In the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector (Luke 18:9-14), Jesus tells of the Pharisee who thanks God that he is not like the sinners and proclaims his own righteousness because he tithes and fasts twice a week. By contrast we are introduced to the tax collector who admits his sins and asks for God’s mercy. Jesus concludes the story with “all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
A couple of weeks ago on a bright, warm, and beautiful winter’s day in Raleigh, I decided to walk to the pharmacy to pick up a prescription. Having made the decision not to take the car, I was already feeling quite noble. I was single-handedly saving the planet and getting life-prolonging exercise. Oh, what a good boy was I.
As I approached the final street corner on my route, I observed a familiar figure. She is an elderly lady perched on a wall with a sign that solicits financial assistance. It was a warm day and as usual she was dressed too warmly for the conditions, stocking cap and all.
I had had a brief encounter with this lady a year or so ago. I recalled that encounter as I approached the corner on this sunny afternoon. It frankly left me a little bitter.
On that day I had pulled a substantial bill out of my wallet as I approached her. She had her back to me and as I stepped into her line of sight, I handed her the bill. Only then did I realize that she was on her cell phone. She took the bill from my hand without pause or change of expression and kept right on with her phone conversation.
I was miffed. No “thank you.” No eye contact. Not even a nod of the head in recognition of my gift.
I stewed over that encounter for days and weeks afterward. Honestly, it made it much easier to drive by without guilt. But today, I was again on foot.
Maybe it was the self-examination of Lent. Maybe it was the inspiration of a sermon that I had heard the night before. Maybe it was the definition of love from 1 Corinthians 13 that I had just heard at my daughter’s wedding and again the night before as part of that inspiring sermon. Whatever it was, when I turned the corner, I felt myself drawn to this elderly woman again.
This time I sat down next to her.
I told her my name and asked for hers. She shared both her name and her nickname and I used them throughout our conversation. I realized for the first time that she is apparently blind in one eye.
I inquired about the obvious injury to her foot. She took that as an opportunity to tell me a great deal about her medical history. She related that a side-effect of one of the suggested treatments was hair loss and, as she stroked her long gray locks, she told me she “wasn’t going for that.”
I took that as an opportunity to remove my baseball cap to expose my bald head. I told her that that was not a problem for me, and we shared a laugh.
I asked her where she lived, and she gave a perfectly beautiful response.
I told her that I was happy to hear that.
I took out my wallet and handed her a bill. She looked at it. Her eyes widened and then filled with tears. She thanked me and asked me if she could give me a hug. I said yes and when we were in full embrace, she told me that she had had all her shots.
I told her that I had too. Even rabies. We shared another laugh.
I wished her God’s blessings, and she returned the favor. She asked me my name again. I told her and promised to come back.
As I walked away I thought, what a different encounter. Two people, sitting together, sharing stories, ailments, and thoughts. Not some jerk walking by and shoving a wadded-up bill into someone’s hand.
All who exalt themselves will be humbled and all who humble themselves will be exalted.