Humility is a theme of all three of these stories in the Gospel of Luke. We might expect such a theme from the story of people bringing the little children to Jesus and Jesus’ saying, “Whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it” (Luke 18:17).
What is it about children that we should imitate? Perhaps it is that children don’t know everything, and they know that they don’t know everything. They are supposed to still be learning. It isn’t until the teenage years or young adulthood that we start thinking that we know everything — or at least know more than our parents and teachers.
Even later in life, we often want others to think we are fully competent and knowledgeable. Jesus may be asking his followers to receive the reign of God in awe and wonder, in recognition that there is much we do not yet know about life in the reign of God, and with a willingness to be taught.
The tax collectors in Luke 18:9-14 and Luke 19:1-10 are similarly humble and open to learn. They are undoubtedly Jews, participants in a Roman tax-farming system, collaborators with the forces occupying Palestine. The system worked by the Romans putting the tax collection for a certain district up for bids. The person with the winning bid made money by collecting more than the bid, sometimes by threat and extortion.
The tax system was ambiguous enough that it was always possible for the tax collector to wring a little more out of the populace and increase his own wealth.
Thus tax collectors were despised by their fellow Jews, not only for collaborating with Rome but for their tendency to cheat people out of money.
In the parable in Luke 18:9-14, however, the tax collector is the person Jesus holds up for imitation, not the Pharisee, who has a list of his own virtues and despises the tax collector.
The tax collector’s prayer, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” became, in later centuries, the basis of the Jesus Prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
Many people, particularly in the Eastern Church, have found the repetition of this contemplative prayer throughout the day a way of stilling the mind and encountering God or Christ in the stillness. Often the goal was for the prayer to become so continuous and automatic that the ones praying were not consciously repeating the words but allowing the prayer to become fully a part of them.
In the Gospel passage, Jesus commends such prayer and says, “This man went down to his home justified.” Here “justification” has to do with being put right with God, being in right relationship, having the right attitude before God — the attitude of humility.
Luke 19:1-10 tells of Jesus’ encounter with Zacchaeus, a rich tax collector. Zacchaeus has climbed a tree — somewhat humiliating for an adult — to see Jesus. We can surmise Zacchaeus has heard of Jesus and his message and has begun thinking about what he might have to do differently.
Jesus sees him and invites himself to Zacchaeus’ house. Zacchaeus is “happy to welcome him” and immediately begins to show signs of repentance for his extortion of taxes by offering to give half of his possessions to the poor and pay back fourfold anyone he has defrauded. Jesus responds, “Today salvation has come to this house.”
Salvation here is not the result of prayer but of Zacchaeus getting his finances aligned with the values of the reign of God.
Common to all these biblical texts is recognition of one’s own inadequacies, failures or sins. Such an attitude appears here to be a precondition for “entering the kingdom of God,” being justified and receiving salvation.
Does this mean that we are to consider ourselves the lowest of the low and sing the hymn that says Jesus died for “such a worm as I”? Rather, we are to appraise ourselves realistically — our successes and our failures, our sins and our acts of love, our knowledge and our lack of it.
We are to approach God with the attitude of little children, with awe and wonder, in recognition that there is much we do not yet know about life in the reign of God. We are to come to God with a willingness to be taught and to set things right. That is true humility.
Lois Y. Barrett is professor of theology and Anabaptist studies at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary. She lives in Wichita, Kan.