Holy Humility

October 27, 2013
Luke 18:9-14; II Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18

You remember the old Christian Peacemaker Team slogan – “Getting in the Way.” In March 2003, my friend Weldon Nisly made the bold decision to get in the way with a Christian Peacemaker Team in Iraq, just as the war was starting. As their three car convoy sped through the desert toward the Jordanian border, US bombers flew ominously overhead. The vehicle in which Weldon was riding blew a tire and careened into a ditch.

Wounded and bloodied all five people in the car were picked up by some gracious Iraqis and taken to a clinic in the nearby town of Rutba. There the Americans were stitched, bandaged and taken care of, though the hospital had been bombed 3 days earlier by United States forces; a child and his father were killed.  Even so the medical staff was willing to give aid, for free, to these Americans.

It was this experience of hospitality in the midst of danger and the unknown that inspired another member of the team, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, and his wife Leah to start Rutba House in Walltown, NC. (which is featured in an upcoming issue of Christian Century magazine) Rutba House is a hospitality house, a place for people to stay that have no place, a place to stay for a short time or a long time, not an easy place but home for those who need it.

The Wilson-Hartgroves are white and Wall, NC is an historic African American community. At first this white couple wondered how they would be perceived by the community. Sometimes the Wilson-Hartgroves received sideways glances; it was hard to know who to talk to – how to talk to – the people on the corner selling drugs.

Then one day Quinton says to Leah (Wilson-Hartgrove), “So how come you so stuck up?”

            “What do you mean?” she asks.

“I mean, how come y’all always passin’ us out on the corner and never stop to say, ‘What’s up?’”

            “Well, I didn’t know y’all wanted to talk,” Leah says.

From Christian Century “Costly Hospitality” by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, October 30, 2013

Today we get to wrestle with another one of Jesus’ parables. The text tells us that this parable is addressed specifically to those people “who believed in their own self-righteousness while holding everyone else in contempt.” That couldn’t be us, could it? We would never disrespect another person or think “there but for the grace of God…” We would never imagine ourselves more holy since we are humble Mennonites and follow the true way of Jesus.

As soon as we even wonder if it this could be us, as soon as we disavow ourselves of being those self-righteous so-and-sos, we are them, we have become them. We fall right into Jesus’ trap.

So just for now, let’s try to forget that we have been caught by Jesus, that we are just like everyone else who dares read this passage. Let’s back up and approach this parable from a different angle.

Right before this parable there is another parable that talks about the “necessity of praying always and not losing heart.” You may know the story: the widow who comes to the judge – over and over again, asking for justice until finally the unjust judge gives in, just to get her to leave him alone.  Keep the faith, ask for what you need and never give up hope.

Following our parable is the scene where people bring infants and children to Jesus while the disciples try to shoo them away.  Jesus says, “Let them come. This is where the reign of God is found, to whom the reign belongs, let the children come.”

So this parable about self-righteousness is situated between a story encouraging us to pray constantly and one that says take a clue from the children – though babies can’t pray, at least not the way grown-ups imagine prayer. The succession of these three scenes suggests that we are susceptible to the temptation of self-righteousness when we do pray constantly. It is easy to become holier than thou, when really we are to remain humble as children.

Let’s step back again and zoom in from a slightly different angle. What kind of prayer is this that the Pharisee is praying? This highly trained religious man might just be praying as he was taught. Chris Haslam reminds us, that in a standard prayer, (then and now,) a pious Jewish man thanks God that he is not a slave, a Gentile or a woman (Babylonian Talmud: Menahot Tractate 43b). from  

Maybe Jesus is not picking on this particular Pharisee so much as he is once again critiquing the tradition from which he comes, questioning the system. We know that he expanded the definition of neighbor (to include enemies.) He expanded the understanding of “an eye for an eye”(to turn the other cheek.) Perhaps here Jesus is saying it is about more than being thankful you are not a slave, a Gentile, a woman.  It is not even enough to thank God that you are not greedy, crooked, adulterous. To pray a righteous prayer is a problem in itself.  We all come before God as sinners, no matter how well we keep the commandments, no matter how holy we imagine ourselves.  We all need to humble ourselves – in order to be holy.

