Trinity XI. August 12, 2018. Saint Michael & All Angels’, Fleming Is., FL
Saint Luke xviii, verse 13 – God be merciful to me a sinner.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Our parable today is about pride and humility told through the familiar parable of the Publican and the Pharisee. Infant baptism is, of course, one of the most perfect illustrations of the doctrine of grace which is closely connected to humility. Infants bring and can bring nothing to the font. They have to be brought. Their salvation through the waters of the sacrament is pure gift, unearned and unmerited. It can be no occasion for pride or self-satisfaction. So it is most fitting that this lesson and the baptism this morning of Hugh Laurence Tarsitano coincide.
The setting for the parable is the same as the setting of last week’s gospel, namely the temple in Jerusalem. When our Lord cleanses the temple in Luke he quotes Isaiah 56, ‘mine house shall be called an house of prayer for all people’. In that same chapter Isaiah speaks of God’s favor extending to new groups who were outside the normal bounds, at least for public worship in the temple. God’s house of prayer will open up not only to the righteous of Israel, but also to ‘the outcasts of Israel’ and Gentiles and eunuchs. In the parable of the Publican and the Pharisee we see an illustration of the same idea. Those who had seemed excluded now have hope that their prayers will be heard.
So, again, our theme is pride and humility. Now we all know all too much about pride, so today I will concentrate on humility, which is the opposite of pride and its antidote.
My late friend Father Irvin used to say that humility is learning not to mind. Let’s begin by considering this definition. ‘Learning not to mind’ humility involves a kind of learning. We do not begin in a state of not-minding, but rather we have to learn not to mind. If we don’t mind something at the outset, then we probably are not so much humble as stupid or ignorant or silly or untutored. If I don’t mind terrible food, that may just mean that I don’t know better because I’ve never enjoyed good food. If I don’t mind bad music, it may just be that I’ve never learned to enjoy good music. There is no virtue and no humility in not knowing any better. But if I know and yet I teach myself or am taught not to mind, then humility may be present. Humility implies that we have enough knowledge to know that something could be better, but that we have learned not to mind.
What do you mind? We all mind different things, but most of us mind lots of things. We mind people when they do not sufficiently consult our opinions. We mind people not doing what we want. We mind check-out clerks who dawdle. We mind drivers who cut us off. We mind people who talk too much. We mind people who don’t listen when we talk too much. We mind slights, whether real or imagined. We mind getting in the wrong line at the bank. We mind the way the service is conducted at church. We mind people different from ourselves or, alternatively, we mind people who are rather too much like us.
Humility learns not to mind such things. Humility is not the same, I repeat, as stupidity or ignorance. If a driver cuts me off, that is rude and may be dangerous. But I am not helped by losing my temper or by fretting about it. A driver who dangerously cuts off others perhaps should be ticketed. But if I respond by tailgating him, then I do mind, I am not humble, and I am making a bad situation worse. Humility does not retaliate, learns not to mind, and overlooks the fault. Humility does not demand to be heeded and is not offended by all the outrages of daily life.
What our gospel parable today adds to this picture, of course, is God. The humble publican is shown to be humble because he ‘would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven’. The publican, to be sure, does not mind: he does not mind the slighting and disparaging comment of the proud Pharisee, who compares him to ‘extortioners, unjust, adulterers’. Rather the publican passes over the insult in silence and looks steadfastly at the ground, the fertile earth, the humus, the mother of humility. But by looking upon the earth rather than asserting his righteousness before heaven, the publican shows himself to be in a right relationship with God. Before God we have no merit, since the best person falls far short of the total obedience and perfect love that alone could meet God’s perfection. If we assert the claim of our righteousness before God, then with the Pharisee we will go down to our house unjustified, damned by our pride: ‘for every one that exalteth himself shall be abased’, but ‘he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.’
In this humility our Saviour gives us the model and example. Our Lord is from all eternity God the Son, coequal with the Father Almighty. Yet our Lord stooped to the condition of our humanity, and on Christmas he was revealed in the lowliness and helplessness of an infant. That is humility. Parents love their children and so are willing to change their diapers and clean up their messes. But what sensible adult would choose to revert to the diapers and the mess for himself if he could avoid it? Yet God stooped to that condition. For ‘though he were a Son, yet learned he obedience by the things which he suffered’ (Hebrews v.8), and ‘he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.’ (Philippians ii.8) This is the humble path Christ began by his birth in Bethlehem.
Again, at the beginning of his public ministry, our Lord stooped to be baptized by his inferior, John the Baptist. John himself felt that this was unfitting and said to Jesus, ‘I have need to be baptized of thee, and comest thou to me?’ (Matthew iii.14) Our Lord answered John and said, ‘Suffer it to be so now: for thus it becometh us to fulfil all righteousness.’ (15) By receiving baptism from John, our Lord ‘fulfils all righteousness’, because he thereby showed forth perfect humility. Humility fulfils righteousness. Our parable today opens with the notice that it was addressed by our Lord to ‘certain which trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others’ (Luke xviii.9). The point of the parable is to distinguish false, or self-, righteousness from true righteousness. And true righteousness is revealed and fulfilled by Jesus at his baptism: the greater bows down before the lower and accepts baptism from him. True righteousness is revealed by the humility of the birth in Bethlehem, by the humility of the baptism by John, by submission to the mockery and spitting of the Passion; and it is revealed, above all, by the quiet death upon a cross. In all of this God shows us that he chooses not to mind us, even at our worst, so long as we do not pretend that we are in ourselves righteous. God is righteous. God only is good. Tu solus sanctus: ‘Thou only art holy.’ Et tu solus bonus: and ‘Thou only art good.’ We are only righteous in that God forgives us and gives us grace. And this he does, not to the proud and the great, but to those who say, again and again and again, with the humble publican: ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner.’
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.