Proper 26C: The Redemption of the Tree-climbers

“Zacchaeus” (Joel Whitehead)

OLD TESTAMENT:  Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-3

Read the passage from Habakkuk

Most scholars agree that it is difficult to date the writings of the prophet known as Habakkuk.  There are references in it to times preceding the Babylonian exile, so it is possible that it may be a few decades before the invasion of Judah.  The portion of Habakkuk set down for today is part of a dramatic dialogue between God and the prophet. Although the writing is really remarkable, it is sort of hard to read.  Habakkuk laments the amount of protracted wickedness in the land. The wicked continually oppress the just, and there is neither law nor justice in Judah. The despairing Habakkuk asks God how much longer the wicked will prosper. God’s reply is decisive, if shocking. In order to punish the wicked of Judah, God is raising up the military might of the Babylonians. The idea of God’s use of foreign invading armies as punishment of the wicked for their sins is classic Hebrew thought from the period. (It’s the “do bad, get bad” formula that is so prevalent in the early Scriptures.) The rest of Habakkuk 1 contains a description of the atrocities committed by the Babylonians on the people of Judah.

The second part of the reading has the prophet objecting strenuously to God regarding the treatment of the Judeans. He elects to ‘stand at my watchpost’ until he receives God’s response. God’s answer comes in the form of a short oracle, which Habakkuk is ordered to write down. It is to be written clearly, and apparently in large characters, so that ‘a runner may read it’ – a messenger in a hurry running by can still read it and understand it!

The oracle itself is preceded by God’s reassurance. The time will come when God’s vision for a righteous Judah will be fulfilled. Even if it is a long time coming, it will happen. The focus is on the ‘spirit’ of the proud, who have pride in their strength. On the other hand, the ‘righteous’ do not live by their own strength, but rely on their faith in God.

It is the old story—the wicked supposedly carry within themselves the seeds of their own destruction. On the other hand, the believers contain the seeds of close relationship with God. This teaching is to be applied in a wider context than that of Judah and the Babylonians. It speaks to all nations opposed to the people through whom God is building the divine kingdom on earth.

We live in a self-sufficient age that teaches us that we are in charge of our lives.  But that flies in the face of God’s providence.  There are seasons in our lives when everything is right with our world; there are also seasons of darkness and difficulty.  It is in those times that we are told to wait on the work of the God who waits with us.  We live in a world and a society that often prays for God to “fix” things.  But sometimes God just wants us to focus on the vision that is just ahead.


  1. What is your response to this passage?
  2. Is this passage more difficult for you or more uncomfortable? Why?
  3. What vision of justice do you find in the passage?

NEW TESTAMENT:  2 Thessalonians 1: 1-4, 11-12

Read the passage from 2 Thessalonians

This is penned as Paul’s second letter to the church at Thessalonica, but in all likelihood it may have been written by a follower of Paul’s who sought to protect Paul’s foundations that had been so carefully laid before.  In fact, it sort of takes a different track than its supposed first letter.  (In fact the five verses that our Lectionary skips seeks to comfort the Thessalonians by assuring them that those who persecute and afflict them will get their “due”—sort of a spiritual terrorism that, sadly, is alive and well even today).

The letter exhorts its readers to give thanks for their ongoing faith.  This actually means “coming to faith”, probably not adhering to some set belief system.  But it is a costly faithfulness, perhaps one that even puts their lives in danger.  They are in fact growing in their faith – none of the modern trend to look on faith as something which gains one entry to a status or a future heaven and counting for little in real life!

The object here is love and, in particular, love for one another. Perhaps that reflects the pressure. And with that, we are given the assurance of prayer.  To be made worthy of one’s calling appears to mean something like: to help you to measure up to what it demands by becoming the kind of person it requires. That of course depends on human response to God’s work in us, but it assumes that the life and agenda of God is directed towards producing good intentions and good deeds. Goodness is a helpful and very human way of understanding God’s grace. It is not a sterile morality which does nothing wrong (and does no one much good either), but a dynamic (“in power”) movement of the Spirit to produce in us the fruit of love in both attitude and action – strong enough even to undo the vengeance motif laid out earlier!