Jesus ends the parable with a pithy saying just in case the disciples had missed the point – again. For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, while those who humble themselves will be exalted. (It is pretty much what his mother said when she sang that song, when she was pregnant. – You have scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. You have brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly. Sounds like Jesus didn’t study only with rabbis but had some homeschooling as well.)

We don’t wrestle solely with Jesus and the gospels.  We have the rest of the bible to grapple with too. The lectionary gives us this epistle reading from II Timothy; it seems to be an example of what not to say, at least according to Luke’s Jesus.  The writer says: I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. There is reserved for me the crown of righteousness…

The writer of II Timothy was not powerful, certainly not on a throne. He notes that he was abandoned by those he trusted, no one came to his defense. Is this a prideful self-assessment of his faithfulness or a statement of God’s faithfulness to him – even in the worst of circumstances?

Taken together, this parable and the II Timothy passage, my inclination is to go with Jesus’ recommendation from the Sermon on the Mount and pray behind closed doors. Because really, this is not an easy message to hear. How do we keep the faith, fight the good fight and still come before God praying the tax collector’s prayer, “O God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” It is a lesson I have to relearn every month, every week, every day. I may not be adulterous, not a crook, not too greedy, but a certain amount of self-righteousness I do have to claim. I have to hope for mercy.

Which brings us back to Rutba, Iraq. When one’s life is held by the perceived enemy perhaps the only prayer that can be said is “Have mercy on me, I am a sinner.” Praying with humility is giving thanks for a town that showed hospitality even though the people there were thought to be dangerous and hostile enemies. One becomes humble before God when one sees the face of God amidst and upon the faces of Muslims – whom it seems your country wants you to hate.

When the doctors in Rutba refused payment for their services, the Christian Peacemaker Team promised that they would tell the story of the warmth and hospitality of Rutba. They would tell it as often and as far and wide as they could.  Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove took it one step further and named his home “Rutba House.”

Rutba House is a humble prayer. Jonathan and Leah opened this hospitality house with the best of intentions. They open their home to people that have no home, perhaps havn’t had a home for many years or never have had a loving home.  Now they live with people deemed thieves, (or in words of the Pharisee people who are “greedy, crooked and adulterous.”)

This kind of humble prayer demands dependence on God and the others in the house. It is not without risk. It is not without pain, even humiliation sometimes. And yet I imagine it is still easy to find oneself on a throne built of self-righteous good intentions. And there is no better way to be knocked off your self-righteous throne than to live with truth-tellers, like convicted felons and children.

Jonathan admits: We don’t know what we are doing. As far as we can tell, this being a hospitality house- this experiment in welcoming everyone no matter what, in meeting Jesus in the stranger – makes you an expert at nothing. But the not knowing is itself a gift. It is an invitation, even. When you cannot know for sure, you learn to trust.  (p.34)

I’m not sure that all of us are called to live like the Wilson-Hartgroves, though maybe that is just my fear and doubt speaking. For those of us who would be pushed from our throne of self-righteousness by children (rather than opening our house to strangers) what might it mean to come before God in genuine prayer? Do we need to hide behind closed doors? Or can we open our eyes, and see the tax collector praying?

I’m no expert at holy or humble living, but it seems to me that a sideways glance at the world while praying is not a bad thing. Not to see if others are praying the right way, not to see if others are living up to the faith the way we think they should.  But to see who it is that can help us live out our faith when we pray “thy will be done,” as we pray “give us this day our daily bread,” as we pray “forgive us our sins,” as we pray  “have mercy on me a sinner.”

This is a hard call from Jesus, for those of us who like order, who like to be in control and know what’s next. It is a hard prayer for those of us who heard too often as children that we were sinful when what we were being was inquisitive.

But as people who live in and near the center of a self-proclaimed superpower, we need a humble prayer to keep things in perspective. It may not look like the Wilson-Hartgroves at Rutba House but we can make choices to live in humble prayer. We can learn to trust that the Great Love that binds us all together will meet us, and hold us, as we humbly pray, “Holy, Holy, Holy, have mercy on me, a sinner.”