Humility and Pride in the spiritual life

Here’s the text of my sermon for today, the last Sunday after Trinity. I added a few asides and used it at morning prayer and then a communion service.

2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18 and Luke 18:9-14

Pride comes before a fall, or so they say. We can think we are doing OK and patting ourselves on the back and the reality is that we have succumbed to pride. Worse than that, we can think we are doing OK and comparing ourselves with others, seeing all their shortcomings think of ourselves as superior.

I’m sure that doesn’t apply to any of us here this morning. At least I hope not. But it is a temptation to think, well, I go to church every week/month or watch online every week. I pray, I give to charity, I give to the church and I’m an all-round nice person.  Not like him/her who …. And then list all their faults.

Today’s parable serves as a warning to those of us who are religious. I don’t like the word religious as it has negative connotations. But I follow the Christian religion, I go to church and encourage others to do likewise.

The parable is a simple, straight forward story. Like most of the parables there are just two characters.  Even when a parable has more than that they tend to fall into two types – those who do what is right and those who don’t.  Jesus didn’t go in for the grey middle ground.  His was challenging and confrontational teaching.

So, we have a Pharisee and a Tax collector.   We may think of them as a goodie and a baddie.  But which is which? The original hearers would have thought of the Pharisee as the good man.  We too quickly think of Pharisees as the baddies in gospel stories because of our familiarity and the number of times they were out to get Jesus. 

But Jesus commended them at times for their spiritual disciplines. They were to be admired and respected for their obedience to the Torah. Elsewhere Jesus said people should be careful to do all they teach – and even go beyond. His famous sermon on the mount extended and deepened the torah to go beyond the letter of the law to the heart of the matter. He addresses our attitudes.  He said, ‘when you fast’, ‘when you pray’, and ‘when you tithe’, not IF you fast, pray and give.

And we should certainly NOT go in for practising extortion, injustice and adultery. So in many ways we should identify with the Pharisee in the parable.  And Jesus’ first hearers would have done just that. Remember, Jesus was a Jew, and like them would have grown up seeing the Pharisees as the ones who were most right with God.

Tax collectors were despised.  Even more than His Majesty’s Treasury of our day. Did you know, that the job of being a tax collector went to the highest bidder?  That’s the interesting new bit of knowledge I’ve gained this week.  The job of collecting Roman taxes went out to auction and the person who bid the most and claimed to be able to get the most in tax won the franchise. No wonder they weren’t popular. Not only that, but they were colluding with the very power that Jews were seeking liberation from.

There are 3 aspects to the story: place, posture and prayer. 

Place: The Temple   The place to go and pray. It was no surprise for a pharisee to be there.  He stood by himself to make sure he didn’t accidentally go too close to someone who might endanger his spiritual purity.

But the tax collector would perhaps have not felt so welcome. He stands far off. Perhaps just inside the entrance.  I wonder how many people feel that they are not welcomed into our church buildings? How many people think that we think they are not somehow good enough.  How many people think that those who go to church think of themselves as better? Has the church somehow managed to convey the impression that we look down on those who don’t attend?  And if so, how can we reverse that?

Posture:  We aren’t told how the pharisee stood so it is fair to assume that he did raise his eyes to heaven and probably lifted his hands too. He did the usual thing whereas we are told that the Tax collector had very different body language. He beat his chest – the usual sign of the admission of guilt.

What we do with our bodies when we pray and worship is important. Our body language is an outward expression, often, of what is going on inside.  If we can’t physically stand or kneel then what I do is imagine that I am kneeling.  I kneel in my heart.

Kneeling – homage and humility

Standing – respect in the presence of the king.  Also better for singing

Hands – open: receptive or offering up; closed = begging or pleading; raised = praise

Sometimes we adopt the pose, and the attitude falls in line. At other times our inner attitude comes first and then our body language echoes it.

Prayer: Far more words used by the Pharisee than the tax collector who just said “God be merciful to me a sinner.” The pharisee thanked God that he wasn’t like others and listed their sins and then told God that he fasts twice a week and gives a tenth of his income.

He was more interested in himself. The tax collector acknowledged his sin and asked God for mercy.

Elsewhere Jesus said not to use too many words and to go into your room rather than let others hear. But if we are in a small group or public place where people take it in turns to pray out loud, simple and short is often better than long and eloquent. Fancy words can put others off as they feel they can’t be that good. Complete sentences aren’t compulsory.  God knows what you are trying to say and the rest of us will get the gist.

But if we do pray aloud with others, then remember to keep your voice up so the rest of us can hear you.  The most important thing is to say what is on your heart and mind.

And that is what is at the heart of this parable.   The attitude in prayer. And in this instance, it is a case of pride and humility. The pharisee was proud of his spiritual disciplines and good behaviour. He thought that was all that was needed to be right with God. He was looking at the externals, the outward show.

The tax collector acknowledged his shortcomings and threw himself at God’s mercy.

So where does that leave us? 

Do we abandon going to church, abandon our prayers and fasting (do any of you fast, other than for medical reasons before an operation?)  Do we say it doesn’t matter?  Let’s just do what we want and know that God will forgive?

Jesus did not come to do away with the religious practices of prayer, fasting and giving. Jesus came to bring us to the heart of the matter. To challenge us in our attitudes.

When our spiritual disciplines of prayer, worship, giving and serving others are motivated by a deep desire to be close to God, filled with the life changing power of his Holy Spirit at work in us, then we will become aware of how far we fall short. And we will have more compassion on others.  And I hope more compassion for ourselves.

The takeaway point I’m trying to make is, don’t compare yourself with others when it comes to your spiritual life – either favourably or otherwise. It can be just as bad to be too humble and say everyone is better than you. It isn’t a competition to see who the best is. Just concentrate on you and God and the rest will follow.  Or as Paul wrote to Timothy – fight the good fight, keep the faith and know that there’s a crown reserved for you on the day you meet the Lord. To him be the glory for ever and ever. Amen. 

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