“O God, be merciful to me a sinner – for whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” Luke 18:9-14.
There is something profoundly human about Luke’s parable story of the tax collector and the Pharisee. Luke’s gospel is a series of life lessons.
This story tracks with the quote from Matthew’s gospel, and our Catholic devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest…learn from me for I am gentle and humble in heart. For my yoke is easy and my burden light.”
Strangely there are plenty of schools today that teach about leadership in the military or business or law schools for the pursuit of justice, but no schools for meekness, gentleness, or last of all humility.
This comes by way of personal example, and Jesus and other saintly figures provide role models for bravery, own generosity, and genuine acts of kindness.
At his best, Jesus provides us a profound insight into human nature and our psychology. The word “humility” comes from the Latin word “humas”; it’s the ground or gravel at our feet. In effect, the humble person, the tax-collected is well-grounded, whereas the proud Pharisee is all pumped up about himself, and like a balloon about to blow away into thin air.
Several years ago, I was visiting friends in Louisville, Kentucky, the blue-grass state. Playing the tourist, I walked around the shopping area of the city, took a brief look at the famed Churchill Downs, the site of the Kentucky Derby, and later I found myself across from my hotel, resting on a park bench.
By chance, I noticed the street sign that read: Mohammed Ali Boulevard and Thomas Merton Square. In sports and in letters – these men were two of the most prominent figures to come out of Louisville, Kentucky.
What a remarkable designation! Here was a memorial to two of the significant “spiritual figures” of our time; one the calm writer/monk and the other the celebrated heavy-weight world champion boxer whose youthful boasts included: “I am the greatest!”
Ali would go on to his own religious conversion, he once said: “Rivers, ponds, lakes, and streams — they all have different names, but they contain water. Just as religions do — they all contain truths.”
They were different men, but they echoed one another in their objections to the Vietnam War.
It was at this very spot, the corner of Walnut Avenue and 4th Street on March 18, 1958, that Thomas Merton tells about how, at this busy, almost frantic mid-town shopping district, he came to his spiritual awakening that redefined his monastic life. He would go on from here to a ministry of writing and mostly about social justice.
Much in the vein of today’s gospel, where we hear of the Pharisee and the tax collector, Merton reflected on a common bond in people’s lives and how we can so be walled off and isolated from the actual values and real virtues of the gospel.
How in the life of professional religious, this Pharisee lives a life of delusion, while the tax collector’s humility became a model of true spiritual conversion. Frankly, there is a mix of the Pharisee and the tax collector in all of us.
Despite his own walled-off experience of grand silence as a monk, Merton was not very different from those he saw that day on the city streets of Louisville.
Women and men were going about their daily routines of shopping, some in stride, and others merely walking with their young children in tow.
“I suddenly saw the secret beauty in their hearts,” and he found them “walking around shining like the sun.”
Reflecting on his own life, Merton re-casts the Pharisee’s words:
“Thank God, thank God I am like other people. That I am only a man and not separated from them, but one of them.”
Merton continues: “God is glorified in becoming a member of the human race. A member of the human race!” Imagine that!
So each of us united in our common humanity, we are joined with God in a great act of humility – in that becoming man, Jesus Christ, is the human face of God among us.
Listening once again to the concluding words of the parable: “For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”
There is something profoundly human about Luke’s parable story of the tax collector and the Pharisee. Do we have the capacity to admit our mistakes, take time for our personal discernment and reflection, and express our humility and, yes, our humanity before the divine presence?
“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden light.” (Matt 11: 28-30).
Rosary Chapel, Santa Catalina School, Monterey, CA.