Jesus is sharing with us an important story this weekend. It is directed at you and me. Are you listening? What do you hear? The reason he was telling this story was because there were some people who prided themselves on being virtuous and despised everyone else. It is a good thing to be virtuous but it is a bad thing to think that if we are virtuous we are better than anyone else. The man praying at the front of the synagogue was telling the truth about the good things he did. But he was blowing his own trumpet. Perhaps he was doing all this so that others would look up to him, they would admire him, and he would look good in other peoples eyes.
The tax collector was also telling the truth. His prayer came straight from the heart. “God be merciful to me, a sinner.” He acknowledged his need for God. He knew his own poverty, weakness. Why was this the better prayer? It was an honest prayer. He was speaking from the heart. He desired to be at one with God and that meant knowing his need for God. The man was humble. St Benedict in his rule spoke at length in chapter Seven about humility. He lists twelve steps like twelve rungs on a ladder. Then among the things he says, these two are important.
Firstly we need to accept ourselves as we truly are before God, we need to admit our failings. This is not a guilt trip or false pride at being worse than others. It simply means we are to face our own shortcomings without pretence. When we do, we discover more about the depth of God’s love for us. It is this love of God which starts a process of transformation in us. Secondly, cultivating a little more humility in our lives is not only good for ourselves but is a necessary part of being in community with others. When we truly experience God’s acceptance and love for us, in spite of our own shortcomings, we gradually become better at not minding the imperfections of others.
Here is a prayer for humility.
God, I am far too often influenced by what others think of me. I am always pretending to be either richer or smarter or nicer than I really am. Please prevent me from trying to attract attention. Don’t let me gloat over praise on one hand or be discouraged by criticism on the other. Nor let me waste time weaving imaginary situations in which the most heroic, charming, witty person present is myself. Show me how to be humble of heart, like you.