By the Rev. Darren Miner
There is a common thread tying together the first reading from the book of Sirach and the Gospel reading from Luke, and that commonality is human pride, one of the so-called seven deadly sins.
Sirach, a book of the Apocrypha, was written by a wisdom teacher, someone we would probably call a “life coach.” His purpose was to teach young men how to get along in life without forsaking God. He teaches that human pride is a sinful forsaking of God our Maker and results in ruin.
Jesus, speaking at a dinner party, comments on the guests’ scramble for the best seats at the dinner table by telling a parable. The moral of that parable is “all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Pride is clearly considered problematic. For English-speakers, the very word is problematic. Pride can mean “a reasonable or justifiable self-respect.” When we see parents displaying bumper stickers about their kids’ being on the honor roll, it doesn’t seem particularly sinful. When San Francisco hosts a Pride Day Parade, it is not meant to promote a deadly sin (though some might disagree with me there!). The kind of pride that is condemned as sinful is the state of mind in which a person lives as if they are the very center of Creation, that their accomplishments are unique, and that everything in this world matters only in so far as it affects them. Such a person forgets that everyone, and I mean everyone, is a beloved creature of God, and that every gift and every accomplishment ultimately derives from the Creator. But there is another way of looking at pride. One writer on patristic spirituality says, “[Pride’s] essential quality is not found in having too high an opinion of oneself so much as too low an opinion of everyone else” (Roberta Bondi, To Love as God Loves). I kind of like that!
American culture has an ambivalent attitude toward pride. Many of us were raised to follow the rules, to respect proper authority, and to refrain from bragging. But at the same time, our culture valorizes those who violate all these precepts. Many in this country glorify a politician who had the temerity to say that he, and only he, could fix the ills of this nation. His political opponent has the reputation for ignoring the rules that the little people have to live by when such rules are deemed inconvenient to her. We see the Olympian Usain Bolt pray for victory before a race, and then dance and caper for the crowds after his victory, bathing in the glory. We are even told by pop psychologists that narcissistic tendencies are necessary to be a success in this country. (This bit of pseudo-wisdom came from Dr. Drew.) To all these, I say, “Humbug!” Such pride is sin.
And there is only one remedy for it, and that is humility. Now, humility has an undeservedly bad reputation in our culture. It is often mistaken for having an inferiority complex, having low self-esteem, being a human doormat, or being ridden with guilt. And there are phrases in the Bible and the prayer book that might lead one to such erroneous conclusions. Psalm 22 has us say along with the psalmist: “I am a worm and no man.” And in the Prayer of Humble Access, we recite: “We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table,” in essence, comparing ourselves to dogs scavenging for bread crumbs. Such professions of humility need to be balanced with the reminder that even though we are miserable sinners, we are forgiven sinners and beloved children of God!
C. S. Lewis wrote a witty treatise on Christian spirituality called The Screwtape Letters. The book consists of letters by an elderly demon to his nephew with advice about how to bring about the fall of humankind. Letter 14 deals with the issue of true humility. The elder demon writes: “The Enemy [meaning God] wants [man], in the end, to be so free from any bias in his own favor that he can rejoice in his own talents as frankly and gratefully as in his neighbor’s talents—or in a sunrise, an elephant, or a waterfall. He wants each man, in the long run, to be able to recognize all creatures (even himself) as glorious and excellent things. He wants to kill their animal self-love as soon as possible; but it is His long-term policy, I fear, to restore to them a new kind of self-love—a charity and gratitude for all selves, including their own; when they have really learned to love their neighbors as themselves, they will be allowed to love themselves as their neighbors.”
The point of such humility is not to pretend that we are less than we are or that our accomplishments are any less than they are, but to be free from any egotistical attachment to our own excellence.
Let me tell you two stories from my own life. The first is a story of pride. When I was in seminary, I received an A- in a course on the mythology of the Ancient Near East, when by my calculation I had earned an A. I made an appointment with the professor and asked her why I hadn’t received the grade I expected. She said that, though my scores warranted an A, she was marking me down because of my frivolous attitude toward the subject matter. I can’t tell you how angry I was. Eventually, I came to realize that the reason I was so very angry was not because of the injustice of it all, but because my intellectual pride had been hurt, because my intellectual superiority had been called into question. I ended up learning a painful, but valuable, lesson about myself.
More recently, I had an encounter with humility. Last week, I went to the donut shop on Noriega. As I entered the shop, an elderly man rushed to the door, took my hand, and then kissed it! I was taken aback for a moment, but had the sense to respond with a blessing. I was deeply moved by this man’s humility and by his devotion to God. For though I may have my own issues with pride, I was not so blinded by it that I couldn’t see that I was not, in fact, the true object of this man’s devotion. This humble act by a complete stranger reminded me of the great privilege of my office. And I couldn’t help but wonder what it would be like if we all saw each other as the beloved of God and if we all treated each other with reverential respect.
What if…what if? What if we didn’t act like the only way for us to be special is for everyone else to be ordinary? What if we were able to say, “You know what, I make really good jam,” while acknowledging that someone else has a real gift for baking cookies? What if we were able to say, “I think I sing pretty well,” while acknowledging that someone else has a particularly lovely smile? What if we could be happy that our garden was looking so good, while acknowledging that our next-door neighbor is a gifted cellist. What if we truly rejoiced that God our Maker has given us each gifts and we offered glory to God for our every accomplishment? What if, indeed!
© 2016 by Darren Miner. All rights reserved. Used by permission.