Today’s reading comes from Luke 18:9-34 (NJB):
9 He spoke the following parable to some people who prided themselves on being upright and despised everyone else, 10 ‘Two men went up to the Temple to pray, one a Pharisee, the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee stood there and said this prayer to himself, “I thank you, God, that I am not grasping, unjust, adulterous like everyone else, and particularly that I am not like this tax collector here. 12 I fast twice a week; I pay tithes on all I get.” 13 The tax collector stood some distance away, not daring even to raise his eyes to heaven; but he beat his breast and said, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” 14 This man, I tell you, went home again justified; the other did not. For everyone who raises himself up will be humbled, but anyone who humbles himself will be raised up.’
15 People even brought babies to him, for him to touch them; but when the disciples saw this they scolded them. 16 But Jesus called the children to him and said, ‘Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. 17 In truth I tell you, anyone who does not welcome the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.’
18 One of the rulers put this question to him, ‘Good Master, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?’
19 Jesus said to him, ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. 20 You know the commandments: You shall not commit adultery; You shall not kill; You shall not steal; You shall not give false witness; Honor your father and your mother.’
21 He replied, ‘I have kept all these since my earliest days.’
22 And when Jesus heard this he said, ‘There is still one thing you lack. Sell everything you own and distribute the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’
23 But when he heard this he was overcome with sadness, for he was very rich. 24 Jesus looked at him and said, ‘How hard it is for those who have riches to make their way into the kingdom of God! 25 Yes, it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for someone rich to enter the kingdom of God.’
26 Those who were listening said, ‘In that case, who can be saved?’
27 He replied, ‘Things that are impossible by human resources, are possible for God.’
28 But Peter said, ‘Look, we left all we had to follow you.’
29 He said to them, ‘In truth I tell you, there is no one who has left house, wife, brothers, parents or children for the sake of the kingdom of God 30 who will not receive many times as much in this present age and, in the world to come, eternal life.’ 31 Then taking the Twelve aside he said to them, ‘Look, we are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written by the prophets about the Son of man is to come true. 32 For he will be handed over to the gentiles and will be mocked, maltreated and spat on, 33 and when they have scourged him they will put him to death; and on the third day he will rise again.’
34 But they could make nothing of this; what he said was quite obscure to them, they did not understand what he was telling them.
Blessed are the poor in spirit. Today’s parables are a humbling reminder that it is not the gifts and blessings we possess that define our importance, but rather our ability to recognize our shortcomings and place our complete trust in Jesus. We all know that Jesus’s heart is open to the poor—but perhaps this is because being poor allows one’s heart to be more open to Jesus. Both the spiritual wealth of the Pharisee and the physical wealth of the rich man in this passage create a wall in their hearts—a boundary holding them back from placing their trust in God. In the words of renowned Christian writer C.S. Lewis: “One of the dangers of . . . money is that you may be quite satisfied with the kinds of happiness money can give and so fail to realize your need for God. . . . natural gifts carry with them a similar danger. Often people who have all these natural kinds of goodness cannot be brought to recognize their need for Christ.”1 Perhaps it is easier for those with more apparent faults to admit that they need God to help them bear their crosses. Yet those who perform well by human standards often feel sufficient in themselves, and find it harder to embrace humility and recognize their need for God.
Humility is not a matter of being grateful for one’s gifts; the Pharisee of Jesus’s parable is not unthankful for his gifts, but this doesn’t make him humble. The problem lies in believing one deserves the gifts one is given, and ultimately can deserve God’s gift of salvation. When the Pharisee thanks God for his gifts, he also implies that without these gifts, he would be lesser, and states that those lacking his gifts are inferior. But the Pharisee is missing the point—no matter how many gifts we have, we can never be worthy of God; it is only in recognizing this and asking for God’s mercy that we can truly draw closer to him.
Even the greatest of men is minuscule in comparison to God; the difference between the tax collector and the Pharisee pales in comparison to the difference between either of them and God. How vain is the Pharisee to put stock in a human difference! A humble heart—one that does not raise itself above others and trusts in God—is what matters. This is seen in the contrast Jesus provides with the story of the children: one must have the heart of a child to enter the Kingdom; a heart that is innocent and realizes its insufficiencies. A child’s heart has complete trust that its parents will protect, love, and care for him—the same kind of trust that we need to put in God.
Though we cannot earn salvation, this is not to say our efforts to do good do not matter; sloth is indeed one of the seven deadly sins. However, it does bring to our attention that if we do the right things with the wrong frame of heart, we are still missing something—something big. The Pharisee and the rich man have done everything by the book, but Jesus shows them that in focusing only on the letter of the law, not the spirit of it, they were missing the point. The men are both focused inwardly, and are missing the bigger picture, preventing their actions from reaching their full potential. Jesus calls us to go beyond ourselves and use our gifts for the good of others.
At Harvard, we’re constantly surrounded by both those who are rich in material wealth and those who are rich in spirit. We are living in the lap of luxury, and we’re often praised for our “success” by the world’s standards. However, it is far too easy to lose sight of this from within the “Harvard bubble.” We’ve all met plenty of people here that could stand to learn a bit from today’s parables. I’d even go so far as to say that we’ve all been one of them at some time or another—I definitely cannot say I’m innocent.
Jesus’s parables can indeed be a painful reminder of our faults and insufficiencies; indeed, they were so painful to the leaders in Jesus’s time that they wanted to get rid of Him—as He alludes to at the end of the passage. But if we can take these parables as a constructive reminder, leaving our hearts open and challenging ourselves to rise to the occasion, they can help us to grow spiritually.
The abundance of riches that surrounds us at Harvard can also make our time here the most humbling of experiences, forcing us to be poor in spirit. There are times when we are the Pharisee, but there are also times in which we are the tax collector. I’ve personally experienced many a time at Harvard that I had to step back and say “God, I can’t do this alone. I need some help.” It is important to let these moments guide us. In these moments when we feel insufficient in comparison to our peers, we can also take this opportunity to look beyond this and realize that we are all insufficient in comparison to God. We are no greater or lesser than any of the rest of humanity.
Now, this is not all to say we are a hopeless cause—as Jesus reminds those listening to the parable, “Things that are impossible by human resources are possible for God.” We must only recognize our need for him, and welcome him into our hearts like a child. The Joy of the Gospel is that it doesn’t matter that we have insufficiencies and shortcomings. This shouldn’t cause us to fear or panic—instead it should propel us into our father’s beckoning embrace. He asks us to give everything we have, and promises that he will make it more than enough. God can do great things through all of us, his imperfect children—those with many great talents and those with just a few. We need only to become poor in spirit, to trust in Him, and let Him work his wonders!
Katherine Culbertson ’18 is a Sophomore in Winthrop studying Environmental Science & Public Policy.
- C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, p. 166. ↩