Oh Lord, I Hate to be Humble!
A Gospel of Humility
In this talk, Richard Rohr unpacks the parable of the tax collector and the Pharisee (Luke 18:9–14), showing how Jesus affirmed a spirituality of imperfection:
With this parable, Jesus invites us to struggle with the contrast between a spirituality of perfection and what I’m calling a spirituality of imperfection. Notice the beginning lines: “Then he spoke this parable, to some who trusted in themselves, that they were righteous and therefore despised others. ‘Two men went up to the Temple to pray, one a Pharisee, the other a tax collector’” (Luke 18:9–10). Jesus, a consummate Jew, uses examples from his own culture and time. According to common definitions of the day, the Pharisees are the good guys and tax collectors are the bad guys. The tax collectors are those who have totally aligned with the Roman Empire, charging money to their own Jewish people, and giving it to the Empire. No one likes the tax collectors, and everyone looks up to the Pharisees. The Pharisees are simply religious people trying to obey the law, just like faithful Catholics or Bible-reading Protestants today. And as always, Jesus, with his nondual way of thinking, turns it all on its head.
“The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people. Extortioners, adulterers, or even this poor tax collector here. I fast twice a week. I give tithes of all that I possess’” (18:11–12). None of us would be so foolish as to state our spiritual credit so forthrightly, but we do feel it inside. We think: “I’m a good person. I don’t steal; I don’t cheat.” We’ve all fashioned our positive, superior self-images on why we’re right and why we’re good. In contrast, “The tax collector, standing afar off, would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven. Instead, he beat his breast, saying ‘God be merciful to me, a sinner.’” Jesus said, “This man went down to his house justified—rather than the other” (18:13–14).
This repositions the whole role of religion. Didn’t most of us think that it’s all a meritocracy? I certainly did! Many religious people think that it’s all a merit badge system—all achievement, accomplishment, performance, and perfection. The good people win and the bad people lose. Of course, once we cast anything as a win-lose scenario, the irony is that everybody loses. Why can’t people see that competitive games are not the way to go?
I’m convinced that Jesus’ good news is that God’s choice is always for the excluded one. Jesus learned this from his Jewish tradition: God always chooses the rejected son, the barren woman, the people enslaved in Egypt or exiled in Babylon. It’s not a winner’s script in the Bible—it’s a loser’s script. It’s a loser’s script where, ironically, everybody wins.