The Secret of Laughter and Humility
“The secret of life lies in laughter and humility."
This is the advice that a wise professor once gave his students, who, he noticed, took themselves a little too seriously. He had been young once as well, or so they told him, and perhaps also fell in the trap of ambition and gravity. But life had knocked him down enough that he learned to walk slower. Old age, along with a wrinkled face and a rounded belly, had proved to be a gift: it had taught him to laugh at himself.
This was the same philosophy of a certain monk in Greece who was known for godly wisdom. People came from miles around to learn from this wise monk and confess their sins, and his reputation grew. On one particular morning, a young boy traveled to see this monk and ask for his help. The boy struggled with that constant dragon called Pride. As much as he tried to stay humble, anytime anyone shared a pleasant word or complimented the boy, his head swelled and he puffed up. But, aspiring to be a good Christian, he fought the pride, condemned himself, and begged God to change him. So, the wise monk listened to the boy and asked him for an example. The boy replied, “For instance, the other day, a friend said I might one day become a bishop, and since then I keep having thoughts of grandeur and loftiness.” He cast his head down ashamed of his conceit.
But to the boy’s surprise, the wise monk started laughing boisterously. He rocked back and forth, choked in laughter, with tears coming down his eyes. The sight was intolerable. The young novice said to himself, “What is he thinking?! This is a grave sin. Did he hear what I said? Doesn’t he see how serious this is?” A few minutes passed and the sage wiped his eyes and smiled lovingly, “Son, that is how you must respond to your proud thoughts. Laugh at yourself. Laugh at the silliness of what your thoughts tell you and the humor of how you’re tempted to respond. The devil loves when we take ourselves seriously. He flees when he hears us laughing.” And the young boy went home and pondered the words of the monk.
What is humility?
If there is any single virtue in the gospels, which stands out among all the others, it’s humility.
Pride is what cast the devil out of heaven. Humility is what raised Moses above the host of God’s people.
In the Book of James we see that, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” And in Luke 14:11, we read, “Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
Clearly, humility is something dear to God, but what it is, and how does one acquire it?
In our gospel, this morning, we’re given one of the most classic depictions of humility.
Jesus was in a crowd of men who considered themselves to be righteousness, and he gave them this parable: “Two men went up into the temple to pray; the one a Pharisee, and the other a publican. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, ‘God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican. I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess.’ And the publican, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, ‘God be merciful to me a sinner.’”
And Jesus Christ concludes the parable by saying: “I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other: for every one that exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.”
What do we see in these two people?
The first was the Pharisee. Pharisees were the most upright and ethical members of society. They followed the law to the T, obeying not only the rules of man but also the rules of God. They paid their taxes to Caesar and tithed what they owed to our Lord. They fasted on a regular basis and saturated their lives with religion. These are all good things and we can’t throw them out. What did James write in his epistle? “What does it profit my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him…Faith without works is dead.” Praying, tithing, fasting…these are all fundamental parts of Christianity. But then, how do we understand this Pharisee who did it all right, but walked away empty.
Something is missing in the picture.
There isn’t any mystery here.
Listen to the Pharisee’s prayer, “God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican. I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess.”
His prayer is about as “me focused” as it can get.
“I thank thee.” “I am not as other people.” “I fast.” “I tithe.”
There isn’t any room for God.
What was the purpose of all his good deeds? Was it out of love for God, or was it really out of love for Him? We’re given a powerful message here, as Christians trying to be upright, to remember what really matters in life. What is at the heart of all the commandments? “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’ and ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” What is the purpose of praying and tithing, if not to learn to love God and others: to live in relationship to God and the world with this manta on your heart, “Not I, but Thou.”
We have to be careful when reading the scriptures, because it’s tempting to assume that we’re more like the righteous people in the stories, and to be shocked by the behavior of the unrighteous. But is there anything really shocking about this Pharisee?
When we stand in front of God what is our attitude?
We might not pray out loud the way this Pharisee does. But where is our heart? What does God hear behind the words of our lips, and even beneath the thoughts of our mind? Deep down in the depths of our souls – what is the tune that we play, however unconscious we may be of it?
Sometimes, its worthwhile stepping back and seeing that, yes, I have been a bit like the Pharisee in the temple. Then, when you’re free enough to be honest, you can laugh at yourself and say to God, “Well, here’s your donkey. What can I say? I need you. Not I, Lord, but Thou.”
The Pharisee thought he was all that, boasting before the God almighty, because he had given up a couple lunches here and there and dropped some coins in a bucket. But if he could only have stepped back and realized how silly he was. What were a few coins to the grandeur and beauty of God? We can fall in the trap of self-righteousness, so easily. But when we do, see the irony of it, and open up your eyes. To be humble is to realize how small you are, and to then cast your eyes in wonder at God. The world is much more beautiful when the ego isn’t in the way keeping us from seeing it.
‘Not I Lord, but Thou.’
Putting human nature aside, what is the spirit of our times? It’s hard to put one’s finger on this and wrap up our society in a single word. But one thing comes to mind: entitlement.
We feel entitled in just about every way. We have rights. We deserve education. We deserve cheap healthcare. We deserve the right to express ourselves however we want, no matter how it might offend others, and to live whatever lifestyle suites us, no matter how it might impact everyone else.
