Pride that goes before a fall

A Hindu priest, rabbi and TV evangelist were caught in a terrific thunderstorm. They sought shelter at a farmhouse. "That storm will be raging for hours," the farmer told them. "You'd better spend the night here. The problem is, there's only room enough for two of you. One of you will have to sleep in the barn."

"I'll be the one," volunteered the Hindu priest. "A little hardship is nothing to me." He went out to the barn. A few minutes later, the Hindu knocked at the door. "I'm sorry," he said, "but there is a cow in the barn. According to my religion, cows are sacred, and one must not intrude into their space."

"Don't worry," said the rabbi. "Come on in. I'll go sleep in the barn."

A few minutes later, the rabbi knocked at the door. "I hate to be a bother," he said, "but there is a pig in the barn. In my religion, pigs are considered unclean. I would feel uncomfortable sharing my sleeping quarters with a pig."

"Oh, all right," said the TV evangelist. "I'll go sleep in the barn."

A few minutes later, there was a knock at the door. It was the cow and the pig.

We laugh, at least in part, because we feel superior to the TV evangelist. In this morning’s gospel, Jesus tells a story about two men who go to the temple to pray.[1] One was proud and self-righteous, supremely confident of God’s love and acceptance. He believed that God had a high opinion of him because of his strict conformity to his religion’s values and practices. He was moral, he worshipped regularly and he gave generously. The other man, a social pariah who routinely betrayed and cheated his neighbors, enriching himself at their expense, stood outside the temple, painfully aware of his shortcomings toward God and others, painfully aware that others despised him even as he despised himself. We tend to identify with the Pharisee and not the tax collector.

The difficulty is not with the Pharisee’s religious practices – which are good – nor with the tax collector’s reprehensible conduct. Morality, worship and generosity were then, as today, very laudatory. The problem is that the Pharisee lacks a realistic or accurate self-image. He tells God, I’m not like other people; I’m better.

Theologically, pride denotes unhealthy self-dependence that estranges one from God.[2] Pride is often identified as root cause of sin. Reinhold Niebuhr wrote, “Any careful analysis of life reveals that a goodly portion of the misery which we bring upon each other in our social intercourse is due to pride."[3]

False or sinful pride comes in three varieties:

1.     Excessive pride in one’s wealth, achievements or status. Wealth and achievements are self-explanatory; status includes position within an organization, perceived social standing, race/gender/ethnicity, etc. In the Lost Sutras of Jesus, Jesus says, “Wherever there is merit, there is fame; and whenever there is fame, we consider ourselves different from others. This clouds our minds and leads to self-pride, which prevents us from attaining Peace and Joy and the state of perfect understanding.”[4] Similarly, jingoistic nationalism expresses an excessive false pride, trying to divide God's people artificially.

2.     Pride rooted in a comparison of one’s wealth, achievements or status to that of family, friends or peers. Research indicates happiness generally has more to do with a person’s comparative wealth, achievements or status than with one’s absolute wealth, achievements or status.

3.     Conversely, a perverse pride in one’s lack of wealth, achievements or status. Illustratively, early Christian hermits who left everything for a life of prayer in the desert occasionally and ironically competed with one another to see who could lead the most ascetical life.

No one is better or more valuable to God, than is anyone else. God values everyone equally. We are to be moral, to worship, to give generously. But those acts do not determine, in any way, our value or worth as humans. Our status in God’s eyes is entirely a function of God's unconditional love for us as God's sons and daughters. Nothing we can do or fail to do will diminish God's love for us.

True humility consists of seeing one’s self as God sees us. Jesus’ parable does not condemn justifiable pride in one’s accomplishments. Acknowledge good and bad behaviors, whether regular worship or cheating one’s neighbor, for what they are. Acknowledge your gifts and abilities, but also know that these are at least as much a function of genetics and the family that raised you as they are a result of your efforts. Both the Pharisee and tax collector made these acknowledgements. But one made the terrible mistake of believing that he was better than others, and because he was better than others, God loved him more.

Photographer Wendy Ewald travels around the world teaching children to use photography to express their thoughts and feelings. Give a child who is relatively powerless a camera empowers the child with opportunities for self-expression. Ewald recalls a little Indian boy named Pratap. When Ewald handed him a camera, Pratap began to shake all over. He explained that he was a Harijan, a member of India’s lowest, untouchable caste who aren't allowed to hold cameras. Pratap was afraid of even touching one. But Ewald insisted that he take the camera and use it to share his ideas. A few days later, she passed by his house. He was posing his family for a picture. The scared, self-conscious little boy was bursting with self-confidence. A simple camera had changed his self-perception.[5]

May Jesus’ parable be a lens of love that changes our self-perception. Whether you are arrogant, insecure or disdainful of your neighbors, know that you and all others are God's children, fully, completely and equally loved. Amen.

Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost, October 27, 2019
Parish of St Clement, Honolulu, HI

[1] Luke 18:9-14.
[2] Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957), vol. 2, pp. 49-51.
[3] John Patrick Diggins, Why Niebuhr Now? (Chicago: University of Chicago, 2011), Kindle Location 247-51.
[4] Thomas Moore and Ray Riegert, The Lost Sutras of Jesus: Unlocking the Ancient Wisdom of the Xian Monks (Berkeley, CA: Ulysses Press, 2006), p. 87.
[5] Francine Prose, "Shooting Dreams," The Oprah Magazine, April 2001, pp. 168-171.


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