Sunday, 20 September 2015

Pride and Humility- Mark 9

Pride and Humility

Putting together a resume can be a paradoxical experience. You want to emphasize your strengths, and minimize (or hide) your weaknesses. You want to show that you have a high level of education and went to a prestigious school. You want to show that you worked for important organizations, and was trusted with important responsibilities. In a resume you want to do this to impress your potential employer, and in particular, you want your potential employer to be more impressed with you than the other people applying for the job. … But, at the same time, you don’t want to appear to be bragging, or full of yourself. It’s a delicate balance.

If we are really honest with ourselves we find ourselves doing this all the time. We secretly compare ourselves to others and try to find a way to come out on top. “My kids are better behaved than their kids”. “I’m prettier than her”. “I get paid more than him”. “I’m smarter and more competent at my job than him”. Maybe even, “I do more at the church than them”. We don’t usually make these thoughts known. It’s not polite, and we wouldn’t want people to think badly of us, so we hide these thoughts.

The disciples were caught in this kind of predicament. They arrive at Capernaum and Jesus asks them what they were arguing about along the way. (No doubt he overheard and knew very well what they were arguing about.) They answer with silence- likely filled with embarrassment. Just as we would be if some of our internal comparisons were made public.

It might seem a bit strange that grown men were arguing about who was the greatest, but parts of their culture seemed to encourage it. For example, there was a religious sect at Qumran (who are believed to have written the Dead Sea scrolls). They were known to annually rank each member of the community according to the worthiness of each person.[1] … Imagine each year you are given a number that ranks your worthiness as a member of this church. “You’re 1, you better start trying a bit harder, you’re at the bottom of the pile. You’re 10. You’re 5.” “Oh, you moved up 3 ranks this year, keep up the good work”. … This seems to be the kind of context for the disciples’ argument. Jesus saw their argument for what it was- pride.

The theologian Peter Kreeft says that “[pride] is the first and greatest sin because it is in violation of the first and greatest commandment, ‘you shall have no other gods before me.’ Pride puts self before God. Pride loves your self with all your heart and soul and mind and strength rather than God”[2]. Pride is turning away from God thinking we can do better on our own. This was what happened to Adam and Eve- they tried to ignore God thinking they could do better without His guidance.

St. Gregory the Great believed that pride was the source of all other sins. In stealing we think we deserve to have something someone else has. In murder we believe we have the right to decide if someone should live or die. In not honouring the Sabbath or our parents we are self-entitled and deserving of what we have received and so have no desire to give thanks. All sin has pride at its root.

We might be able to say that all biblical character development comes from the tension between the sin of pride and its opposite, the virtue of humility. We read in Proverbs 3:34 “God opposes the proud, but shows favor to the humble”. And in Proverbs 16:5 we read, “Proud men, one and all, are abominable to the Lord”. Jesus’ sharpest words in the gospels were directed against the religious people who were full of pride. He spoke about the prideful Pharisee praying next to the sinful tax collector and declared the tax-collector forgiven in the parable (Luke 18:9-14). He said to them ‘Truly I tell you, the tax-collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you’. (Matt 21:31). He called the religious proud hypocrites who like to been seen by others to be holy, but who are inwardly full of sin. They may have seemed to have their lives together, but the root sin of pride was planted firmly in their lives.

It is pride that Jesus is confronting in our Gospel reading. The medicine he administers is for his disciples to learn humility, "Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all." He takes our desire for greatness and turns it on its head. He teaches a similar lesson in Matt 23:12 saying, “those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” Jesus exalted humble fishermen and made them his apostles. Pride is confronted by learning humility, which is just thinking honestly about yourself. It is not a tall person pretending he is short. Or, a smart person pretending she is dumb. It is seeing yourself as you are before God. It is remembering that you are mud made into the image of God. Humility is recognizing that we are creatures- created by an amazingly wise, powerful, and loving God. Humility is recognizing that we are His and that He knows how best to live and that He deserves our love, respect, and service. Humility is the natural position of the human heart in the presence of God. The saints thought humility was so important St. Augustine said, “Humility is the foundation of all the other virtues, hence, in the soul in which this virtue does not exist there cannot be any other virtue except in mere appearance.”

Ultimately though, humility will lead us to not focus on ourselves. Peter Kreeft says that “Pride has ingrown eyeballs. [but] Humility stares outward in self-forgetful ecstasy”[3]. Genuine humility will imitate Jesus as he washes the feet of his disciples (John 13). Humility is marked by selflessness, and respect. Humility means the reason you do something is less about you and more about others. And so Jesus teaches that regarding God’s kingdom, "Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all." Jesus taught us to be servants not just of those we like, or those we feel comfortable with, or those we look up to, but to be servants of all. In Jesus’ language, Aramaic, the word for ‘servant’ and ‘child’ were the same.

In Jesus’ day children were extremely low on the social totem pole (as were servants). In the Gospel’s they are a symbol of the forgotten, or those who people have no use for. A child will not help you climb the corporate ladder. A child will not owe you favors. Children, in Jesus’ day, were often to be neither seen nor heard. To welcome a child you have to humble yourself. You have to get down to their level. You have to make eye contact. You have to ask them questions and become interested in their games and stories. This sometimes involves making a fool of yourself as you enter the play of a child. It is nearly impossible to be full of sinful pride and truly play with a child. It takes humility to make them feel welcome.

They were encouraged to embrace a child in a culture that gave them very little status at all. They were objects to be owned, or a nuisance to be quieted. Jesus taught them that to compete with other disciples, especially to mistreat disciples lower on the “totem pole”, was in essence to reject Jesus. To embrace the child, the “least of these”, is to embrace Jesus, and God Himself.

Philippians chapter 2 repeats an ancient hymn or creed of the early church- “Who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (2:6-8). Jesus, had the ability to be the greatest, but chose to be the least. He attempted in some way, to become the zero in the rank of humanity. He lowered himself in order to serve. Even to the point of being betrayed and killed on a cross.

As human beings we are often caught trying to put ourselves ahead of those around us. We do it at school, at work, in politics, and pretty much anywhere else we bump into each other. But, Jesus turns this on its head teaching us that to be great in God’s kingdom we paradoxically have to become last, and a servant of everyone. To begin to see ourselves as servants, and to learn to welcome those we can’t manipulate into giving us greater social standing (like children in Jesus’ day) will undo the pride that often marks our lives with others. It is a lesson Christ exemplified with his own life- identifying with the rejected, the least, and the zero’s on the social totem pole. Amen.

[1] Hurtado, Larry. commentary on Mark
[2] Kreeft, Peter. Back to Virtue, 97
[3] Kreeft, 103

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