[Listen to Audio] C. S. Lewis wrote somewhere that it is best to try to like everybody you meet. After all, it’s easier to love people that you like. And Jesus teaches us to love everyone.
Good as his word, Jesus set the example he wants us to follow. For instance, as he gasped for breath on the cross, he asked for forgiveness for the ones who had driven in the nails. But even Jesus struggled to follow Lewis’ advice to like everybody.
Especially one group pressed Jesus’ buttons: religious people. Or at least, some among the Pharisees and the scribes were on the receiving end of his sharpest criticisms. Spiritual arrogance was chief among the traits that set him off.
But Jesus was never a “just say no” kind of guy. He didn’t merely throw up stop signs. He always showed us a way. So even as he warned about spiritual arrogance, he taught the way of humility.
That’s what he’s getting at in the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector. The Pharisee boasts to God about his religious excellence. The tax collector comes to God in need and seeks mercy. Jesus sums up the parable with this well-known punchline: “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Luke 18:14)
Some readers interpret this to mean that God will swat down the prideful Pharisee and reward the repentant tax collector. They’re thinking something like this: Everybody knows that pride is bad and humility is good. So, God will punish the Pharisee for the sin of arrogance. The tax collector hits the jackpot for being humble.
That’s not my take on this parable. On the contrary, I suggest to you that this interpretation of Jesus’ words comes from a misconception of God and of how we relate to God that sets the stage for religious arrogance.
Let’s take a closer look at the Pharisee.
The Pharisee saw God principally as judge. God measures. God rewards. God punishes. As a result, the Pharisee understood himself as a spiritual success. He had surpassed most others in adhering to the moral instructions and in following the religious practices prescribed in the Law and the Prophets.
To put it succinctly, he was good enough for God and better than most everybody else.
The tax collector, by contrast, came to see himself as dust. That’s the true meaning of humility. To see ourselves as dust. Don’t get me wrong, that’s not to say that we’re low as dirt, nor that we’re dirty or bad. Let’s review what the Bible says about dust to get at what I mean.
We’ll start with the second and oldest creation story in the second chapter of Genesis. God formed Adam out of the dust of the earth. Adam actually means earth-man, the man formed from the dust.
God breathed life into Adam. In other words, the life that Adam enjoys derives from God and God alone. Dust, after all, doesn’t animate itself. We whisk it away with a vacuum cleaner or a Swiffer mop. It accumulates under our beds and atop our ceiling fans. Dust doesn’t do the dishes, rouse itself from slumber, or take the dog for a walk. That is, dust doesn’t do any of these things unless it is animated by the very breath of God.
God brought Adam to life—God brings you and me to life—to join in the divine dance of love and nurture. “Tend the garden,” God had said. “Join me in making things grow and flourish, just for the sheer delight of it.”
God did not say, “Get to work and I’ll see how you do. You’ll get a performance review once you’re done.” No. God said, “Take up what I’m doing at the very core of your life so that my life flows through you like air flows in and out of your lungs.” God doesn’t just tell us what to do in order to grade our performance. God invites us to participate in the divine life. That’s what true life—eternal life—is.
The Bible also tells us that, just as God brings us to life from the dust, so too we all eventually go down to the dust. The writer of Ecclesiastes puts it this way: “The dust returns to the earth as it was, and the breath returns to God who gave it.” (12:7)
In other words, one day we will relinquish whatever wealth or status or achievements we happen to accumulate over time. We take nothing with us when we go down to the dust. If our identity is bound up with any of the applause we receive or the stuff we’ve got or the trophies on our shelf, we become nobody when we die. We are utterly stripped of all that we had thought made us special, made us somebody.
That goes for our moral performance, our theological opinions, and our religious practices just as much as it does for our Super Bowl rings, our diplomas, and our financial portfolios. If we believe that quantity of our achievements and the quality of our performance give our lives eternal significance, we will be humbled. We will discover that they have counted for nothing. They were ultimately beside the point.
The Pharisee counted on his moral, theological, and religious achievements to validate him before God. All he sought from God was acknowledgement of his spiritual excellence. The tax collector, by contrast, brought nothing more than need to God and sought only to rely upon mercy.
To put that a little differently, the tax collector recognized what the Pharisee had utterly overlooked. He is dust. He will return to dust. In the final analysis, we are all equal in our radical dependence upon God. Relying upon God is the only thing that goes down to the dust with us. That’s because Jesus goes down to the dust with us in order to breathe new, eternal life into us.
Strictly speaking, most of us go down to the dust more than once in this life. Sometimes we go down to the dust in a divorce, with our struggling children, as a result of an illness.
But we also go down to the dust by sacrificing personal gain for the greater good, by letting go of rigid concepts that no longer bring life to us and the people around us, and by forgiving old wounds for the sake of a healed relationship.
Jesus teaches us that following him means going down to the dust and being raised to new life by him. The first step in following Jesus is taking up the cross. The way of Jesus is, as the late Marcus Borg often said, the way of dying and rising.
We let go of narrow, phony, superficial life in order to receive greater, genuine, eternal life in Jesus. Day by day. Week by week. Year by year.
Acknowledging that we are dust liberates us. We don’t have to make ourselves good enough for God. Instead of comparing ourselves to others as better or worse, we can finally find solidarity with everyone in our common need.
We are all formed from the same dust. We are all animated by the same divine breath. And when we go down to the dust, Jesus raises us to new life.