Humility Trumps Good Works

“God have mercy on me a sinner.”  (Luke 18:14)

These are the words of the tax collector in Jesus’ Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. 

It’s a parable about prayer, self-righteousness, humility, and justification. Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.  The Pharisee prayed about himself.  “’God, I thank you that I am not like other men – robbers, evildoers, adulterers – or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’ But 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.’”

Jesus said that the tax collector went home justified before God, but not the Pharisee. “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Luke 18:9-14) 

This parable challenges us as 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, “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.” (Romans 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.  “He guides the humble in what is right and teaches them his way.” (Psalm 25:9)

What actions help you to remain humble?

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