Sermon: Humility is not always a virtue

Williamstown Uniting Church
Sunday the 23rd of October, 2016

 Joel 2:23-34
Luke 18:9-14

One of the advantages of using the Revised Common Lectionary is that Bible passages are repeated every three years. When I was a student an elderly minister told me that this meant that I didn’t need to say everything I wanted to about a reading in one sermon, because I’d have the chance to say more about it on the next pass through the lectionary. For ministers, it means we can explore passages in more and more depth as we get older and hopefully wiser. It also means that occasionally we can cheat – if it’s been a busy week and we didn’t commit heresy last time we can repeat a sermon from three, six or nine years’ ago. I have done this occasionally here, and I’ll offer the free hot beverage of your choice to anyone who catches me re-preaching a previously preached sermon.

Six years ago I was minister in a rural area, surrounded by goats and sheep and potatoes and vineyards. So I talked about today’s reading from the book of Joel, a very short, two chapter, book about a plague of locusts, and a drought. In its first chapter, we hear that locusts had invaded Judah like an army, destroying everything in their path. ‘What the cutting locust left, the swarming locust has eaten. What the swarming locust left, the hopping locust has eaten, and what the hopping locust left, the destroying locust has eaten.’ Vines were laid waste and fig-trees splintered, their bark stripped and branches left white. Cattle were left without pasture, flocks of sheep were dazed, and the wild animals called out to God because the watercourses had dried up. In a rural placement the description of dazed sheep and dry creeks and dams cut close to the bone.

Three years ago, here, I didn’t spend any time on the locusts, which seemed much less relevant, and instead focused on today’s parable, about the prayers of the Pharisee and the tax-collector. I reminded us that the tax-collector was a traitor working for a foreign occupying power, collecting taxes from his own people and participating in a cruel and corrupt system. The Pharisee, on the other hand, was living out the moral and ethical code of his faith. He was doing even more than the law demands, fasting twice a week rather than once; tithing on all the goods he gets rather than just on food and animals. But, of course, the problem for the Pharisee was that in his prayer he didn’t just remind God of the good things he did, he also pointed out the bad things the tax-collector did. The Pharisee judged, turning his prayer into a contest between him and the tax-collector.


Ravenna Mosaic, 6th century

One connection between these two readings is that both turn on the theme of repentance. After the plague of locusts, the prophet Joel called on the people to repent. Not just the farmers whose pain was most immediate, but everyone in the land: elders, priests, farmers, viticulturalists, the aged, children, babies, even brides and grooms celebrating their weddings. Everyone was to call out to God, because, as Joel said: ‘He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing. Who knows whether he will not turn and relent?’

Crying out to God apparently worked, because we come to today’s reading, when Joel calls on the people to rejoice and be glad because God has sent the rain and overcome the locusts, and the people will once more eat and be satisfied. Previously the people had been afraid that they would be mocked for their suffering; that their enemies would ask: ‘Where is their God?’ But God was in their midst and they would never be shamed again.

In today’s reading Joel reassures his people that their suffering will end, that God will repay them for the years of destruction. Then he looks beyond the immediate future to the end of time, to the Day of the Lord. Just as the people have seen a reversal of fortune from drought and plague to plenty, so they will see a reversal of fortune at the eschaton, when God’s spirit will be poured out and everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. Joel takes his immediate situation, and uses it as a foreshadowing of what will happen when God’s reign fully and finally begins. Peter quotes from this passage at Pentecost, when he explains that he and his fellow disciples are not drunk.

The people of Judah are justified because they repent; the tax-collector is also justified because he repents, because he humbles himself and prays: ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ Three years ago I talked about the importance of humility and the need for us to avoid self-righteousness and the judgement of others, a great temptation to people of faith. And I still think that’s important. It’s so easy for us do-gooders to look down on those who don’t believe, who don’t live like us. But, as you know, I’m preaching this sermon while recovering from the hideousness of depression, and so I’m a little worried about emphasising humility too much.

If our besetting sin is pride, then we need to be called to humility. But there are many people who, far from being proud, lack even an appropriate self-esteem. Feminist theologians have pointed out that while in our sexist world men may have ‘an over-abundance of self,’ women in contrast ‘lack self-definition’. (Serene Jones, Feminist Theory and Christian Theology, p. 62) They argue that God justifies women through empowerment and an increase in their confidence, rather than an increase in their humility. As one of my favourite feminist theologians, Serene Jones, puts it: ‘The feminist theologian is able to proclaim, from a Christian perspective, that … God desires to empower and liberate women rather than to break what little self-confidence they have’. (p. 63)

By talking about women and men here I know I’m making a huge generalisation; not all men are proud; not all women are unassertive. People can proper confidence in themselves for all sorts of reasons. The first time I was exposed to the dangers of a Christian over-emphasis on humility was during a visit I made to the Philippines some twenty years’ ago as part of a group of young people being ‘exposed’ to that country. The Philippines is a Christian country, and a country with an enormous division between rich and poor and many issues of injustice. Our hosts on that visit, from the United Church of Christ in the Philippines, told us that one of the difficulties they had in encouraging people to challenge injustice was the feeling that that wasn’t a particularly Christian thing to do. Rather than encouraging Filipino Christians to stand up for themselves, many Church leaders had encouraged Christians to focus on their own sins and adopt an attitude of humility, waiting for justification after death. As our UCCP hosts showed us, that supposedly Christian attitude was bad not only for individuals, it was bad for the entire country.

You can imagine that for people like me, experiencing mental illnesses that tell us we’re worthless, being told to stand far off, beat our breasts, and pray ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ is profoundly unhelpful. (Incidentally, telling farmers that natural disasters are a result of their lack of repentance is equally unhelpful, which is probably why the lectionary only ever gives us the second chapter of Joel, and never the first.) While there is no doubt that humility is a Christian virtue and pride a sin, at the heart of the gospel is a message of liberation and abundance. To those bowed down, to those bearing heavy burdens, Jesus brings liberation. To all those who were sick or poor Jesus brought healing; he freed them from every form of oppression.

There are times when we need to hear the message of today’s parable, refrain from judging others and from self-righteousness. But we always need to hear Jesus’ proclamation of release for the captives, recovery of sight for the blind and freedom for the oppressed. We know that the Lord is our God and that we shall never be put to shame. Sometimes we need to be warned about not regarding others with contempt, but at least as often we need to be warned not to regard ourselves with contempt. For us Jesus came, lived, died and was raised from the dead. We can stand upright; with the dignity appropriate to the people Jesus loves. Amen.

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