Pentecost 23

When I was young, I was friends with a kid we’ll call John; he was the child of friends of my parents, and so we spent an awful lot of time together growing up.  John, I’m sure, had a good heart, but he could be a little, let’s call it self-involved, and that caused him to make some interesting decisions.  One of my favorites was the year, when we were younger teenagers, that for Christmas he gave my parents a framed picture of himself.  Looking back on it, that has to be one of the best and funniest moments of my young life, though the humor of it was wasted on my youth.  If that picture could talk, it would say “God, I thank thee that I am not like other men.”

 

Pride cometh before the fall, the idiom says; King Solomon wrote it – if he had written in Tudor English – as “Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall.”  Jesus told this parable, the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, in the midst of a bunch of teaching that beat up on the indolent rich, the corrupt powers of Rome, and as usual, the Pharisees.  Not all of the Pharisees were bad guys, of course, but not unlike being a priest, being a Pharisee gave one opportunity to be particularly bad, publicly reprehensible.  Their main problem was pride.

 

And so the parable introduces us to two men, a Pharisee and a tax collector.  Neither will be the most popular guy at the temple, but the Pharisee does have pride of place, so to speak.

 

The Pharisee begins to pray.  “Notice that the parable doesn’t doubt the Pharisee’s truthfulness: he does have real moral excellence. And notice too that the Pharisee doesn’t congratulate himself on this moral excellence in himself. He thanks God for it; he gives God all the credit for it.  So what exactly is wrong with this Pharisee?  Think about it this way. Aquinas says that there are four kinds of pride.

 

(1) There’s foolish pride. You think you have an excellence which you don’t have, like a child who thinks he’s the best basketball player in the world.

 

(2) There’s the pride of the self-made man. You think you have an excellence you do have, but you think you got that excellence for yourself, without anybody’s help.

 

(3) There’s the sneakily self-congratulatory pride. You think you have an excellence you do have, and you recognize that God gave it to you; but you assume God gave it to you because he knew that you would make such good use of it.

 

(4) And then there’s the most self-deceptive kind of pride. You think you have an excellence you do have, and you recognize that you have it because God gave it, and you acknowledge that God gave it because he is so good, not because you are so nice—BUT you are glad others don’t have it and you hope they don’t get it.”[1]

The Pharisee had a mix of three and four: God gave him his gifts because he is somehow worthy of them, and he doesn’t think that God should give others, especially that disgusting tax collector, the grace to power to achieve his kind of righteousness.

 

What kind of pride do you have?  I’m all too aware of my ownership progression, hitting at least three out of the four I’ve listed.  Thankfully, no matter where you fall on the list – and we all fall on this list somewhere – we’re in good company.  St. Paul was rather forthcoming about his prideful ways, and he did his best to attribute all glory to God, but if you didn’t notice, he wrote the words me, I, or my eighteen times in the four verses we heard today from his letter to Timothy.  Paul probably gave his friend’s parents a framed painting of himself for Christmas.

 

How do we get rid of pride?  A good start is with the words of the tax collector: “God, be merciful to me a sinner!”  It starts with remembering that no matter how great you are – and you’re all pretty great – as Paul also wrote, we have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.  From there it’s about humbling ourselves before God and our neighbor, using the talents God gave us for the benefit of His people, and wishing the best for others.  You guys are already pretty good at those things; I’m not worried about any of you having to revise your Christmas gift list.

[1] Eleanor Stump: http://liturgy.slu.edu/30OrdC102316/reflections_stump.html

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