This morning’s gospel lesson from Luke reminds me of two relatively new phrases I’ve learned in the last few years from Social Media: Humblebrag, and Virtue Signaling.
The first one, the humblebrag, is an ostensibly modest or self-deprecating statement whose actual purpose is to draw attention to something of which one is proud. It is the opposite of humility, it is false humility.
The Pharisee in Jesus’ parable went up to the temple to pray. And in his prayers, the Pharisee thanked God that he was not like the others, not like the sinners who are thieves, rogues, adulterers, or tax collectors. In his prayer, he shared that he tithed his earnings and fasted two days a week.
He was, in fact, separating himself from his neighbors on the self-professed belief that he was not a sinner. Even worse, it’s as if he was declaring himself righteous, when only God can do that.
The second phrase, virtue signaling, is similar: it is the action or practice of publicly expressing opinions or sentiments intended to demonstrate one's good character or the moral correctness of one's position on a particular issue.
This, too is exactly what the Pharisee does at the temple: signals his self-professed virtue as being sin-free. His prayer indicates that he believes himself to be better than the others, more faithful than the others, more worthy than the others.
The great irony in all of this is that by humblebragging, by virtue signaling, the Pharisee is, in fact, sinning. By using false humility to show that he is not a sinner, the Pharisee has become a sinner!
The tax collector separates himself from the others too. Unable to look up toward heaven, beating his breast in punishment for his sins, the tax collector doesn’t think he’s worthy, knows himself to be a sinner in need of mercy.
Jesus proclaimed the tax collector who had acknowledged his sins, justified, or forgiven, at the end of the day, and proclaimed the Pharisee unjustified, or unforgiven, leaving us with the ominous phrase: “for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted."
Now, most of can be forgiven if we post something on Tik Tok, or Reels, or Facebook or Instagram showing off our latest project or recipe, something in which we have some pride…that’s not the problem. The problem is when we start to believe that we’re better than others.
We know, from studying scripture, that Jesus had a particular message for a particular group of people. Although he was instructing his disciples, the message was a pointed lesson for the Pharisees, the leaders of the faith community: don’t get caught up in thinking you’re better than others, or that others are sinners and you aren’t. And don’t think you get to decide whether you are justified in the eyes of God.
And though I can’t identify anyone in my sphere of influence who needs to hear this particular message, I suppose it’s not wasted if I use it as a reminder to myself that Jesus, and God, would prefer that I approach my faith as the tax-collector did: with humility and repentance.
The tax collector showed a level of faith maturity that the Pharisee did not: the ability to acknowledge one’s sins, and the need for God’s forgiveness are evident in the way the tax collector prays.
The self-righteous and judgmental person of power is actually sinning, while the repentant and humble sinner is forgiven of their sins.
A word of caution, for me as much as it is for anyone else: let us be careful that we not judge the Pharisees of the world, lest we find ourselves saying ‘thank God I’m not like those Pharisees, self-righteous humble-bragging virtue signalers!’
Even if we don’t know anyone like this in our immediate circle of friends and family, we can find them everywhere in celebrity circles, politics, anywhere the cult of personality rules.
And we may be tempted to thank God we aren’t like them, we may be tempted to brand them and condemn them and feel a bit of pride that we’ll never be like them.
But I say: let’s resist those impulses.
While humblebragging and virtue signaling are cringey behaviors in social media circles, they take on a more serious weight when they shift into self-righteousness and judgmentalism.
Of course, the growing portion of our modern society that thinks all Christians are humblebraggarts and virtue signalers can be forgiven their error: the most humble and faithful of God’s children are rarely in the spotlight, rarely giving sound-bytes on the local news, rarely posting their humility on social media.
A small fraction of the wider Christian community has highjacked the public image the world sees with their judgments and their pronouncements and their scorn for sinners.
While the majority of God’s faithful Christian children follow Jesus on a humble path, minding their own business, attending to their own sins and their own need for forgiveness, like the tax collector, the images most of the world sees are finger-pointing and name-calling.
I don’t think there is much we can do about that. I think the only thing we can do is to live our faith lives as humbly and as lovingly as we can. The more bold among us might take a stab at calling out the modern-day Pharisees, those that make a point to humblebrag or virtue signal their self-justifications, but for most of us, it’s good to worry less about the blow-hards, and worry more about our own personal relationships with God and our Lord and Savior.
There is a traditional Philippine story called the Story of Two Sons. It goes like this: A queen had two children. As she grew older, she wanted to pass on the monarchy to one of her two children, and make them her heir.
She assembled all the wise people of the land, and called her two children to present themselves. She gave them each 5 pieces of silver and told them: ‘By evening, I want you to have filled up this whole hall. What you fill it with is up to you. You can use the silver pieces if you have to’.
And the wise folk said: ‘This is a good task’.
The older child went off, and came to a field where the farm laborers were harvesting sugar beet, and putting it through a press. The remainder, after pressing, was discarded. So the older child made an arrangement with the head of the laborers to take all the discarded sugar beet and fill the hall with it. When the task was complete, they gave the head of the laborers the five pieces of silver, and told their mother that the task was done. There would be no need for their younger sibling to try. They had filled the hall. But their mother replied, ‘There is still time. We will wait.’
The younger child came back, and asked for the sugar beet remains to be moved out of the hall. They had nothing in their hands but a candle. When the hall was completely empty once more, they carried this candle into the middle of the hall, and lit it. Immediately, the whole hall was filled with light. Light streamed into every remote corner.
And the queen said to the younger child, ‘You shall be my heir. Your sibling has spent five pieces of silver to fill up the hall with useless rubbish. You haven’t used even a single piece of silver, yet you have filled the hall with light. You have filled it with the very thing that our people need above all else.’
When we have some quiet moments, and our thoughts turn to our faith lives, let’s see if we can’t be more like the younger sibling, bringing forth light from a humble candle.
There are plenty of people running around trying to fill the world with useless rubbish and then bragging about what they have accomplished.
It’s ironic that the impulse to humblebrag and virtue signal can often be traced to a person’s fears and anxieties. So their insistence on their superiority is actually based on their fear of being a failure.
It takes faith, trust, and confidence to act humbly and acknowledge our sins before God and our Savior. And it takes even more of the same to simply let the humblebraggers and the virtue signalers do their thing.
Let’s bring our humble candles into the great hall, and fill it with light. Let’s aim to live out our faith lives in humble appreciation for the forgiveness we are feely promised, when we repent of our sins. Amen.