This is a story about two young men meeting at Georgetown University:
But there was a difference, that trumped everything: One was a student, and the other was a janitor, cleaning the study rooms each night. He was invisible – like the house elves in Harry Potter stories – always cleaning up after everybody, but never acknowledged. For over 10 years, the custodian, Oneil Batchelor of Jamaica, reported that not a word was every spoken to him by any student. Then one student finally broke that ice last year.
A nod one night. A hello the next.
All that changed when one student decided to look, to see, to acknowledge a fellow human being.
“Once you see, you can’t unsee it,” said Febin Bellamy, the 22 year old student. Mr. Batchelor and Mr. Bellamy would develop a friendship, and out of that came a university movement to cross boundaries and learn of the dreams and concerns of all members of the Georgetown community. Mr. Batchelor, a talented chef, received startup funding for a new catering business, Oneil’s Famous Jerk Chicken.
Today’s sermon is about practicing love in humility, and that’s what Febin Bellamy and Oneil Batchelor were finally able to do – really seeing another person as a human being, a precious child of God, worthy of dignity, opportunity, compassion. Worthy of a hello. Worthy of listening to. Worth knowing.
Our parable today, from the Gospel of Luke, demonstrates pride and humility in high relief. The Pharisee is bragging about his wonderful deeds, and is contemptuous of the other man in the temple. That man, a despised tax collector, acknowledges his sin, and asks only for God’s mercy. We easily condemn the Pharisee as a pompous blowhard. He was doing the right things, but with the wrong attitude! We nod in assent when Jesus affirms the tax collector. In our hearts, we don’t want to see ourselves in either man – not the pompous prig, and not the shady tax man either. But truly to learn from Jesus’ story, we must see ourselves in both men. Only humility will allow us to do that.
Here, our Christian faith is at is most countercultural. The world teaches us to get ahead, show our stuff, and climb the ladder of success. Humility teaches us that other human beings deserve the same respect as we do. We are all equal in the eyes of God. All are sinners, yet all are beloved. It’s really hard to live that way in this world, not to mention this city!
But humility is really quite freeing. Humility about our own lives, our place in the world, frees us from the need to keep up with the Joneses, show off what we have or what we know (or whom we know). It’s humbleness that allows us to say, “I’m not the center of the universe. I don’t need to garner all the attention…I don’t have to be admired for how attractive I am, or how successful I am, or how rich I am, or even how good a person I am.”
When it comes to our money, humility allows us to see that others’ needs may be more important than our own desires, in God’s eyes. That other children need our support, not just our own children. Humility can allow us to say to our own children, “You have enough. I need to give some of what God has given us to children who need basics, like groceries and school shoes.”
Our children have never lacked for anything they needed. I’m hugely grateful for that. But we have had to say no to many of their desires along the way, to give consistently to the church and to other charitable projects. That, to me, is part of practicing love in humility, and it’s also a good witness for our children to see. If you have children in your home, try talking to them about what you give to and why, and what it costs you. Perhaps try bringing your children into the decisions on your charitable giving. You might be surprised at what they must say.
Back to Jesus’ parable – in the end, both those men praying in the temple have a lot of growing to do, and both have real potential to become more Christlike. The Pharisee is doing good things; he just needs to work on his attitude of superiority, which he uses to distance himself from the rest of humanity. He needs to examine why he does this distancing, which denigrates other children of God. He needs to repent, and get to know some non-Pharisees!
The tax collector has probably done some really bad things, and he knows it. Tax men were notorious for extortion in those days (nothing like our modern IRS agents!). He had a lot to answer for. He would need to apologize to his victims, and make restitution where possible. His cry for mercy in the temple is not the end of his path, not a “get out of jail free” pass, but the beginning of a long road of rehabilitation.
Jesus’ parables always spur my imagination. What happens later? In this story, I imagine a day when the Pharisee and the tax collector, after repenting and working on their own sins and foibles, meet again, and actually get to know each other as people, as fellow humans, as children of one God. Maybe they would have a similar experience to that of Oneil Batchelor and Febin Bellamy – the Georgetown janitor and student. Maybe they have something to share with each other, to teach each other. Maybe each of them needs to feel loved. Maybe, we all do.