Humility Trumps Good Works

Did Jesus have a heart for tax collectors?

You might think so.  He called Levi (Matthew) from his tax collector’s booth to be one of his disciples.  Later he had dinner with a number of Matthew’s tax collector friends to the consternation of the Jewish religious leaders.  As he was entering Jericho, he saw Zacchaeus, the chief tax collector for the area, and invited himself to stay at Zacchaeus’ house that day, which led to Zacchaeus finding salvation and giving half his wealth to the poor.

The Jews despised tax collectors for they were considered traitors, serving as agents for the Romans in collecting their taxes.  Jesus used this antipathy by the Jews to drive home a point in a parable with message that humility was more important than sacrifice.

It’s a great parable – about prayer, self-righteousness, humility, and justification.  Two men go up to the temple to pray: a Pharisee and a tax collector.  The Pharisee talks about himself, thanking God that he is not like other sinful men and the tax collector.  The tax collector simply bows his head, beats his breast and says, “God have mercy on me a sinner.” 

Jesus said that in contrast to the Pharisee, the tax collector went home justified before God.  “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Luke 18:14)

This parable challenges we Christians who attend church every Sunday, generally follow the rules, don’t regularly commit significant sins and lead a fairly decent life.  Like the Pharisee, it is so easy to let our pride sneak in and become self-righteous, justifying ourselves by comparing our actions to the apparent sinful ways of others.  

I say to myself that I don’t steal from others nor do them physical harm.  I don’t commit sexual sins. But yet, right below the surface is my tendency to be critical and judgmental of others, get angry over some personal slight, and seek recognition for my self-perceived accomplishments.

Jesus asks us, “Where is your heart?” When we lose sight of our dependence on God and grow proud of our accomplishments, we become like the Pharisee.  We stumble in our journey toward God and open ourselves to the very conduct we proudly claim we are avoiding. 

Even St. Paul had to acknowledge the sinful nature that hovers right outside our daily lives when he said, “For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing.” (Rom. 7:19)

Only by acknowledging our tendency toward our sinful nature, are we able to maintain a humility that recognizes our dependency on staying close to God and receiving his grace.

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