Those who felt unworthy may not have been the original audience of this parable, but it does have a message, not only for the puffed up, but also for any of us today who have become comfortable in our low self-esteem and use it as an excuse for inaction.  

True humility contributes to the dynamic of faith allowing the power of God to work through us. Nothing can be allowed to interfere with genuine humility. Not the arrogance that assumes that we are to be placed above others. Not the self-loathing that presumes to denigrate a human being, in this case, ourselves, who is made in the image of God. This parable is a freeze frame, a slice of life. Sooner or later the preacher closes the Bible, says, "Here ends the lesson," and the listeners go out into the world to love and serve our neighbors, divested of both arrogance and shame.

Luke believed the purpose of this parable was to challenge self-righteousness and to promote humility. The lead-in to the parables speaks volumes, "He told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt" (18:9). For any who are prone to the dangers of pride and self-righteousness, the parable calls us to look over in the corner to where our teacher stands with bent head. For the tax collector becomes the teacher of the Pharisee in the parable. The invitation to enter into the kingdom of God shows up where we least expect it. It shows up in our inward lives, in the ember of humility that still burns, yet that needs to be fanned to warm and illumine our inner life. In our families, our churches, our communities, the gate to the kingdom of God opens before us in the example of those who are humble before God.

 

Alyce M. McKenzie is Professor of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University, Dallas, Texas. Visit her Expert Site at Patheos.