We want to go for easy alternatives in this world.  This discounts that.  Faith is costly; faith is hard; but through God’s grace, we will find peace for us and for the rest of the world.  The writer was also reminding the church at Thessalonica that they were shaped by spiritual friendships.  They were not in this alone.  Their faith was indeed growing abundantly.  Few things in life are more powerful than a person of growing faith.  When someone is growing in faith, their life bears fruit.  Faith that inspires is consuming, costly, and constantly extravagant.


  1. Why are so many so quick to jump on that sort of “spiritual terrorism” type of motif?
  2. Why is the notion expressed here so difficult to embrace?
  3. What “costs” do you see as being associated with faith?
  4. What does the community of faith, these spiritual friendships, mean to you in your faith journey?



GOSPEL:  Luke 19: 1-10

Read the passage from The Gospel According to Luke

This is a familiar story for many of us.  In fact, if you grew up in the church, you probably sang a song about it.  But put it in context—the story sequences are beginning to come to a close.  Jesus nears Jerusalem (and we all know how the tale ends).  But, here is one last outcast on the way to Jerusalem.  The name Zacchaeus means “clean” or “innocent”.  Perhaps it was wishful thinking on the part of his parents.

But here we are—Zacchaeus tries desperately to see Jesus (much like the blind man that Jesus just healed).  We hear that Zacchaeus is rich (much like the rich man who was sad because he couldn’t part with his wealth.)  And Zacchaeus is small and blocked by the crowd (much like the children kept back by the disciples).  He is a tax collector (like the one that we read of last week praying humbly in the temple.)  Perhaps the writer created some sort of composite character in case we didn’t get it before.  And in true Lukan-style reversal, the shunned, “unclean”, “non-person” is found and redeemed.  But the point is that, unlike some of the others, Zacchaeus joyfully welcomes Jesus into his home.  He didn’t just receive unmerited, undeserved grace and stop there.  He changed.  He had the courage and the veracity to look ahead straight into that vision of God.  And then he tithed!  The miracle is not that Jesus welcomed him or that he was redeemed.  We all know that happens over and over.  The point was that he changed.  THAT is the miracle.  And now Zacchaeus sees.  And when Jesus sees Zacchaeus, he announces salvation—not just to this slight little “non-person”, but to the whole of Creation.

We envision ourselves the redeemed.  In fact, we see ourselves as those called by God to help in the redeeming.  Are we truly ready for those who are the “unclean” to change?  Are we willing to change along with them?  Are are we holding on desperately to our riches and our beliefs and our ways of seeing?  Are we unwittingly participating in the suffering of others by allowing injustices in this world?  What does it truly mean to be righteous?  When’s the last time any of us let down our guard and climbed a tree?


I wonder if he ever had second thoughts about what he promised Jesus as his feet first met the ground and his eyes first met Jesus’ eyes.


The afternoon sun dappled through the palladium windows in Kirby Parlor at Perkins School of Theology one autumn afternoon a couple years ago. It lit up the rugged, handsome features of an athletic 60 year old man seated in a circle of about 30 young preaching students. He was John Irving, the novelist, author of The World according to Gap, Cider House Rules, and A Prayer for Owen Meany among other novels. He was on campus to do the Tate lectures at SMU and graciously agreed to spend an hour with my preaching students. They provided the topic: What do sermon writing and novel writing have in common?

“Where do you start when you write a novel?” asked one young student.

Leaning forward, he said, “I always begin at the end, with the last scene. I put in it, in excruciating detail, what I want the reader to see, smell, taste, feel, hear …Then I flashback to the very beginning,  to what I call the inciting incident that jumpstarts the whole plot. Then I flash forward, scene by scene, each scene a domino that hits the next, that hits the next, that hits the next, each domino absolutely necessary to the next one, all crucial to the final one, until I arrive once again where I began, at the end.

