Gospel of Luke 18:9-14
Second Sunday During Lent, March 5, 2023
First in a Pastoral Series on The Way of Jesus: Attitudes and Actions
Dennis W. Foust, PhD, Senior Minister
“Humility is the surest sign of strength.”
Once upon a time a fellow who wanted to own a Porsche. Every day he checked the listings online. His problem was that he could not afford a Porsche – even an older used model. One day he noticed an obscure listing offering a Porsche with 28,000 miles for $50. Immediately he reached for his phone and called. He assumed it was a misprinted ad. But nope, the man on the phone told him it really was only $50. He went to the house and the Porsche was in immaculate condition. He gave the man $50 cash. He signed the title over to him. The buyer had to ask, “Can you tell me why you are selling this car for $50?” The man replied, “Last week, my husband emailed me from Bermuda. He informed me that he had run away with another fellow in his office. He said I could have the house. All he wanted me to do was sell his Porsche and send him the money. So, I am.”
If you read books on spirituality and theology you may recognize the name, Thomas Merton. The recording artist, Judy Collins, wrote and recorded a song in tribute to his life of influence. Merton was an American Trappist monk, living in a monastery near Bardstown, Kentucky. He was a friend of some of my teachers. They told stories of how he visited the campus prior to his death in 1968. He wrote more than fifty books on spirituality, prayer, and contemplation. He was a theologian, mystic, poet, social activist and scholar of comparative religion. His most widely known book, The Seven Storey Mountain, was his biography. He received so much fan mail for his early writing that he almost stopped. He was concerned that his notoriety would make him focus on individuality and the praise of others. Later, Merton said, “Humility is the surest sign of strength.”
I once read a short story of a boy who was always told by his parents, “You can be successful at anything you want to be. Just live your life so others look up to you.” So, the boy built a tower expecting everyone in their village would look up to him. Eventually, though, he became lonely. One day, a voice told him to go learn from the old woman who lived in the blue house at the edge of the village, for she was a person who everyone looked up to. The old woman told him that the way to success was not to be higher than everyone else, but to lift other people higher. So, the boy succeeded by humbly helping others.
We are taught from an early age to pursue success. Then we are taught that because we are committed to live by The Way of Jesus, succeeding at what we want to be and do is one thing; succeeding at what God wants us to be and do can be very different. Humility is God’s gift to bridge these successes. When we succeed for God’s purposes, we build a better world.
Have you learned that we often mature in humility through experiences of humiliation? After we fail in some way (and we all do) or find ourselves in an embarrassing situation (and we all do) or find ourselves in a place where we need the help of others (and we all do), we mature in humility.
Several years ago, while travelling in Zambia and Zimbabwe, one morning after breakfast, two friends and I decided to hike down into the valley below Victoria Falls where the Zambezi River reveals nature’s power. It was amazing to see more than 300 million gallons of water per second drop with a thunder like roar. However, I messed up. I had three cups of coffee for breakfast. Although I took bottled water with me, I became dehydrated as we started our climb out of the valley. I became lightheaded and could go no further. One friend stayed with me while the other hiked back up to the lodge, retrieved more water and brought it to me. I was embarrassed and humbled as they helped me climb back up to the lodge.
In Jesus’ parable read today, the Pharisee represents humiliation; the Tax Collector displays humility. The Pharisee was full of himself while the Tax Collector was an example of a self-emptied life. The Pharisee looked at men living on the street; men in jail; men who cheated on their spouses; and men who had vocations that were culturally shamed and prayed, “Lord, I’m certain that you are quite proud of me. You must see me as an All Star on your team.” The Pharisee’s hubris and condescending attitude were condemned by Jesus.
The Pharisee did not go to Temple to worship and pray; he went to tell God how good he was. The Pharisee never prayed to God; he prayed to himself – his goal was to be applauded by an audience.
On one occasion, a self-righteous fellow prayed a long and winding prayer before a large congregation in New York City. After the service, the man who prayed asked a woman whose humility he admired what she thought of his prayer. The humble woman smiled and said, “That was probably the most eloquent prayer ever offered to a New York City audience.” Basically, she was saying, ‘you were not praying; you were performing.’
I’m reminded of a lesson on prayer taught to me by my grandmother. I asked her, “What makes a prayer a good prayer?” She said, “Denny, it’s a good prayer if you’re not talking to me.”
As you follow the Way of Jesus, you mature in humility focusing more on God and others rather than yourself.
“Humility is the surest sign of strength.”
Stepping back inside Jesus’ parable, we see a tax collector on the other side of the temple. He was off to the side so as not to draw attention to himself. He was praying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” In the Greek text, the Tax Collector’s prayer reads like this: “O God, be merciful to me – the sinner.” The Tax Collector refers to himself as the supreme sinner.
The Tax Collector fulfilled Micah’s instruction – “Walk humbly with God.”
The attitude of Jesus was humility. As disciples or obedient learners of The Way of Jesus, we seek to mature in humility. Jesus said, “I am meek and lowly in my spirit…learn of me.”
He said, “Whoever humbles yourself like a little child shall be exalted.”
Early followers of The Way of Jesus found these words of instruction to be helpful:
“Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:…” (Philippians 2).
We are often confused about humility. It is not the opposite of confidence; Jesus was confident. Humility is the opposite of arrogance.
Some of the most confident people you will meet are also some of the humblest.
Some of the most accomplished individuals you will know are also very humble.
Social scientists and psychologists have identified core characteristics of humility:
- Humble people are less likely to think they should be treated as special.
- Humble people allow their accomplishments to speak for themselves without boasting.
- Humble individuals are situationally aware; they handle difficult decisions well.
- Humble people ask for help, practice active listening and speak their mind while being
- Humble people desire and accept feedback because they are willing to learn and become
- Humble people help other people invest in visions using both/and approaches rather than
- Humble individuals ask, ‘what do others need from me?”
To be humble is not to think less of yourself, but to think of yourself less.
Habitat for Humanity has provided us with many good stories including this one.
It was the last day of finishing work on a Habitat house. The family was to move in the next day. The project manager woke up in his RV in the middle of the night, about 2am. He noticed lights had been left on in the project house. So, he walked next door and went inside to turn off the switch. But, as he stepped inside, he heard someone in the kitchen. He walked to the kitchen door to find a Habitat volunteer down on his hands and knees trimming the edges of the kitchen tile where it met the bottom of the cabinets. The manager asked, “What are you doing at two o’clock in the morning?” The volunteer said, “Well, the family is moving in tomorrow and I don’t want them to be disappointed. Their house needs to be complete just like it would be for you or me. It needs to be right wherever they look.” The project manager smiled and shook his head. For you see, that volunteer trimming kitchen tile on his hands and knees at two o’clock in the morning was Jimmy Carter, former President of the United States.
“Humility is the surest sign of strength.”
Beloved, God wants you to be successful. However, the best way for you to be successful is to succeed for God’s purposes. And the best way for you to become successful for God’s purposes is to humbly place yourself in God’s hands like clay in the hands of a potter, confident that God will lift you up as you lift other people.
Amen and AMEN! May it be so.