Perhaps, this mentality has also crept into our Christianity. “We deserve salvation.”
For nearly 2,000 years Christians never saw any contradiction in the fact that God is pure love and at the same time allows hell to exist. The two realities were held together, side by side, and just assumed. But today, if you ask agnostics why they left the faith, you’ll hear this answer given again and again, “How could a loving and all-powerful God allow people to suffer?” “How can God’s unfailing love and hell exist side by side?” The truth is, there isn’t any contradiction here at all, and one depends on the other. But, perhaps, we have more trouble accepting this today than in the past because we feel so entitled. We take for granted that we deserve paradise. We ask that silly question, “Why does God allow bad things to happen to good people?” But we should be asking, “Why does God allow good things to happen to bad people?” Are we really so righteous and pure hearted? Do we really deserve more than we have?
Whenever we’re tempted to feel entitled to more, we have to stop and laugh. It’s really rather silly.
Look around and see the good things in your life, the people that love you, the food on your plate, the roof over your head. You remember Louis Armstrong’s song?
I see skies of blue and clouds of white The bright blessed day, the dark sacred night And I think to myself what a wonderful world.
Have we earned any of this? Isn’t it all a gift from God, far more grand and overwhelming than anything that we could ever be entitled to?
And what about God’s mercy and compassion? Isn’t this also a gift?
This was the sin of the Pharisee, and the temptation that we need to flee. He was so caught up in his own works and his own self-justification, that he no longer had room for God. He felt so entitled to God’s gifts, that he never felt a need to ask Him for anything.
And in the end, he walked away empty.
But now for the publican. There is nothing as refreshing as spending time with a humble person.
This man too had brought himself to the temple and stood before God. But he was different. “The publican standing afar off,” we’re told, “would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, ‘God be merciful to me a sinner.’”
And God was pleased and poured down His Grace.
What is humility?
It can be misunderstood so easily. Some might see this repentant soul and think, ‘What a fool.’ ‘Why is he beating his breast?’ ‘What kind of God would be pleased by the man’s sorrow?’
But if you look more deeply, you’ll notice a lightness around the penitent. There’s nothing grave or heavy about him at all. He’s quite simply light. Pride and stones are heavy and sink to the ground. Humility and feathers are light and lift into the sky. For the Pharisee was weighed down so much by his ego that He couldn’t see anyone else, nor the angels, nor God Himself. But the Publican no longer had the blinders of the ego to cover his eyes, he could see God, and his penitence came from a sense of wonder.
He beat his breast not our of a sense of pity or self-dejection. More likely, he had reached a radical level of self-knowledge. He knew himself and knew that he had strayed from his lover, God, and He yearned to enter back into relationship with Him. But he was also free. He had thrown off shackles of the ego. Though his head was bent low, his soul soared.
“Ὁ Θεός , ἱλάσθητί μοι , τῷ ἁμαρτωλῷ.”
‘God be merciful to me a sinner.’”
What is he crying?
In Greek, the word for mercy is “έλεος.” Interestingly, the Greek word for olive is “ελιά.” “Eλεος” and “ελιά” both stem from the same root, and in the ancient world the Greeks associated mercy with pressed olives, made into a virgin oil. To ask for God’s mercy is to ask Him to bathe you in sweet oil, to pour His Grace and Presence on you, to anoint you, and in doing so, transform you into a new man or new woman.
And the publican calls himself a sinner, τῷ ἁμαρτωλῷ. We don’t like the word ‘sin’ nowadays; it makes us feel confined or judged. But what is sin and what does the man mean by calling himself a sinner? To sin is to miss the mark, or more simply, to fail to love the way we were intended to. Is our God a cruel God that rejects sinners? You can see here that he’s not, because he blesses this sinner due to his humble repentance. The man saw his sickness and simply brought himself to the physician, and God in turn lavished him with healing oil.
What is humility?
It’s the active decision to see yourself for who you are, to hush the self, and to seek the mercy of God.
This is why the Church takes sin so seriously, because it keeps us from living the good life. This is why pride is the greatest sin, because pride puts us in a state of delusion; it’s a veil that keeps blinded from the beauty and goodness around us; a straightjacket that binds us and keeps us from being free.
There’s an old poem by Henry Sutton that says it all.
"Man doth usurp all space,
Stares thee, in rock, bush, river, in the face.
Never thine eyes behold a tree;
'Tis no sea thou seest in the sea,
'Tis but a disguised humanity.
To avoid thy fellow, vain thy plan;
All that interests a man, is man.”
This is pride in a nutshell, to live in a manner that you can only see yourself, and so to never have the chance of seeing the world around you and the wonder of God’s mercy.
Perhaps the old man was right after all: “The secret of life lies in laughter and humility."
Sometimes, only laughter can help us to take ourselves less seriously, and once we drop that weight, then we can turn to God and invite Him into our hearts. Life is so much better when the ego is in its place and we’re free to marvel at the bigger and better things around us.
So, in the end, we must fast, pray, tithe, and strive to do good works, but always with the right attitude: not I-focused but Thou-focused. This is the greatest secret indeed.
May God open his arms to us and lavish us with the pressed oil of His mercy, waking in our heart a desire to stand before Him and hunger for more. Amen.