Leaning forward even further, with an almost religious zeal in his fine brown eyes, he said:  “The trick is, friends, to make people realize there is so much at stake that they must keep reading, from one scene, one domino to the next, with each one asking “Why?” and “What is next?”, feeling that life as they know it can’t go on until they reach that final scene that they read last but that I wrote first.  That’s how I write a novel. You preachers should try it sometime.

Who am I am to ignore John Irving’s advice? Think about preaching a “John Irving” sermon on Zacchaeus. You could use this form on lots of different texts- probably narrative texts would work best.

Start at the end and flash back to the beginning and show how the ending depends on every scene that precedes it.


The things we say in a moment of gratitude. I sit at my table, alone now, shaking my head in disbelief, but with a sort of smile on my face. The voice of Jesus had faded and his footsteps receded as he went on his way to Jerusalem.  Jericho will seem forlorn without his voice and tread.  Servants quietly move around the room, clearing scraps of bread and half filled glasses. Still I sit, shaking my head. What was I thinking? What did I promise? How will I ever give away half my possessions to the poor and repay those I have defrauded four times over? The things we say in a moment of gratitude!

I wouldn’t be sitting here stunned and yet smiling if Jesus had not entered Jericho and passed through it on his way to Jerusalem. That’s how all this came about. But Jesus is always on his way to Jerusalem, always on the way to his death, but also to his life. His path to his crucifixion and resurrection always passes through my town.

I had heard about this healer and teacher, this one who ate with sinners and who touched the unclean.  But if he had not entered Jericho and been passing through it, he would have been only a distant rumor. I would never have been able to see who he was. I would have heard his stories about a shepherd leaving 99 sheep behind and seeking the one, a woman sweeping the house for a lost coin, and a father seeking to save two lost sons. But if he hadn’t bothered to come through my town, I would never have met my Shepherd, my Homemaker, and my Father.

It was as if he came looking for me. Oh, I guess I did my prior part as well. I was looking for him. If I had not had such a yearning to see who Jesus was, I would not have climbed a sycamore tree to see him. And, if there had not been a sycamore tree handy, I would not have been able to see him. None of the taller townspeople was likely to put me on their shoulders! I ran and I climbed, undignified behavior for one already disdained in the town. I ran and I climbed- why? Because Jesus was going to pass that way. That’s the “whisper down the lane” news I had heard. “He’s coming this way. Line up along the parade path. He’s coming this way.”

If I had not been high in my perch I would not have been able to see the top of his head and the sweep of his robe as he went by. That would have been enough for me. Just to see him from a distance. If he had not stopped right under my tree and looked up at me, I would never have seen his face. I would never have met those searching eyes.

If he had not stopped under the place where I was perched, he would not have seen me, would not have been able to direct his invitation to me. Never been able to instruct me to hurry. I did my part. I hurried. There is an air of urgency about an unexpected invitation, an unannounced guest.  If he had not stopped under my tree I would not have felt that stomach lurching sense of dismay, followed by elation. “He not only notices me, he forgives me. He sees me as worthy to host him in my home!” As I clambered down, I remembered the story Jesus once told about an unforgiving servant whom a king forgave of a great debt, who then turned around and would not forgive another. I would be the forgiving servant. His invitation said so much about his respect for me despite all I have done, all that still needs to be forgiven.

As soon as my feet hit the ground, I heard the grumbling of my neighbors. They hate me. They resent me. They call me a sinner. Sinners are those who are ill or disabled or poor, or, who, like me, though rich, are ritually unclean because of what we do for a living. I take their money for the Romans. Others are unclean because they dye cloth or tend sheep or have to sell their bodies for their daily bread. “You’re right,” I feel like saying. “He is going to be the guest of one who is a sinner… But a grateful one, a repentant one.”

What if Jesus had listened to their grumbling and said, “Oh, my bad. He is a sinner, isn’t he? Bad choice for the first stop on my progressive dinner. I’ll move on to someone else.” He would have rescinded the invitation and gone on to Jerusalem, gone on to dine in someone else’s home.  But he didn’t listen to them.  Instead, he listened to me and to what I said next.

If I hadn’t said “Look, half my possessions I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much,” my life wouldn’t now have to change.

