Do you ever pound your chest? Gorillas pound their chest in an effort to show the other animals in the area how strong or intimidating they are. It’s an action of aggression and self-promotion. Athletes do the same. After an important play or a significant win, grown men will often ape the apes by pounding their own chests in a primitive display of emotion. In our culture, chest pounding conveys confident, aggressive behavior. But it was not always so.
In Luke 18:9-14, Jesus tells us of two men. One of the men was proud, arrogant, and teeming with self-confidence. He approached God boldly, considering himself secure in his righteousness. He “pounded his chest” before God, thanking God that he was not like the other sinners in the world. He trumpeted himself and his own supposed accomplishments before God, drawing the card of his righteousness from a stacked deck by comparing himself with the worst people he can think of, then smugly pointing out that he is not like those people. The other man approached God in humility. He too came pounding his chest, but his was not a display of machismo. It was a display of repentance and humility. The only words he could muster were, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” Jesus concluded the story with the words, “everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted” [Luke 18:14].
There are obvious cultural differences when it comes to the way people show remorse. We no longer tear our clothing or wear sackcloth in repentance; people pound their chests for different reasons these days. But that’s the whole point. It’s not simply that the physical action of raising my fist and striking my chest now carries a different significance. Our problem is not so much that we live in a culture that has taken an action that used to indicate repentance and turned it into something that indicates pride or aggression. Our problem is that we have taken sin itself and made it something to be proud of. Like the people in the pages of Scripture, we too live in a world that beats its chest when confronted with its sin. The difference is that now it does so in arrogance instead of repentance. Now sexual sin is no longer called sin, it’s celebrated as diversity. Financial sin is no longer called greed, it is applauded as initiative and ambition. The sin of taking life is no longer termed murder, it is categorized as choice. We live in a world that pounds its chest before God, defiantly daring him to do something drastic to demonstrate his dominion, for the world doubts that he is even there at all.
What are we to do in the midst of such chest pounding? We pound our chests too, but we do so in humility and repentance, joining our voice to the voice of the tax collector and crying out: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” The world that exalts itself will be humbled when Jesus is revealed on the last day. The children of God who humble themselves in confession will be exalted when Jesus, the one who truly humbled himself even to the point of death on the cross, is exalted for the entire world to see. Then he will take his brothers and sisters in baptism into his Father’s house, to the rooms he prepared for them.
So let the world have its chest pounding, and we’ll keep ours. While the world defiantly attempts to redefine reality according to its own passions, we will cling to the truth of Holy Scripture. We will continue in the Word, for only then will we be truly free. For in that word we are given Jesus Christ, the one who humbled himself in order that we might be exalted in him.