The devil was exasperated. As the story goes, St. Macarius was fasting in the desert, when the devil met him. The spirit complained, “Macarius, I suffer a lot of pain because of you. Anything you can do, I do. You fast. Well, I eat nothing day and night. You keep vigil. I never fall asleep. There is only one thing you have that I don’t: your humility. For that, I cannot beat you.” What is humility? What is so remarkable about humility? Why is it necessary to enter the Kingdom of Heaven?
In our gospel today, our Lord gives us a parable about humility. Two men go up to the temple, a Pharisee and a tax collector. The Pharisee puffs his chest and thanks God for making him special. “God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector.” The tax collector stands with some distance from the altar. He bends his head down, beats his breast, and prays, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner” (Luke 18:9-14). The Pharisee’s problems are obvious. He never asks for anything. He stands on the podium and brags about himself. Not only that, he takes time to put down everyone else. No one likes this sort of man. It is easy to understand God’s disapproval. Yet, what is so exemplary about this tax collector? Somehow, he does not fit what we would like to see as an archetype of humility.
The tax collector seems a strange role model. He beats his breast. Well, beating one’s breast can just as easily be a show of pride. We have all known cases of over-the-top piety and self-flagellation, which are really ways of saying, “Look at me”. C. S. Lewis, in particular, disliked this sort of showy humility. “Most people call humble nowadays,” Lewis writes, “a sort of greasy, smarmy person, who is always telling you that, of course, he is nobody.” It brings to mind the infamous Uriah Heep who rubs his hands together and lets everyone know how “’umble” a man he is. This sort of person cannot be what Jesus is talking about. So what is it about the tax collector that makes him shine?
“The tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner’” (Luke 18:13).
He stood at a distance. In a book about the Mass, a young theologian named Peter Kwasniewski describes the spirit of traditional Christian worship:
“Traditional liturgy is like a cloud in which God dwells, and unto which Moses dares to approach. There is no sense of a meeting with an agenda, conducted by company managers, characterized by a lot of reading of texts and sharing out of tasks. We lie prostrate on holy ground before the burning bush of divine self-revelation.”
The author describes how modern worship is characterized by egalitarianism, control, and self-sufficiency. People today expect worship to entertain them or impart a sense of comfort. One might advertise: “Come and feel good about yourself.” On the contrary, in historical worship, you are asked to let go entirely, to fall down on your knees, to let the mystery wash over you and change you. This is why the priest’s back is turned. This is why the prayers are silent and secret. Orthodox worship is like a thunderstorm or a bottomless ocean. We come to lose ourselves in awe of God’s grandeur.
This is exactly how the tax collector felt. He stood at a distance with his head low, not from self-pity, but from self-emptiness. He hardly felt himself at all, under the gravity of God. One of my greatest pleasures, these days, has been to take my children on a car trip, and to point together at the cows, trains, lakes, or sunsets along the way. Their mouths drop and their eyes bulge open with such wonder. If only we could learn to look at the universe, at one another, at Church, and at God, with that kind of reverence. This is what our tax collector experienced as he stood in the temple.
He beat his breast. Beating ones breast was not a common gesture in biblical times. It is never mentioned in the Old Testament. The only other occurrence in scripture was at Golgotha. God hung on a cross, the sky was black, and the crowd stood transfixed. They beat their breasts, not for piety, but because their hearts ached. Ibn al-Salībī, in his eleventh-century commentary, explained that, “[the tax collector’s] heart in his chest was the source of all his evil thoughts so he was beating it as evidence of his pain.” The man’s heart hurt. It hurt the way a separated lover hurts. It hurt because he knew there was a distance between him and God. The tax collector knew he had wounded God. Without any pretense, with only the most sincere genuineness, he longed for intimacy.
He prayed, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” For what is he asking? He prayed for mercy. Yet, the Gospel of Luke does not use the ordinary word for mercy here. Immediately after this parable, a blind man cries out to Christ, saying, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” (“Ἰησοῦ, υἱὲ Δαυίδ, ἐλέησόν με!”). Eleos is the common word for mercy. It means: compassion, transforming grace, healing anointing. Yet, the tax collector cries out for something different. He cries out for propitiation (“Θεός, ἱλάσθητί μοι!”). The English word, ‘mercy’ does not really express this. ‘Iλάσθητί’ means reconciliation. He wants God in his heart.
This simple, ordinary tax collector shows us what it means to be humble. He stands before God with awe. He beat his breast because he ached to be closer to God. He cried out for reconciliation. So, where does this leave us? We have been discussing the Pharisee and tax collector. Now it is time to look at our selves. How do we stand in the presence of God?
This parable is a lesson about prayer. When you set aside time to pray, take a moment to look into your heart. Beneath all those pious words that we mouth, there is a murmuring in our heart, like a little brook. That is the prayer God hears. Most of the time, our prayer sounds much like the prayer of the Pharisee. We are so choked up by our schedules, pleasures, and self-importance that we rarely stand before God in mere worship. Our scripture today is an invitation to set it all aside.
“Stand in awe and sin not. Commune within your own heart, and in your inner chamber, and be still” (Psalm 4:4).
“Serve the Lord with fear, and rejoice with trembling” (Psalm 2:11).
St. Augustine prayed: "O Holy Spirit, descend plentifully into my heart. Enlighten the dark corners of this neglected dwelling and scatter there Thy cheerful beams."
May our Lord and Savior free our hearts so that we can stand daily in his presence in true humility.