The things we say in a moment of gratitude. I sit at my table, alone now, shaking my head in disbelief, but with a sort of smile on my face. The voice of Jesus has faded. His footsteps have receded as he went on his way to Jerusalem.  Jericho will seem forlorn without his voice and tread.  Servants quietly move around the room, clearing scraps of bread and half filled glasses from the table. He is gone, and yet, he is somehow still present, still here to guide and energize me. Still I sit, shaking my head. What was I thinking? What did I promise? How will I ever be able to give away half my possessions to the poor and repay those I have defrauded four times over? The things we say in a moment of gratitude! (Excerpt from “Dominoes, Anyone?:  Lectionary Reflection on Zacchaeus, Luke 19: 1-10, by Dr. Alyce McKenzie, October 22, 2010, available at, accessed 27 October, 2020)


  1. What is your response to this passage?
  2. What does this story say about redemption?
  3. Where do you find yourself in this story?
  4. What about climbing that tree?



Some Quotes for Further Reflection:

The whole future of the Earth, as of religion, seems to me to depend on the awakening of our faith in the future. (Pierre Teilhard de Chardin)

Prayer is hope’s breathing.  When we stop praying, we stop hoping.  (Dom Pedro Casaldaliga)


Unless one says good-bye to what one loves, and unless one travels to completely new territories, one can expect merely a long wearing away of oneself and eventual distinction. (Jean Dubuffet)




Close by reading the words of “Would I Have Answered When You Called”, by Herman G. Stuemfle, Jr., The Faith We Sing # 2137


Would I have answered when you called, “Come follow, follow me!”?  Would I at once have left behind both work and family?  Or would the old, familiar round have held me by its claim and kept the spark with in my heart from bursting into flame?


Would I have followed where you led through ancient Galilee, on roads unknown, by ways untried, beyond security?  Or would I soon have hurried back where home and comfort drew, where truth you taught would not disturb the ordered world I knew?


Would I have matched my step with yours when crowds cried, “Crucify!” when on a rocky hill I saw a cross against the sky?  Or would I too have slipped away and left you there alone, a dying king with crown of thorns upon a terrible throne?


O Christ, I cannot search my heart through all its tangled ways, nor can I with a certain mind my steadfastness appraise.  I only pray that when you call, “Come follow, follow me!”, you’ll give me strength beyond my own to follow faithfully.  Amen.


Proper 25C: The Humble Heart

OLD TESTAMENT:  Joel 2: 23-32

BlessingRead the passage from Joel

We don’t really know when the Book known as Joel was written.  Some scholars think that it may have come about as early as the ninth century BCE and some think that it may have been right before the exile.  Most place it sometime between 500 and 350 BCE.  Assuming that, the Babylonian exile and dispersion are in the past.  There is no mention of a king or royal court, and the priests and elders are the community’s leaders.  The walls of Jerusalem have been restored.  There doesn’t seem to be any external unrest threatening the community.  The prophet uses the traditions and earlier prophecies to frame his message.  Sometimes he borrows whole parts of other prophets’ messages.  He is calling for the continued work of the prophetic word even in this time.

The setting is apparently following some sort of natural disaster—perhaps a locust plague associated with a drought.  And in the understanding of that time, the disaster would have been a pronouncement of God’s judgment upon a sinful people.  And yet, God renews not only the people, but the face of the entire earth.  Hope abounds.

In the passage that we read, the gift of rain depicts God’s righteousness, or the fulfillment of relationship.  The rains become a symbol of the restoration not only of fertility of the ground but a restoration of the covenantal relationship with God.  All the hardships of the past will be reversed.  God will once again bestow covenant blessings on the repentant and faithful people.

In v. 28, “afterward” probably refers not to the time following these events but rather that indefinite time of the coming of the day of the Lord.  At that time God will pour out God’s spirit on ALL flesh.  The prophet prophecies that the people will have direct communication from God. Joel is the first prophet to introduce this idea of the “Day of the Lord”.  Joel promises that all who call upon the Lord will be delivered.

