“The Peril of Pride”
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church
9He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: 10“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11The 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. 12I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ 13But 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!’ 14I 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.” (NRSV)
In Luke 9:51, Jesus “sets his face to go to Jerusalem.” In 19:29, Jesus enters Jerusalem with fanfare. The intervening chapters constitute Luke’s “travel narrative,” and the contents of this section feel more like an arbitrary anthology than a true narrative. Jesus’ three predictions of his death create the only real semblance of a flow. (Luke 9:21-27, 9:44-45, 18:31-34) As the teachings follow one after another, Luke punctuates them with needling reminders that the teacher himself is going to suffer.
Throughout these ten chapters, Luke portrays the Pharisees as Jesus’ principal adversary. Indeed, in all four gospels, the Pharisees take more furious exception to Jesus than either the Jews in general or the Romans. It’s interesting, though, for everything the Pharisees to do try to hinder Jesus’s ministry, they end up expediting it, albeit in a backhanded way. As human foils, they energize Jesus, and become object lessons for his teaching. To know how not to go about the life of faith, says Jesus, watch the Pharisees. What they do, don’t do!
Having said that, biblically speaking, Pharisees are more than a particular class of people within ancient Judaism. Pharisees are a metaphor for anyone within the Judeo-Christian tradition, or within any faith tradition for that matter, who vandalizes religious knowledge, spiritual influence, and community status and twists it into power. In the gospels, the Pharisees represent any person or group who beats the plowshares of their giftedness and calling into swords of judgment, manipulation, and even contempt. So, when Jesus aims today’s parable at “some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous,” he uses a Pharisee as an example of the human flaw which may be responsible for more prejudice, bitterness, bloodshed, and willful blindness and deafness than any other so-called deadly sin: the flaw of pride.
Pride is the sin of idolatry of the self, or of one’s tribe, be that based on region, religion, skin color, language, gender, gender orientation, political party, country, or anything else one might use to exalt him/herself over others.
As idolatry, pride creates a false certainty that all things me or my kind are not just good, right, and true, but best, rightest, and truest. It’s easy to spot pride in others. It’s harder to spot it in ourselves, though. Or maybe it’s just hard to admit, because often we camouflage it behind a self-aggrandizing sense of blessing.
Look at me! says the Pharisee. Look at everything I do right! I’m rich, comfortable, and influential because God has blessed me for being the best example of everything that pleases God the most!
“But,” says Jesus, “the tax collector was standing far off,” humbling himself, confessing openly and honestly. He doesn’t name specific sins as if to claim (as Paul does) to be the best at being the worst of sinners. He simply acknowledges his brokenness and his need for redemption.
It’s the tax collector rather than the Pharisee, says Jesus, who goes home at peace with God, his neighbor, and himself.
First-century tax collectors were a wealthy but despised bunch. In addition to collecting taxes for Rome, they charged fellow citizens as much as they could get away with for their efforts. Jewish tax collectors were treated with the deepest contempt. Working for Rome was bad enough, but they were also fleecing their own people for personal gain. Jesus’ parable seems to be saying that the sin of pride—and religious pride in particular—not only rivals but surpasses the depravity of the Jewish tax collectors who pimped themselves out to Caesar. Yet in the parable, it’s not the man of faith but the tax collector who humbles himself and discovers his God-imaged capacity for healing and holiness.
In our culture, pride is often extolled as a virtue, as proof that we deserve some advantage. But pride thrives on the smoldering fear of losing the perks of that advantage in relation to those who appear to be dis-advantaged, or whom we have been taught or have chosen to dislike, discount, and disdain. Pride, then, this allows us to justify anything from paternalism to genocide if we sense a threat our own privilege or peace of mind.
Pride in the church is all-too-common, and it’s most dangerous when wielded by those to whom others defer. In my first congregation, a woman who had retired to the community a few years earlier and joined our church was duly nominated to serve as an elder. She was smart, thoughtful, capable—and from New Jersey. On the day of the election, when the floor was opened for other nominations, a long-time member of the church stood and nominated another long-time member. After the vote, the woman from New Jersey was not an officer-elect. The insidious intent was obvious, and the ousted woman was both humiliated and devastated. Her eventual return to worship demonstrated the depth of her humility and faith in God rather than surrender to the self-serving pride of those who had manipulated her defeat.
That’s the only time in my 23 years of ministry that such a thing has happened, but it is not the only time I’ve seen people feel unwelcomed in a sanctuary, or get elbowed off of a session or a committee because of someone else’s prideful prejudice. My own participation in such things occurred when I saw it happening and failed to summon the leadership—the moral clarity and the spiritual courage—to speak out because I didn’t want to offend those from whom I collected a paycheck.
So, I join the tax collector praying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”
“If you should ask me what are the ways of God,” said St. Augustine, “I would tell you that the first is humility, the second is humility, and the third is humility. Not that there are no other precepts to give, but if humility does not precede all that we do, our efforts are fruitless.”
Jesus invites us into a freedom that doesn’t feel all that free at first. But what more spacious life could we lead than a life of humility? A life in which Jesus frees us from judging others, and even ourselves?
What more gracious life could we lead than a life in which we live humbly, gratefully, and joyfully in the presence of all that God has created and to see the presence of God in all things?
It seems to me, that in the end, we’ll recognize pride as a millstone around our necks, as a fear that compelled us to jockey for the front of the line, the biggest piece of cake, or the most toys.
Humility is the portal into grace. It’s the mystery behind the Beatitudes’ paradoxical proclamation that the poor are richer than the wealthy, and the meek are stronger than the powerful.
God, be merciful to us. Strip us of our blinding and deafening pride in things of this world, that we might live as signs of your eternal presence and purposes today. Amen.