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Humility – January 13, 2013

From 1986 until 1992, Dana Carvey brought to the Saturday Night Live show a character who was instantly popular and very, very funny. Carvey turned himself into Enid Strict, the “Church Lady,” who hosted a talk show called “Church Chat.” Uptight, smug, and pious, the Church Lady was a hilarious spoof of any “holier-than-thou” Christian who is totally judgmental and always superior to lesser humans. Church Lady’s guests were often celebrities (or actors portraying celebrities) whose moral track records were less than stellar. With her holy hands clasped firmly on the desk in front of her, Church Lady would comment on the guests’ indiscretions, link their behavior directly to the influence of “Satan,” and give them no room to squirm out of their “conveeeenient” immorality. On some occasions, she would climax her skewering of the guest with her “Superior Dance,” as the organ music swelled and the camera shot faded.
Dana Carvey claims that the Church Lady character was based on some ladies in the church of his childhood. Aware that he was always under scrutiny and never measured up, Carvey apparently drew on that experience to create the unforgettable Enid Strict.

Carvey’s character, of course, is over-the-top and very cartoonish, but is funny because it draws attention to and pokes fun at smug, self-righteous religionists. Jesus did the same thing in one of his best known parables:

Jesus also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt. “Two men went up to the Temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week, I give a tenth of all my income.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ (Jesus said) I tell you this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted. – Luke 18: 9-14 (NRSV)

In contrast to the many people in our culture who claim to be “spiritual, but not religious,” the Pharisee was “religious, but not spiritual.” Fasting and tithing can be deeply rewarding spiritual practices, but they had not brought the Pharisee spiritual rewards. They had only brought him self-righteousness.

One of the best portrayals of the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector that I have ever seen was in a production of Godspell, the 1970 Broadway musical. An ambitious youth group at a Baptist Church in the town where I was serving decided to put on the play. It was a superb production. Their energy and enthusiasm, coupled with their own sincere Christian belief, made for a memorable evening. During the play, when they were doing a series of rapid-fire enactments of several parables, one of them attached a hose to one of the actors and then pumped the actor full of air. That was the Pharisee, who was “full of himself” and proceeded to recite the litany of his own pious wonderfulness. Along came anther actor, with a long pin, poked the Pharisee with it, and deflated the actor by letting all the “hot air” out of him. The audience laughed heartily.

Watching that Godspell Pharisee crumple up was a good reminder of the importance of humor in regard to our religion. If we take ourselves and our religion too seriously, we run the risk of not taking God seriously. We get wrapped up in our own small package of religion and are not open to the awe and wonder that true worship can elicit. A good sense of humor can prevent us from getting wrapped up in a small package of religion.

The tax collector needs God and the mercy that can come only from a loving divine reality that transcends himself. The Pharisee seems to think that God should be grateful for the Pharisee; the tax collector is grateful that God is merciful.

As he finishes this story, I see Jesus smiling ruefully and letting his listeners appreciate the fact that the unexpected person is praised. Surprise! The joke is on the Pharisee. He didn’t really need anything…….and that’s what he got. He goes home, full of himself, but nothing more. The tax collector, on the other hand, goes home full of mercy and hope, which is exactly what he needed.

I don’t know if the tax collector had to “beat his breast” (note: true humility does not require humiliation; it just requires honest thinking about oneself—not thinking too highly of oneself and not thinking too lowly of oneself). But I do think he left the Temple with a smile on his face—not the smile of self-satisfaction, but the smile of self-understanding. It is the tax collector who is on a real spiritual journey and one of the spiritual gifts he received was the ability to not take himself very seriously.

John C. Morris, 
Saint Martin’s Fairlee

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