It’s sort of interesting.  Keep in mind that the Hebrew understanding of a “day” begins not with sunrise but with sunset (like the Sabbath).  The “Day of the Lord”, for the prophet Joel, begins at night.  It begins in darkness.  Keep in mind that this is after the exile, but their land, their ownership, has not been restored.  The prophet is then talking of God who will send help for the people.  And the people will respond joyfully.

Maybe that’s the whole point.  We walk in darkness.  But this is the beginning, the beginning of God’s Kingdom flooding into our midst.  It has already begun.  We are not there.  It is still too dark to see sometimes.  But there is a faint glow as the sunrise begins to peek through the clouds.  We are there—now—at the beginning.  (Wasn’t there something in Genesis about that?)

Through the words of the prophet, the people came to understand that what they have might have been taken away because of the injustices that they had allowed to persist there.  Think about this:  The holiness of God cannot share quarters with sin and injustice.  The idea of “God’s holy city” is not some sort of utopian paradise; it has to do with justice.

In his book, Credo, William Sloane Coffin says this:


“And what does the Lord require of you but to do justice…”  “Justice is to sort out what belongs to whom, and to return it to them.”  (Brueggemann).  Justice then redescribes the world.  And to do justice as God does justice is to intervene in the social order [of the entire world]…(William Sloane Coffin, Credo, p. 63.)


  1. What is your response to this passage?
  2. What, for you, is meant by the notion of the “Day of the Lord”?
  3. What does it mean to “call upon the Lord”?
  4. What is your image of this “holy city of God”?


NEW TESTAMENT:  2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18

Read the passage from 2 Timothy

As we come to the end of this second letter to Timothy, Paul makes a last testimony (or possibly some of Paul’s last words were used to make the impact here).  Paul’s realizes that his time is drawing to a close.  His death is imminent and clearly in view.  The impact that this is intended to make is to allow it to influence and mold our lives for the better.  Paul was indeed looking back on his own life, but at the same time, he was asking those who shared it with him and those who would share in his memory (that, of course, would be us) to keep going, to keep the faith and strength in God, to keep on keeping on in the name of Christ.

It is a reminder that discipleship is not about being “blessed” or, I would think, even being “right”; it is about perseverance through faith and doubt, through high points and low points, through life and through death.  The lesson of this passage, then, is that only when reality and life is accepted unconditionally, can there be that unconditional trust that remains confident in God through, as well as despite, everything.  Through these words of Paul, we are told to press on now, not toward something that we do not know or cannot grasp, but to the God that is there now.  That is the message that should be proclaimed.

This passage is used a lot for funerals and memorials.  It is an assurance that the person that we have lost has achieved the “prize”.  And yet, what does that mean?  I struggle with the concept of heaven as just another “place”.  For me, eternity is a new way of being, whatever that looks like or feels like and in some mysterious way, that eternity is mixed in with our lives even now.

In an article in The Christian Century, Michael Battle writes:


What will heaven be like? In London’s Sunday Telegraph of April 27, cancer-stricken Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu remarked in an interview: ” I wonder whether they have rum and Coke in Heaven? Maybe it’s too mundane a pleasure, but I hope so — as a sundowner. Except, of course, the sun never goes down there. Oh, man, this heaven is going to take some getting used to.”  What will heaven be like? Scripture leads us to believe that heaven will be the completion of our earthly existence. We will have no need of an exploding star (the sun) or a lifeless planet (the moon) to be our light. We will have no need of jihad because all nations will be healed by eating the leaves of a tree of life. Shouldn’t this make us rejoice? Shouldn’t we take great delight in the knowledge that we will be complete, in need of nothing? We should, but as Tutu points out, we have our own image of what delights us. 

