Pride and Humility

The danger of pride is that it feeds on goodness. (David Rhodes) The case of the Pharisee in the parable written in the Gospel assigned to this coming Sunday Luke 18:9-14 supports this saying. The Pharisee in the parable may be regarded as a good person, a person we may like to have in our parish. He goes to the temple, he fasts regularly, and he tithes. He does the ritual right as evidenced in praying in the correct posture in the temple, arms raised and head lifted. He can proudly pray, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.”

The other person whom Jesus puts in comparison is the tax collector, who is so painfully aware of his sins and unworthiness before God that he cannot even lift his eyes as he stands in the back of the temple. Pounding his breast in sorrowful contrition over his sins, he can manage only the desperate plea, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”

The Pharisee tries to boost himself by comparing his good qualities with what he perceives as the negative attributes of others. He sets himself up as the judge of his behavior over the actions of others. In doing so, his prayer degenerates into prideful boasting. The tax collector, on the contrary, focuses very much on his own sins, not the sins of others, and especially on his need for God’s mercy. Jesus says that God answers the tax collector’s prayer, not the Pharisee’s. The tax collector goes home justified, that is, in a right relationship with God.

Jesus makes it clear that it is dangerous to compare our relative goodness, whether real or imagined, with that of others. This is because such moral manipulation drives a wedge between us and God. Such attitudes can easily become a divisive element between us and our neighbors. It works against us all by inevitably separating rather than unifying our community.

Our comparison ought to be between ourselves and God’s perfect desires for us, between ourselves and the value of gospel, between ourselves and the summary of the Law, and ultimately between ourselves and the model of our faith – Jesus himself. Of course, such a test will lead us to only one conclusion. We fail, and can only offer the tax collector’s prayer: “God be merciful to me, a sinner.”

Pride is conspicuous among the rich, the powerful, the successful, the famous, and celebrities of all sorts. However, it is a universal human problem. It is also alive and well in ordinary people, including each of us. Everyone suffers from it to some degree. Yet few of us realize how greatly it hinders our intimacy with God and love for others. It often gives us an attitude of ingratitude, a false sense of independence, an intolerance to others and the inability to accept the grace of God. We live in a culture that worships individualism and self-effort and sees humility as weakness.

Pride leads to disgrace (Prov. 11:2) and “pride goes before destruction” (Prov. 16:18). The antidote of pride cannot be found in anywhere better than Jesus’ example of humility. Jesus demonstrated the ultimate form of humility by the very act of leaving heaven, coming to earth, and taking the form of a human being. By saying that he came “not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matt. 20:28) and, by washing his disciples’ feet on his last night with them (John 13:1–11) he perfectly displays the spirit of profound humility.

In our contemporary culture, being humble is a particularly powerful countercultural witness of Christ’s presence and lordship in our lives. As a countercultural witness, it requires plenty of courage and braveness. We shall find our certainty in the main point of the parable as Jesus concludes: “for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” Amen.

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