I suppose it is rare that humility comes naturally to anyone. Jesus after all would not have bothered to tell the parable in today’s gospel if He didn’t notice a prevalence of pride amongst the people He encountered.
But I think that humility is particularly difficult in our contemporary Western culture.
Western societies have evolved in such a way as to place a huge value on individual freedom and choice, seeing them as the key to human flourishing. And I am sure that all of us value greatly the freedom and the choice that we are able to exercise, and are rightly grateful that we live in a society which gives most of us rather more freedom and choice than many others would.
But there is danger in this emphasis on freedom and choice.
The first is that it can sometimes implicitly, sometimes explicitly, lead us to look down on those in our society who for various reasons do not have freedom and choice. We often fail to see that a human life remains a wonderful thing with extraordinary possibilities even when it is highly constrained and limited by old age or illness or poverty or imprisonment or any number of other things. And so we look down on people in those situations, sometimes even daring to think that such lives are not worth living.
The second danger is that our emphasis on freedom and choice leads us to construct worlds for ourselves with ourselves at the centre. We see ourselves as freely choosing individuals making decisions for ourselves, and our relationships with others become increasingly transactional in consequence. We want to be in charge of ourselves, and so we are interested in others only to the extent to which they can accommodate, facilitate and realise our choices.
Genuine relationship requires a mutuality which an absolute demand for freedom and choice rules out: one person’s freedom inevitably conflicts with another’s, and the demand for ever greater freedom leads inexorably to conflict. It is usually those with power and money who are able to enforce their freedom over against the freedom of others.
We live in a society built on the concepts of freedom and choice and personal autonomy, a society in which each of us sees ourselves as the centre of our own little universe with other people existing to help fulfil our needs and our choices. And whilst freedom is a profoundly important concept in Christian teaching, it isn’t hard to see that the conception of freedom that dominates contemporary Western culture is one that is profoundly at odds with the teaching of the Church. And so it really is no wonder that the Church struggles to get its message across.
We are conditioned by our society to see ourselves as independent freely choosing individuals, and to see human flourishing as increasing the degree of our independence, our freedom and our choice. But the Christian faith tells us that we are in fact utterly dependant; that we are ultimately totally dependant on God, and that we are also in reality highly dependant on one another. And the Christian faith tells us that true and perfect freedom is to be found not in pursuing our own will, but rather in abandonment to the Divine Will.
When we have enthroned ourselves, our freedom, our choosing, our will, when each of us wishes to be a little god to ourselves; and when each of us tries to be a god to others too as far as our money and power allows; then we will seek to dethrone and to domesticate God.
And if a relationship with God is to have any space at all, it will be as just another transactional relationship that serves to facilitate our freedom, our choice, our will. In such a culture as ours, humility is not going to be an easy virtue to cultivate. But of course it never has been, which is why Jesus tells the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector in today’s gospel.
It’s worth taking a moment to notice the skill of the story-telling in this parable.
When we hear the prayer of the Pharisee, we laugh, because it is so self-righteous, so conceited: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax-collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.” It is such a grotesque caricature that we immediately find ourselves thinking with some relief that we are not in fact like that, and we catch ourselves starting to pray: “God, I thank you that I am not like that Pharisee in the parable”. Even if we don’t actually get as far as forming this thought in words, the germ of the idea is there in our hearts. And suddenly the parable really hits home, and we realise that there is after all very little that separates us from the Pharisee.
It is the prayer of the Tax Collector that gives us the key to true humility: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner”. We want to see ourselves as free independent agents choosing in accordance with our own will. And we want also to see ourselves as good people. The prayer of the Tax Collector recognises that this is all fantasy.
“God, be merciful to me”: this part of the prayer recognises our profound and total dependence on God. We are not in charge, we are not in control, we not independent, and our freedom is not what we think it is. God cannot be another creature to be lured into the little networks of transactional relationships that we use to get the things we want. We are dependent on God, and we stand profoundly in need of God’s mercy every day, in every action, with every breath we take, with every thought we think.
“God, be merciful to me, a sinner”. We instinctively recoil from what we feel to be a grovelling prayer, and yet the truth is that each one of us is a sinner. The goodness of God is altogether on another level to any sort of goodness we may conceivably be able to achieve. We think we are being good when we love our neighbour to the extent that we have any leftover resources after satisfying our own wants; God rather demands that we love our neighbour as we love ourselves. All of us fall short of this standard; all of us are sinners. It is not about grovelling or self-flagellation; it is a simple recognition and acceptance of reality. This may seem to be a hard lesson, and I suppose in away it is. But it is also a happy and a liberating one.
It is happy and liberating because if we take even the most tentative steps in the direction of humility before God, if we say the prayer of the Tax Collector, if we say it perhaps with difficulty, even through gritted teeth, God will surely have mercy, and God has revealed the wonderful extent of that mercy in the life and death and resurrection of His beloved Son.
God will have mercy, and God will help us to strip away the layers of delusion that separate us from genuine relationship with God and with each other. God will have mercy, and God will help us to dethrone ourselves and our will from the altar of our hearts.
God will have mercy, and God will help us to recognise the unfreedom that is our slavery to self, and God will gently lead us, even if it is only in the tiniest baby steps, God will surely lead us to that true freedom which is ours in Jesus Christ our Lord and Saviour, to whom with the +Father and the Holy Spirit be all praise and glory now and unto ages of ages.