If I asked everyone on the planet what do you most desire, what would “complete” you, I would have as many answers as there are people….The ultimate answer to what heaven is like is this: God…Archbishop of Wales Rowan Williams helps us to address our fears. How, he asks, can we be in heaven knowing that others are in hell? In other words: How can heaven be heaven if there is a hell? We must understand heaven as God’s presence through the practices of mercy and humility. We must gain the vision of God’s unrelenting love…Our answer to what heaven is like should be a common answer — uninhibited presence with God. As Tutu said:

It is enough just to be there. You know how it is when you are sitting with someone you love and hours can go by in what seem like moments? Well, in heaven, eternity itself will pass in a flash. In heaven we will never tire. We will never be bored because there will always be such new sides of God that will be revealed to us.

  1. What is your response to this passage?
  2. So what is our image of the “prize” before us?
  3. What is it that most gets in the way of our discipleship here and now?
  4. This seems, somehow, to be a call to surety even in the presence of doubt. What do our doubts say about our faith?



GOSPEL:  Luke 18: 9-14

Read the passage from The Gospel According to Luke

The parable that we read this week begins by giving us a sense of what it’s about.  We are told that it is being told to some who trusted in themselves and regarded others with contempt.  Keep in mind.  This is the eighteenth chapter of Luke.  There is a sense as we spin toward the end of Pentecost that the messages are becoming more pronounced, more directed toward us.  For the writer of Luke, the story is becoming more and more centered on God and what that means for salvation.

This idea of “trusting in oneself” is one that leaves a person blind to one’s position before God.  But still, they “go up” to the Temple to pray.  The Pharisee stands alone, in an effort to maintain his purity and cleanliness before God, attempting to shield himself from the riff-raff and undesirables of the world that might get in the way of his relationship with God.

It is interesting that both begin their prayer with “God”, but the Pharisee’s prayer immediately turns back to himself, speaking in the first person.  He continues talking about himself in an effort to “prove” his piety to God (and probably to himself).  He asks nothing of God.  He presumes, rather, that he is seen as pious and faithful.  He gives no evidence of humility.

But, in his defense, remember that the Pharisees were the learned and admirable sect within Judaism.  They were known for their ability to interpret the Scripture, their right living, and their prayer life.  They refused to swear allegiance to Caesar.  Their name “Pharisee”, means “separated one” even from the Jewish community.  They had to remain pure and clean to do their job.  Their main focus was to obey the laws of God and make sure that others did the same.

But the tax collector, standing far off, implying a feeling of unworthiness before God, simply asks for mercy.  “Have mercy on me, O God, a sinner.”  Nothing more is said.  The tax collector “went down to his house justified” because his humility was a sign of faith.  In his prayer for mercy, he reveals the depths and freedom of God’s forgiving love that are not limited by righteousness in this world.

The parable leaves it up to us to figure it out.  Who was the humble one?  Who exalted himself?  And who is seen as faithful in the eyes of God?  This parable is not, though, just a warning about pride and haughtiness.  Grace can only be received by those who have empathy for others.  Even if the Pharisee had been truly self-reflective, how could he be at one with God if he is blind to the needs and lives of others?

We tend, sometimes, to become “pharisaic” about Pharisees.  It is hard to reposition ourselves to look at the whole world, even those with which we disagree, as our brothers and sisters.  The tax collector did not come bargaining with God.  He knew where he stood and he knew that God would still be willing to embrace him.

Here are some excerpts from “Praying With a Sideward Glance”, by Paul D. Duke.  It appeared in The Christian Century in October, 1995: (available at

THE PARABLE about the Pharisee and the tax collector neglects to mention that the Pharisee was singing “Amazing Grace” on his way to church that day. Or that as he said his prayer, there were tears in his eyes. He feels this stuff. He is awash with religious emotion, truly moved to gratitude for the life God has blessed him to live. Ask him on his way out what he thinks of the tax collector, and he will tell you, “There but for the grace of God go I.” He will even think that he means it.

The parable also neglects to point out that the tax collector, when he has wiped his eyes, blown his nose and gone home, will not be quitting his shady job. He can’t see any options; it’s a nasty business, but he’s stuck in it. Tomorrow he’ll again take money from his neighbors, hand some of it over to the empire and put some aside for himself.

