The challenge of humility
A Reflection for Saturday of the Third Week of Lent
Find today’s readings here.
So one day on Yom Kippur, the rabbi is praying to the Almighty before the congregation. In a sudden passion of humility, he cries out, “Before you, Lord, I am nothing!” The cantor, moved by these words, prostrates himself and says in a sobbing voice, “Before you, Lord, I am nothing!” Mr. Moskowitz in the pew, shaken to his core, bows his head and groans, “Before you, Lord, I am nothing.” The rabbi overhears, raises one eyebrow and mutters to the cantor, “Look who thinks he’s nothing.”
I can’t help it. This is the joke I think of every time I hear today’s Gospel passage where Jesus tells the parable about the two sinners:
“The Pharisee took up his position and spoke this prayer to himself, ‘O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity — greedy, dishonest, adulterous — or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week, and I pay tithes on my whole income.’ But the tax collector stood off at a distance and would not even raise his eyes to heaven but beat his breast and prayed, ‘O God, be merciful to me a sinner.’ I tell you, the latter went home justified, not the former; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”
I think of this joke not because it’s about praying in the temple, but because it’s about me.
I used to interrogate myself: Was I more like the Pharisee described in today’s Gospel, who considered himself righteous because he fulfilled all the letters of the law, and concluded—even smugly reminded God!—that he was far superior to all the others who didn’t do as well? Or was I more like the tax collector, who wasn’t known for his pious or ethical ways, but who presented himself quietly to God as a sinner in need of mercy?
For a while, I was pretty convinced I was the Pharisee. Sure, I would go to Mass and show up for rosary and do this and do that, but what was really in my heart? Nothing good! Nothing sincere! Just like the Pharisee. But wait. I noticed that I was just like the Pharisee, which meant I knew I needed mercy, which actually made me more like the tax collector.
Phew, great. That’s the one you’re supposed to be. In this story, Jesus favors the tax collector because he’s so much more humble and honest than the Pharisee and that’s how I’m being right now. I really am! So sinful, so self-aware. Hey, you know what? God, I thank you that I’m like a tax collector and not like one of those—
Oh, wait. Wait. Oh no.
This is an old story. Screwtape, the older demon in C.S. Lewis’ incomparable Screwtape Letters, advises his apprentice tempter to get his human “patient” tangled up in precisely this ridiculous mental mess:
“Your patient has become humble; have you drawn his attention to the fact? All virtues are less formidable to us once the man is aware that he has them, but this is specially true of humility. Catch him at the moment when he is really poor in spirit and smuggle into his mind the gratifying reflection, ‘By jove! I’m being humble!’, and almost immediately pride—pride at his own humility—will appear. If he awakes to the danger and tries to smother this new form of pride, make him proud of his attempt—and so on, through as many stages as you please.”
Instead of the Gospel reading, there might as well be a map with a big “X” saying “You Are Here” and it’s just a picture of a clown.
But Screwtape also supplies the way out of this absurd but sticky tangle. He tells the junior tempter:
“But don’t try this too long, for fear you may awake his sense of humor and proportion, in which case he will merely laugh at you and go to bed.”
So that is what I do when I notice myself developing something that looks suspiciously like a virtue. I honk my clown horn and say to myself, “Look who thinks she’s virtuous!” and that generally takes care of it.
And if not, I offer whatever’s still tangled up to God, and then he takes care of it. What else can you do?
Honk honk. I mean, Amen.