September 1, 2013 –– 22nd Sunday of Ordinary Time
Sirach 3:17–18, 20, 28–29 / Luke 14:1, 7–14
THE PROBLEM OF PRIDE
Sirach and the Gospel draw our attention to pride. Pride is not delight in that which is truly good. Pride is not what we would call appropriate self-esteem. True human pride is something God hates. Depending on which English version of the Bible one uses, the words pride and proud occur a bit over 100 times. Many of the notable Christian thinkers throughout church history have understood pride to be the root of sin. Pride is a major barrier to salvation. Pride does not want to admit that we are not our own center of the universe. Pride does not want to admit dependence. Pride does not want to confess any weakness or wrong. Pride does not want to be indebted to anyone. Jesus is confronting pride in today’s Gospel.
Actually, we all detest pride―in someone else. There is no sin that makes a person more unpopular. We can detect pride so easily―in another person. There is no fault which we are more unconscious of in ourselves and yet so aware of in someone else. We recognize our aversion to pride in its synonyms: conceit, arrogance, snobbishness, know-it-all, big-head, self-centered. Someone described a proud man as one who "struts even while sitting down." Another picture is that of a person who is often wrong, but always insists he is right. Then there is the person who is always whining that he deserves better than he is getting. Who likes someone who comes across like that?
Pride is an attitude that each person is his own "number one." Pride is thinking I know what is best, and "best" is always defined by whatever is safe, convenient and comfortable for me. This is an attitude that displaces God! We may not jockey for the best seats at a church dinner, but we instinctively take the best piece of meat––or more than we should––if we’re in front of the line at a pot-luck. We usually are not thinking about belonging to Jesus when we get angry at the people who “get in my way” while driving our cars. Pride is a spiritual cancer which eats up the possibility of love.... or even contentment. Chaucer called it "a swelling of the heart" which leaves no room for others.
Pride is often about image, and keeping up an image separates us from God. Pride is “being in love with me.” Pride is wanting to be seen and to be praised. It turns everything in life into competition; pride wants always to come in first place. Pride is calculating and posturing and posing for attention and credit. Pride destroys the possibility of the personal intimacy we all long for by being too self-protective―too concerned with what others see―to be real. MTV (and its Video Awards) is pushing an image. The Home & Garden Channel is pushing an image. Almost all advertising is about image. It appeals to our pride, trying to convince us to look successful or sexy or embrace any facade that is rooted in a pecking order.
Pride keeps everyone at arm's length so they can’t see the real me. Whenever we put ourselves first or project a manufactured image instead of who we really are, we shut others––and God––out. The only way this can change is when we admit that we are not so good in perfectly following God's ways. That is the door to salvation. But it’s no wonder it doesn't look inviting––we have to embrace humility. Repentance goes against our proud natures.
One of the most powerful shapers in my and my wife’s early spiritual formation was being taught that selfishness––putting self first––is sin. Wanting our own way or not being open to correction is spiritual death. Libby can remember, as a young child, times that her pastor-father––an intense man––would come and kneel before her and apologize for jumping to a conclusion or getting too irritated over some small issue, telling her that he had not modeled Jesus and wanted her to forgive him. Because we are Christians, we should understand the insidious nature of pride more than anyone. Jesus on the cross is a picture of where selfishness will go; he was hated because his life exposed self-worship. No wonder Jesus gives these warnings.
Yet even in the church there is pressure to appear better than we really are. Yes, there is a standard of godliness the church is to uphold and model, but the first way we do that is always to model the truth that God uses broken, imperfect people. The best way to nurture spiritual life is to be honest, and honesty is hard on pride. No matter where we are in our Christian journey.... no matter how far we have progressed in our sanctification.... no matter how much we have grown in maturity.... no matter how wholehearted our obedience, we are still people who fall short of God's glory and we are people who need to pray every day as Jesus taught us, forgive our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. This is for all of us, from Pope to peon. This is for me. I preach to myself and let others listen.
We need to see that it is not others who get in our way, but we ourselves who too often project ourselves in ways that we know are not right. If pride keeps us from God by trying to take care of life on our own, then pride is defeated when we believe that God loves us enough to care for us better than we can care for ourselves. This is one way to understand faith.
Jesus invites us to be honest before God―to open wide the door of our heart.... to hold nothing back (God knows it all anyway).... to find the incredible grace of being loved in spite of everything about us that's weak and broken and ugly―and then, in the strength we get from God loving us anyway, to learn to be honest with God and even other people. This is the way to fight pride. And in the overall battle, there is one thing of paramount importance: giving ourselves continually to Jesus Christ. We can't do anything in the fight against pride unless we are inviting Jesus to live his life in ours. Jesus always shows us the way.
Jesus invites us to be honest before God―to open wide the door of our heart.... to hold nothing back (God knows it all anyway).... to find the incredible grace of being loved in spite of everything about us that's weak and broken and ugly―and then, in the strength we get from God loving us anyway, to learn to be honest with God and even other people. This is the way to fight the sin of pride. And in the overall battle against sin, there is one thing of paramount importance: giving ourselves continually to Jesus Christ. We can't do anything in the fight against pride unless we are inviting Jesus to live his life in ours. Jesus always shows us the way.