The Tax Collector’s Self-Esteem

Luke 18

In the Name of God: Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier. Amen.

In the traditional Anglican communion service, there is a section called, “The Prayer of Humble Access.” The prayer comes right before communion and contains a line, “We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under God’s table.”

This prayer is said at Incarnation during the penitential season of Lent and at certain other times. But Incarnation is in the minority of Episcopal Churches that ever offer it. These days old words like “humble” and “unworthy” just aren’t popular. Most people don’t feel comfortable saying, as we said at the beginning of this service of Morning Prayer, that they “have erred and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep.”

In fact, the opposite feeling is more common. Rather than concerning ourselves with humility, we are more likely to worry that we are too critical of ourselves. Instead of wanting to recognize our unworthiness, we want to feel better about who we are.

This is how a lot of us modern people think. And so we may not warm to Christ’s story of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector that was read in today’s Second Lesson.

In the text, Jesus points to the contrasting behavior of two people in the temple: first, he notes the respectable religious leader, the Pharisee who proudly prays, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.” Clearly, this is not someone with low self-esteem!

By contrast, the tax collector feels so unworthy before God that he “would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’”

Yet, for Jesus, it’s the tax collector who has the right attitude. Before God, Jesus says, “all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

It’s interesting, though, that even if we question the high value that Christian tradition places on humility, we still agree with Jesus in being repelled by the Pharisee. We’ve all known obnoxious people who are convinced that they are more virtuous than others.

We have all known people who hold their noses in the air and who go around attempting to flaunt their moral superiority. These aren’t folks we would want to sit next to at dinner; is it surprising that God might not want them at the heavenly banquet?

At the same time, we might well share Christ’s admiration for the tax collector who begs for mercy. In the days of the Roman Empire, this profession was notoriously corrupt. Tax collectors made their income by coercing citizens into paying more than the taxpayers actually owed.

Notice, too, that humbling in the parable is not so much a value in itself as a sign that another value has been realized. Humility is a sign of self-knowledge.

The tax collector will one day be “exalted.” And he will be exalted not because he likes to beat himself up over his shortcomings but because he realizes that he has shortcomings! Knowing what he now knows about himself, he can make a truly honest prayer.

And notice too that the tax collector’s own request for humble access to God isn’t the end of the story. For after undergoing the process of self-examination, the tax collector can emerge from his gloomy penitence. He can expect future happiness from God who has forgiven him, and raised him up out of his guilt, and granted him genuine self-esteem.

We can get a glimpse of the truth of Christ’s parable when we ourselves admit that we have been wrong about something. Think of an occasion when you got into a bitter argument with a friend—and you came to recognize that you were the one who was at fault.

Few things are less pleasant in life. You realized that your angry protests of innocence weren’t justified. How painful it was to have been the guilty party and later to have had to slink back to your friend and apologize. This is “humbling” in the extreme.

And yet, once we acknowledge the need to give in and our apology is accepted, the cloud disappears. As the saying goes, “we feel good about ourselves.”

So humbling doesn’t in fact lower our self-esteem. On the contrary, as Jesus said, we may feel exalted. The self-image which our arrogant behavior had lowered is raised up.

So long as we don’t beat ourselves when we don’t deserve it, humbling is not so bad. In fact, it is a necessary process for human beings to go through as we learn about ourselves.

Some Episcopalians are particularly aware of this process when they make use of the ancient sacrament of private confession. Private confession is by no means required by in our church since we have the General Confession that we all say together during most of our services.

But some Episcopalians find the sacrament useful after a difficult period in their lives. Others go to their confessor a few times a year such as in the seasons before Christmas and before Easter.

I myself am in the second category. I mention this not because I think all Episcopalians should adopt this practice—as I said, it’s not for everyone.

Nor do I mention it because I think going to confession makes me particularly virtuous! I started the practice long ago, just before I was ordained; my rector at the time thought that it was a good preparation for becoming a priest.

In any case, ever since, I have made my confession twice a year. The practice hasn’t become any easier with time; it’s still humbling. I put off making the appointment as long as I can, and when I travel to Brooklyn to see my current confessor, I go “in fear and trembling,” as St. Paul would say.

But after I arrive at my appointment, and I finally admit my sins before God, and the priest offers some advice and pronounces the absolution—then I often experience a real change of mood. I wouldn’t say I feel “exalted.” But I sure feel a lot better about myself.

Think back to that argument you had with a friend when you were in the wrong. Do you remember your mood after you realized the fault was yours and you confessed your error to your friend?

You may not have felt “exalted.” But I’ll bet that you felt better. A burden was lifted from your soul. More important, a barrier was removed that divided you and your friend. You may have noticed that friendships seem closest when they have survived conflict. You and your friend passed a test, and it felt really good.

In the future, when you recall the moment of reconciliation, you may want to give thanks that you were able to humble yourself, and that your self-esteem was healed and restored.

You might even choose the old traditional language of the prayer book and offer to God your “most humble and hearty thanks”—realizing that this is the best kind of thanks!

And now unto that same God, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit be ascribed as is most justly due all might, majesty, power, dominion, and praise, now and forever. Amen.

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