Humility and How I Perfected It
James C. Denison
This is my tenth anniversary Sunday, I’m told. I didn’t keep track, but our deacon leaders have told me that Janet and I began with you on June 21, 1998. It’s been a wonderful ten years for us; we are so grateful to God for the privilege of serving him with you and raising our sons with you. You have been and continue to be God’s gift to us.
Since I’ve been with you ten years, it seems that full disclosure is now in order. There are some things about my past which I didn’t feel comfortable sharing ten years ago, as they would have seemed like bragging.
But now I think I can tell you the full story: When I was in college, I made the intramural softball all-star team. I know that’s a stupendous achievement, and I didn’t want to brag about it earlier. I was quite a hitter in those days. Or at least I thought I was, until some friends and I went to one of those batting cages where you put in quarters and the machine throws balls for you to hit. I went immediately to the major league level and deposited my dollar. I watched the arm come up, and then heard the ball hit the screen behind me. I never saw it, or the 20 which followed it. I was a good baseball player until I compared myself to real ones.
I used to be a good tennis player as well; I played all through junior high, high school and college, won lots of matches, and was quite confident in my abilities. Then we moved to Midland, where a man in the church who had heard of my prowess asked me to help him with his game.
He had been a professional tennis player years earlier, ranked in the low 100s, and had even played Jimmy Conners twice. But he hadn’t played in a long time and was just starting back. He wondered if I would help him with his game, so I graciously consented to play. He beat me 6-0, 6-0. I was a good tennis player until I played one.
I used to be a good golfer as well, breaking 80 twice and feeling pretty confident in my game. Then I went to the Masters for the first time and watched Tiger Woods hit sand wedge into the green for his second shot on par 5s, all day long. I was a good golfer until I watched one.
The same is true spiritually. We can feel confident in our relationship with God so long as we compare ourselves with each other. But if we’ll compare ourselves with God, we’ll then arrive at the kind of humility which is essential to an intimate relationship with him. Jesus will make that crucial point today much better than I can, in one of the most shocking stories in all of literature.
Who they were
Jesus was concerned about “some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else” (v. 9). If you think that your relationship with God is satisfactory and certainly better than some people you know, this parable is for you.
His story begins: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector” (v. 10).
The Jews prayed three times a day, at 9 a.m., noon, and 3 p.m. They had a set of prescribed prayers called the Shemoneh Esre (“Eighteen Benedictions”), which they said every day in full. They were something like the Book of Common Prayer for Episcopaleans or creeds and liturgy for Catholics and most denominations.
The first one will give you a feel for the rest: “Blessed are you, Oh Lord our God and God of our fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob, the great, mighty and revered God, the Most High God who bestows loving kindnesses, the creator of all things, who remembers the good deeds of the patriarchs and in love will bring a redeemer to their children’s children for his name’s sake. Oh king, helper, savior and shield. Blessed are you, Oh Lord, the shield of Abraham.”
They thought that these prayers offered within the Temple area were more effective, so they went there to pray whenever they could. What Jesus described was a standard fact of daily life for his hearers.
One of the men who went to the Temple on this occasion to recite these prayers was a Pharisee; the other was a tax collector. They lived at the extreme ends of their society.
We know the Pharisees for their rejection of Jesus and persecution of his disciples. But in their day, these were the holiest men on earth. They had saved the Jewish religion during its decades of slavery in Babylon, when the priests couldn’t offer sacrifices and the rabbis couldn’t teach. These lay leaders rose to the occasion, preserving the Law and obeying its every detail.
There were never more than 6,000 of them in the entire nation. They were respected and even revered by others for their dedication to the law, something like priests or nuns in the Catholic or Orthodox traditions today.
By contrast, the “tax collector” was the worst man in his society.
When the Romans conquered a nation they usually hired people from the society to collect taxes for them. They would allow this turncoat to take as much money as he liked, so long as he paid them their share. Imagine that al Qaeda conquering us, and then someone took our money, bankrupted us, and paid it to the terrorists and to himself. They were the traitors, the despised.
In the ancient world, this profession was considered the most profane and immoral work a man could do. Lucian listed among those destined for hell the adulterers and tax-collectors.
And the Jews despised tax-collectors even more than the rest of ancient society. Tax-collectors could not testify in court as a witness, for they were assumed to be liars. They could not attend worship in the Temple or synagogue, for they were unclean.