What makes one hard to be humble? Psychologists tell us that people with less self-confident and less self-worth are hard to be humble, because they feel the need to step over others in order to get affirmation and recognition. If we take the psychological view, does it mean what Jesus said in the parable that “for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted” is a matter about self-confidence and self-worth? I would not deny it, but this is not the theological understanding of being humble.
The parable has three figure, namely, the Pharisee, the tax collector and the narrator. As a narrator, Jesus intends to challenge the stereotyping on Pharisees and tax collectors. That is to say, Pharisees are not as righteousness as what most people at his time think, and tax-collectors are not as unrighteousness as what most people at his time think. On the contrary, Jesus praises the tax-collector, not the Pharisee. This is a subversive comment at his time, because it directly angers the Pharisees. Different from the judgment by most people, Jesus’s criterion of judgment is not whether one has fulfilled the religious laws and moral laws, but whether one’s awareness of oneself live under God’s graciousness.
Why does the Pharisee give a tenth of his all income? Is it an act of thanksgiving? Or is it a show off of that he fulfills the law? No matter what the reason is, his giving is not appreciated as a humble act, because he says, “I thank you that I am not like other people.” He is not able to see that God’s graciousness would also come upon people who do not have the same moral and religious life as his. They are thieves, rogues, adulterers and tax collectors. The Pharisee focuses on his worthiness, not God’s graciousness. Being humble, theologically, is about a matter of seeing that God’s graciousness also comes upon people whom we dislike or we consider them not worthy. They may be LGBT, protestors, police and people from the pro-government camp. The greater one’s sense of humility, the easier it is to appreciate others, to praise them, and to encourage them. Being humble is to recognize that we are the recipients of God’s graciousness, but we are not the keepers of God’s graciousness, judging who are worthy to have God’s graciousness and who are not. Put straightly, being humble is not to be a hindrance for others to experience God’s graciousness.
Second, people who acknowledge God’s graciousness would be willing to give and share, because they consider what they have had are something that is shared by God. Without God’s graciousness and sharing, I have got nothing. Even though the Pharisee is judgmental, I am still inclined to say that the Pharisee’s act of giving a tenth of all his income is an act of thanksgiving. People who are humble tend to be more generous with both their time and their money. On the contrary, people hardly give and share if they have no humility. Perhaps, some argue that only people with abundance have a better capacity to give or share. So, giving or sharing is more related to one’s abundance, not one’s humility. But I want to tell you that the rich seldom give and share a lot, because they are easily fallen into a cycle of improving their living standard in which the word, enough, does not exist. On the contrary, the poor is more willingly to give and share, because they know that without giving and sharing, they can’t survive. Being humble, theologically, is to give and share with others humbly and happily.
The third theological meaning of being humble is to break through or lay down one’s ego to receive God’s graciousness in terms of forgiveness. In order to receive God’s forgiveness, one has to admit his/her wrongdoing and repent. The parable describes that the tax collector, “standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, 'God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’” His body position and gesture show that he does not feel worthy to be forgiven. Perhaps, he has committed great sins. Despite this, Jesus concludes that “all who humble themselves will be exalted.” The parable does not say anything more on the life of the tax-collector after confession, but experiences tell us that people who seek for forgiveness have better social relationships, avoid deception in their social interactions, and tend to be forgiving, grateful, and cooperative. Nevertheless, we are in a very different scenario. That is to say, there are people without a sense of repentance and they do not seek for forgiveness. They are Carrie Lam, the Chief Executive of HK government, and the police. The police never never apologize. They only see themselves as victims. Being humble, theologically, is nothing other than repentance and seeking for forgiveness.
To be humble is not to think less of oneself, but to think of oneself less. Theologically, being humble is that we are the channel, not the hindrance, of God’s graciousness, we give and share with others humbly and happily, and we break through our ego in order that we can repent and seek for forgiveness. The core message of being humble is not about a matter of virtue, but is about Sola Gratia (only grace), one of the cornerstones of the Reformation. It is God’s graciousness bringing us to be humble. Also it is our humility opening our eyes, arms and heart to God’s graciousness.