In our culture, it’s very popular to complain about those who make public exhibitions of their arrogance. We love to hate movie stars behaving badly, politicians using public resources to further their personal agendas, corporate leaders taking credit for their employees’ productivity, and the like. The arrogant, particularly those in prominent public positions, seem to enjoy leaving broken people and social disruption in their wake, and those who observe this phenomenon enjoy complaining about it.
I’ve never been too bothered by arrogant people, as long as they have actual accomplishments to legitimize their arrogance. It’s fine with me if someone wants to brag about her or his extraordinary achievements, amazing skills, or astounding contributions to society, as long as there is evidence to demonstrate the existence of those achievements, skills, or contributions. I’m not bothered by such people because, despite their tediousness, they have a positive impact on society.
If you share my opinion about the often-unintended positive effects of the actions of arrogant people, the parable in today’s Gospel poses a problem. The Pharisee in the parable was the epitome of religious devotion. He met and exceeded all the requirements of religious practice at the time. He even went so far as to thank God that he was so accomplished in his religious observance. (Lk 18:11) His prayer was not very different from the Magnificat of Mary or the Nunc Dimittis of Simeon in the Gospel’s Infancy Narratives. (Lk 1:46-56, 2:29-31) Admittedly, the Pharisee was quite arrogant in comparing himself favorably to other people, but the comparison was based on demonstrable facts.
The tax collector, on the other hand, was very much out of place in the Temple for the afternoon atonement sacrifice. He was a willing accomplice to the Roman Empire’s subjugation and mistreatment of his fellow Judaeans. He profited from other people’s sufferings and, by doing so, tacitly endorsed the Roman Empire’s insistence on worship of false gods.
Isn’t it strange that the justifiably arrogant Pharisee, who had real accomplishments, was rejected by God while the greedy, untrustworthy tax collector went home justified by God? This is another of those quirky parables favored by Luke’s Gospel in which a negative example is used to teach a positive lesson.
I am not certain whether parables like this one, the one about the irresponsible steward, and the one about the unjust judge are expressions of a wry sense of humor on the part of the Gospel author or very subtle theological demonstrations of God’s solicitousness toward those whom the world judges inconsequential. (Lk 18:7) I am certain, however, of the literary role these parables play in the Gospel narrative; Luke’s quirky parables are calculated to lead us to inquire about their meaning.
The parable in today’s Gospel prompts us to ask about the reason the sinful tax collector went home in a right relationship with God. What did he have that was lacking in the Pharisee? What was it that the tax collector accomplished successfully but the Pharisee failed to do? What can the sinful tax collector teach us? The answer to these questions is easy to name but not so easy to understand.
Jesus’ own words identify the meaning of the parable. He said, “everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Lk 18:14) We should be careful, however, not to misunderstand what Jesus meant by “humility.”
The social sciences define humility as the consequence of having sufficient ego strength to be self-controlled and empathetic toward others while avoiding pride, arrogance, or an inflated sense of self-importance. Humility, then, is the consequence of being an emotionally healthy individual, and it promotes the emotional health of others. This is a goal identified by the social sciences, and it is also a goal counseled by Jesus. We must keep in mind, however, that Jesus’ teaching is about much more than our emotional health.
While it can be said that Jesus’ disciples should exhibit ego strength, humility, self-control, and empathy, there is a dimension to Jesus’ teaching that far exceeds the horizon of our daily experiences. Jesus taught his disciples to be in a right relationship with God as well as with other people. Living the entirety of one’s life in a right relationship with God and others requires one to have an awareness and understanding that is far beyond what the social sciences or our own imaginations can provide.
The quirky parables in Luke’s Gospel use unlikely characters and negative examples to teach a positive message about God’s plan of salvation because God redeems the world by turning human expectations and conventional values upside down.
Luke’s Gospel doesn’t intend for us to imitate the tax collector’s sinful life. Rather, the Gospel intends to prepare us to have our lives changed radically by Divine intervention. The quirky parables in Luke’s Gospel emphasize that the untrustworthy, unjust, and unsympathetic world in which we live is the object of God’s redeeming love, and that, when we have our lives and values turned upside down by God’s redeeming love, we experience ourselves as God’s new creation.
Jesus said, “everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Lk 18:14) In order that we not misunderstand his teaching, Jesus presented humility as something that upends normal expectations and conventional values. He did this so that we would never lose sight of God’s intention to upend worldly values in order to bring about the redemption of all. God intends for us to abandon our self-concern and self-righteousness in order to receive God’s forgiveness and grant forgiveness to one another. Obviously, we don’t live in a world where forgiveness is common, but God intends to change that by changing us.