Connections 05.15.2016: It’s Hard to Be Humble


Luke 18:9-14

My father, the late great Champ Ruffin, would sometimes say, “You know, it’s hard to be humble when you’re as great as I am.” He was kidding. I think.

I noticed he never said it when Mama was around.

Singer/songwriter Mac Davis expanded on my dad’s observation with his song that said,

Oh Lord it’s hard to be humble
when you’re perfect in every way.
I can’t wait
to look in the mirror.
‘cause I get better looking each day.

I’m still waiting for the royalty checks.

There’s no doubt about how Luke wants us to read the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector, because he comes right out and tells us: “[Jesus] also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt” (Lk 18:9). Luke wants his readers to learn from the parable that followers of Jesus shouldn’t trust in their own righteousness and shouldn’t look down on others.

The key word for understanding the parable is “humility,” as we see in Jesus’ concluding comment: “I tell you, [the tax collector] went down to his home justified rather than the [Pharisee], for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted” (18:14). We who follow Jesus shouldn’t be self-righteous and thus deluded about the quality of our lives. We should rather be humble and thus clear-minded about our need for God’s mercy.

But it’s not easy to be humble, even if you really are. In fact, it’s downright difficult.

That’s why we need to be careful about how we approach this parable. It’s a trap.

Why do I say that?

Well, we know going into the parable that we’re supposed to get what it says about not being self-righteous and not looking contemptuously at other people. We’re not supposed to be like the Pharisee, who does both. We are supposed to be like the tax collector, who does neither.

It makes sense, then, that if we find that we’re humble, we’ll be glad. And if we’re glad, we’ll thank God. But if we’re glad that we’re humble, even if we thank God for it, then we’ve become aware that we’re humble. Once we become aware that we’re humble, it’s awfully hard not to be proud that we’re humble. And even if we manage to be humble about being humble, we might find ourselves being proud of being humble about being humble.

Then we find that it’s hard not to be glad that we’re not like those proud people, who have it all so wrong.

When we find ourselves praying, “I thank you, God, that I don’t look down on those self-righteous, proud people who look down on other people,” the trap is sprung.

That’s when it’s time to pray, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”

(Writer’s note: I’m aware that the first Reference Shelf posting, below, of an excerpt from my book on Luke’s parables could be seen as an indication of a lack of humility. Perhaps I should tell you that another of my father’s favorite sayings was, “He that tooteth not his own horn, the same shall not be tooteth for him!”).


1. Why is it so hard for us to be humble? What is there about us that makes us want to receive credit?
2. Why do we tend to compare ourselves to others? Why are we prone to find fault with others?
3. Why do you believe Luke thought it vital to teach his readers of the importance of being humble before God?
4. What’s the difference between humble self-appraisal and beating yourself up?
5. Pharisees were considered to be upright folks; tax collectors were not. Jesus said, though, that this particular Pharisee (not all Pharisees) was self-righteous, while this particular tax collector (not all tax collectors) was humble. Which kind of person is the church more comfortable having as a member? Why?

Reference Shelf


What convergences are suggested between the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector and Luke’s intended audience, as well as between the parable
and us?

The Parable with Luke’s Audience
Luke wanted his original audience, a group of (likely) predominantly Gentile Christians living a half-century after Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, to understand what it meant for them to be increasingly faithful in their discipleship. He wanted them to grow in their following of Jesus. Such growth is desirable, but it can be dangerous if the desire for it becomes misdirected and if the ones seeking such growth come to believe that it’s all about them. One of the greatest dangers is the development of a spiritual superiority syndrome characterized by the belief that we are so right with God that we can look down on those who are not quite so right. The danger is only compounded if we can convince ourselves that we are actually humble. “If others were as mature as I am,” we might reason, “they’d be as humble as I am, too!”

We know that such attitudes existed in the early church. Paul, who wrote his letters two to three decades before the Third Gospel was produced, struggled against church members who believed that they had already been made perfect and so were better than others in the Christian community. Luke wanted his audience to understand that, as they journeyed with Christ and as they grew in their relationship with God, spiritual pride was a real and present danger.

The Parable with Us
We have probably all witnessed how attitudes of spiritual superiority have damaged relationships within the local church. We live in closest proximity to other Christians in our own congregation, and we all too quickly compare ourselves with each other in order to conclude that our faith, our service, or
our ethics are better than those practiced by our sisters and brothers. Some of them may be thinking the same thing about us. We need to guard our spirits against this.

It seems to me, though, that we have an even bigger problem between congregations, between denominations, and between the various segments of our faith families. We compare our churches, our traditions, and our ministry approaches, and we find ours superior and others’ wanting. Or, in a variation on the theme, we find others’ ways better and our own lacking (pastors just love it when they hear that one!).

We’d be better off spending more time and energy asking God to have mercy on us than thinking God needs to have mercy on them.

Michael L. Ruffin, Luke: Parables for the Journey (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2015) 38-39.

Self-assured Piety

The parable functions first of all as the unmasking of unbelief in an unlikely situation. The introduction (v. 9) exposes the problem. The parable is told to those who (a) trusted in themselves that they were righteous (self-assured piety) and (b) despised others (spiritual condescension). Such a stance is described by the conclusion (v. 14) as exalting oneself. This was the plight of the Pharisee. He was self-assured about his righteousness (v. 12). The culture would have had questions about him. Philo, for example, would have been surprised that Luke’s Pharisee had nothing to confess for “even the most perfect man, insofar as he is a created being, never escapes from sinning” (De spec.leg. 1.252 § 46). He was condescending about his superiority toward others. Hillel said that one should not judge one’s fellow until having come to his place (m. Abot 2:5). Epictetus expressed the opinion that it is inappropriate to compare one’s achievements with those of others. It is a vain and vulgar thing to do (4.8.28-30). For Luke, salvation by grace means one can never feel religiously superior to another. Faith never expresses itself as despising others. Spiritual arrogance is presumption, assuming that one stands in God’s place, able to judge. It is this exaltation of oneself that God overturns.

The parable functions secondly as the identification of faith in an improbable person. It was the despicable tax collector whose prayer was answered. Why? (a) He trusted not in who he was but in who God was (merciful). Certain Jews would have agreed. At Qumran, for example, 1QH 8 says: “Your servant has no righteous deeds to deliver him from the pit of no forgiveness. But I lean on the abundance of your mercies and hope for the greatness of your grace.” (b) He hoped not in what he had but in what he might receive (forgiveness). Again, this sentiment would have found acceptance in the culture. Josephus (War 5.415) says: “The deity is easily reconciled to those who confess and repent.” This stance the conclusion describes as humility. This parable, then, lays out a contrast between lack of faith and faith.

Charles H. Talbert, Reading Luke: A Literary and Theological Commentary, rev. ed. (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2002) 201.

Michael Ruffin is husband to Debra and father to Joshua (Michelle) and Sara (Benjamin). A graduate of Mercer University and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, he has previously served as a pastor and as a university professor. He lives on the Ruffin Family Farm in Yatesville, Georgia. You can visit and communicate with him at He is the Connections Series Curriculum Editor.


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