To see the Publican as honorable and the Pharisee as a creep makes the story false, curdles it to a dishonest (and easily anti-Semitic) morality tale and sends us straight into the trap of saying, “God, we thank you that we are not like this Pharisee!” Better to see him as he is–a thoroughly decent, generous, committed man–and to see the Publican as a compromised, certified stinker.

I know which character my church depends on. I know which one pays the bills, teaches the lesson, visits the sick, feeds the hungry. I’d love a churchful of people with his commitments–people who care enough to fast, people who tithe on all their income and who thank God that they can. As in Jesus, day, it’s people like the Pharisee who hold the community together and keep the faith with diligence and passion. We can’t color him sinister. He’s not J. R. Ewing in a choir robe. He’s a better man than I am, and probably better than you.

Someone should draw a cartoon of a congregation at prayer with thought balloons over each head. Worshipers would be saying, “Thank you that I’m not like these fundamentalists” or “Thank you that I’m not like these liberals” or “Thank you that I’m above all this.” Our capacity for smugness is astonishing. In the nation and in the churches, what a rage is on to assure ourselves and define ourselves by who we are not like. Could there be a better indicator that we have no idea who we are? When our eyes move away from our own shadowy hearts, there is no place left to look but at someone else, and no comfort but in claiming: Well, I’m not like that!

God be merciful to me, a sinner,” whispers the man who is not at all good, but who is at least looking at his own lousy heart. And offering it. He’s not unlike the woman whom Jesus would soon see in that very temple, the one who throws her last two pennies into the plate. Like the widow’s gift, the tax collector’s prayer is poor, not given from any abundance but from his need, and it’s all that he holds in his crooked hands. And somewhere Someone cheers.

The story is set in a fine little frame. It begins, “Two men went up . . . a Pharisee and a tax collector.” Now two men go down, but the tax collector is shown first, as if he leads the way. Nothing is said of his counterpart’s destination, but the tax collector has a justified homecoming. After this kind of prayer, you go home. It’s the grand old gospel reversal again–God undoing the order of things as they are in our temples, exalting those of low degree in a great surprise of mercy, filling those whose eye is single” with light enough to return home.

Humility is typically a hard thing for us to grasp.  It involves being able to see the truth about who we really are and accept others as they are.  And more than that, it leaves room for us to see the grandeur that is God.  It allows us to be who were are called to be in God’s order, rather than who we envision ourselves to be.  It enables us to prepare to receive God into our lives—not the God we want or the God we think we need but God, Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer, who loves us more than we can even fathom, on the days when we are sinners and the days that we get it right and the days (which is most of them) when we don’t even know which we are.


  1. What is your response to this passage?
  2. At the beginning, who do you think the “some” to which Jesus was speaking were?
  3. Be honest…who of us looked at the Pharisee with the thought,” Thank God, I’m not like that Pharisee!”?
  4. Who is it that we pharisaically hold in contempt?



Some Quotes for Further Reflection:

Too often we picture God as some immovable rock, when in fact it is God and God alone who never rests.  I only quote Scripture:  “He neither slumbers nor sleeps.”  It is God who says, “Behold, I create all things new.”  Therefore God’s most persistent enemies must be those who are unwilling to move in new directions…If you choose, you’re sometimes wrong; but you never choose, you’re always wrong. (William Sloane Coffin, Credo, p. 72)

Doubt is the shadow cast by faith.  One does not always notice it, but it is always there, though concealed.  At any moment, it may come into action.  There is no mystery of the faith that is immune to doubt.  (Hans Kung)


What makes humility so desirable is the marvelous thing it does to us; it creates in us a capacity for the closest possible intimacy with God.  (Monica Baldwin)





Deliver me, O Jesus,

From the desire of being loved,

From the desire of being extolled,

From the desire of being honored,

From the desire of being praised,

From the desire of being preferred,

From the desire of being consulted,

From the desire of being approved,

From the desire of being popular,

From the fear of being humiliated,

From the fear of being despised,

From the fear of suffering rebukes,

From the fear of being forgotten,

From the fear of being wronged,

From the fear of being ridiculed,

From the fear of being suspected.


from A Simple Path, by Mother Teresa, p. 37.