to God: “Hey, if I did do anything wrong… Oops! My bad! At least I’m not as bad has him," and continues on in self-delusion. On the other hand, the tax collector simply confesses, “I've sinned. I’m sorry. I need mercy.” Jesus’ conclusion challenges our assumptions about performance of righteousness trumping humility. It’s not about perfect performance, it’s about humility. Boasting of our righteousness in comparison to others’ perceived lack of same misses the point. Jesus insists that unless we are more aware of our secret faults than we are of our accomplishments, we move further from God. Because, it is our unrepentant, unresolved secret faults and their corrosive effect on our self-esteem that will, someday, swallow us up.