“He [Jesus] also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” Luke 18:9-14
The Pew Survey (“America’s Changing Religious Landscape” by the Pew Research Center) has pretty definitively put to bed the myth that our culture and nation is and always will be a Christian one.
“Christianity” is not understood
While Christianity is still the majority religion in our country, those who define themselves as members of no religion are the fastest growing group. If we ever thought the “Christianness” of our culture would keep the generations informed about the gospel of Jesus Christ, we’d better stop thinking it now!
The gospel has impacted our culture in some ways that few people realize come from Jesus, and these differences are welcome. For example, that all people are equal is a gospel idea – we are equal before the cross! There are no elites in the body of Christ – the Holy Spirit fell on Pentecost on sons and daughters, men and women, old men and young men. And the Apostle Paul reminds us that in the church there is neither “Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, male nor female.” So when we lift up our American ideal that all men (and women) are created equal, that’s really a Jesus truth!
But there are other ways we sometimes think in church that don’t look so holy in the eyes of our neighbors, and it’s time American Christians took a good look, because we no longer are respected just for being churchgoers (in fact, in some people’s minds, that makes us suspect!).
I used to think, as a younger Christian, that the indwelling Holy Spirit and my relationship with God through Jesus meant that I was/we were obviously and automatically all going to be more moral and ethical than our unbelieving neighbors. I liked to go to Christian mechanics and hair-stylists and hire Christian plumbers because I just knew they would do a better job and would never cheat me.
But that’s not what the gospel of Jesus says. Of course we are “on The Way together” to being more like Jesus and less like the flesh, and like 1 Corinthians 13 urges us, believers are called see one another as we are going to be in the renewed kingdom and in that sense in love we “bear all things, believe all things, hope all things and endure all things” – but the Bible also warns us that we are still prone to fall into temptation, that we can be deceived and that we all still struggle with our sin natures (or “our flesh”).
We are both who we are becoming, and who we’ve been
A wise follower of Jesus knows all of that is true – we are both who we are becoming, and who we’ve been. We are capable of being like Jesus, and just as capable of falling flat on our faces into sin.
And so, Jesus reminds us to humble ourselves and give thanks for grace.
It’s why he cautions us to see to the plank in our own eye before we get all exercised about the splinter in the eye of a brother or sister in the faith, judging not lest we be judged, too (while still helping one another get the wood out!).
My seminary professor taught me an old saying, that as followers of Jesus the good news we want to show others is not, “look how good and perfect I am,” but more like that of one hobo telling another hobo where to find bread …one sinner telling another sinner where to find forgiveness and grace, and mercy in time of need. We are sinners helping one another learn to walk in the way of Jesus. And helping one another up when we fall down.
This is what the brokenness of the world needs to see in believers, NOT the message that because we belong to Jesus we’ve got it all together and are in a good position to tell others they’re doing it all wrong and are judged by God (even if it looks like they are doing it all wrong).
Not only is this strategic in an evangelistic sense, it is also what is true, and by living in this humility we will avoid the disastrous fallout that has come in recent days, weeks and months. We are seeing prominent and proud Christians, who have loudly instructed the nation about morality, now weeping over their own fallenness as the world around them laughs and bitterly declares that “morality” is a joke.
The culture around us which does not understand or believe in the good news of Jesus, and more than that wishes to reject it as even being good news, is having a lot of fun mocking these stories, of Christian spokespersons who get caught molesting children (their own sisters!) or carrying on adulterous affairs or even pompously applying “church discipline” that demonstrates no empathy toward the one who has been sinned against, all in order to perpetuate an institution.
Sometimes, what the world around reacts to in these stories is the Christian devotion to the concept of grace, something they do not understand. Thus we will not capitulate to public calls to discard someone who has done wrong, even something heinous, even if they deserve it. We do so out of a hope of redemption. They consider this coddling someone but they don’t understand the gospel.
Not because of too much grace, but because of too much judgment that went before
But in lots of prominent cases, the Christian organizations or churches aren’t being castigated because of too much grace, but rather too much judgment that went before the present event.
They are caught in public pronouncements about others’ sin as though they did not ever do such things (“I thank you, God, that I am not like this tax collector….”) – and then there they are, with the evidence that they do, for everyone to see. It is then that their desire to apply grace looks like whitewashing, and it seems to betray Christian faith.
If we promote ourselves as “successful” in holiness and purity, too good to fall into the potholes that are around us all the time, then when someone in our midst falls in a hole, we are called hypocrites.
But, if we present ourselves as sinners saved by grace who are learning day by day to trust Jesus more, to obey him more, but whose power to do this contends with our own still-sinful selves, then our successes are to be moments for worship, and our pratfalls are moments for prayer and forgiveness, as well as living with the consequences.
Humble yourselves, Jesus says, that you may be exalted. For the proud are going to be humbled anyway – that’s just the way it goes.
The Christian world needs to resist the temptation to use anything about ourselves (and certainly the grace in which we stand) as a reason to hold ourselves up over others. “What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not?” (1 Cor 4:7)
Humility is not Humiliation
Jesus showed us his life as an example of humility (how amazing!) and then led us to follow him in it. Humility is not humiliation. Humility is a personal decision not to seek status for oneself but rather to arrange oneself lower among others, even to lift up others.
In the case of Jesus, it was because he knew who he was and what he had come to do, and he used his power to undergird people who were being made new, and to shoulder himself the task of making all things new.
In our case, we are to pursue humility because we know who we are, in Christ, and no one can take that away. In that identity, we imitate Christ by refusing to exalt ourselves but instead by putting ourselves out for others in love and grace, knowing that Christ will thereby one day exalt us all.
Let us not be caught with our pride up in the air, and our humility down around our feet. We never know when what we are doing or saying will be made public, and yes, perhaps be misunderstood …and we might be talked about unfairly. If it is for being like Jesus, then great is our reward before God.
But if it is because we lost the plot, and thought belonging to Jesus made us better than our neighbors, and instead of who we pretended to be, we are found being sinners in need of grace like everyone else, then we will have contributed to the hardening of the hearts of others who say, “See? There is no truth in what they say.”
And let us pray for one another, and especially for those Jesus-followers who have fallen into this trap, so present in the news this week. Lord, have mercy on us, sinners. Thank you for Jesus who is making us new!