February 21, 2010
William G. Carter
During the season of Lent, we are going to consider the Seven Deadly Sins. There are various versions of that list. At the top of every list is the sin of pride. Pride.
“What’s wrong with pride?” asked the fourth grader. “Our teacher told us to take pride in our work, and I want to do a good job.” So she spells each word correctly, double-checks the arithmetic before turning it in. She cheers for the basketball team when they score. She does as her teacher says, and takes pride in fine work.
Counselors tell us to muzzle any negative voices in our heads. Be positive. Do not disqualify yourself. Stretch to your capacity. All of that is helpful, especially as a person grows into their own skin. There are personal qualities to claim, abilities to develop, and boundaries to explore. We were created to stretch.
And yet, it’s not all that it’s cracked up to be.
The problem is an old one. Back in the Garden of Eden, the serpent said, “I know how you can be like God. Just have a bite of that apple. If I had an arm of my own, I’d pull it down for you. I guess you will have to reach for yourself.” Eve and Adam both reached . . . and their reaching got them banished from the Garden.
Of course, people will make the most of their circumstances. There’s another ancient story in the Bible, just a few pages after the Eden disaster. Once upon a time, when there was only one language in the whole earth – I think it was Hebrew. Since everybody spoke one language, everybody started to get organized. They joined forces. They sought to make a name for themselves. They agreed to build a tower that stretched all the way up to the heavens.
As the ancients tell the story, God began to feel threatened – and that’s why God confused their single language in a kind of reverse-Pentecost event. Suddenly some spoke Swahili, others spoke French, still others spoke in a rare Mandarin dialect. That fractured community lost interest in their common tower, and God breathed a sigh of relief. For the very first time, diversity trumped arrogance, and God had some elbow room.
Stories like these warn us about getting too big for our britches. They remind us there are limits to our lifespan; we will not live as long as Moses or Methusaleh. There are limits to our physical ability; the gladiator Samson got a haircut and lost his legendary strength. There are limits to our understanding; even that know-it-all apostle Paul had to confess that he could not understand God’s ways. “Who has known the mind of the Lord?” he asked. “To God be the glory forever.”
Yet we keep stretching. We keep reaching. It seems to be written into our DNA. Years ago, scientist Michael Crichton wrote a novel called Jurassic Park. Remember that book, the movie, and all the sequels? It was a hypothetical yarn about cloning ancient dinosaurs and setting them in a theme park. After all, the investors reasoned, we have the technology. We can do this. It never occurred to anybody that it would be a bad idea…until the dinosaurs started acting like dinosaurs. Sure, it’s possible for a human being to to clone a velociraptor – but why would you want to?
It has to do with stretching . . . with reaching. The old church fathers called it “superbia.” That was the Latin word. Superbia referred to “aiming at what is above.” It is the word we have translated in English as “pride.” The first and deadliest of the sins is to reach for what belongs to God. We blur the distinctions between creature and Creator. We forget who we are.
That’s why the Gospel lesson is so important to remember. Whatever else we say about it, it is a test of pride. Jesus has been keeping a Holy Lent in the wilderness. He has been serious about it: fasting for forty days, praying for guidance, and listening for God’s claim on his life. He has been doing what he can to keep clear about who he has been called to be.
But forty days is a long time, a really long time. He is famished, says Luke, and his stomach begins to growl. The growl continues to grow. Soon it is purring like a fierce cat, and then the tempting words are formed: “Listen! (says the tempter) You don’t need to go hungry. I thought you had the power to set the stars in the sky? Can’t you create something to satisfy your appetite?” Jesus listened to the growl. He held his aching belly.
Just then, he saw a big rock, about this size. It was the largest around. And the voice said, “If you are the Son of God, you could turn this rock into a huge loaf of bread. And it wouldn’t need to be a private miracle out here in the desert where nobody will see it. Think of how many hungry people you could feed if you turned all these rocks into bread. You would have the poor eating out of your hand.”
And Jesus said, “No.”
So the Tempter took a deep breath, and said, “You’re probably right, Jesus. If you fed the people today, they would be begging for more bread tomorrow. Since you are the Son of God, it’s a better idea to take a broader perspective, take a deeper view. What we’re talking about is significant change, about doing what’s best for the largest number of people. Don’t settle for this little bitty desert – let’s get you set up as a politician. In an instant, Satan showed Jesus all the kingdoms of the world. “Their glory and authority belong to me,” says the devil, “and I would gladly give it to you. Just say the word, and I will put a crown on your head.”
Here, says Will Willimon, we pause to wonder: whoever gave all the nations of the world to the devil? Did God say, “I have no interest in such grimy affairs. Here, Satan, I’ll let you take the politics”? We don’t know. All we know, says Willimon, is that, when it comes to politics, there does seem to be an obvious linkage with worship of the devil. (Sinning Like a Christian, p. 38)
But Jesus says, “No.” He will not sidestep the cross in order to become the king.
“Now, just a minute,” says the Tempter. “Aren’t you the Son of God? On the day when you were baptized, didn’t you hear that voice from heaven calling you the Son of God? If you are the son of God, we need to line up some people who believe in you - - and I have just the thing.”
So the devil took Jesus to Jerusalem. They left behind the desert, went to the Holy City. And they climbed to the top of the Holy Temple. “Pretty impressive, don’t you think?” The devil said, “Look at all those people down there – I’m going to get them to believe in you.”
Jesus said, “What are you thinking?”
The devil said, “Well, you know the Bible, just like I do. And there’s that Psalm – Psalm 91 – about how the Lord will bear you up on eagle’s wings, bear you on the breath of dawn, make you to shine like the sun, and hold you in the palm of His hand. The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it. Jesus, if you’re the Son of God, jump off of here and let God catch you. Go ahead and do it, while I stand here and hum that song. The Bible says God will hold you in the palm of his hand. Let’s see if that is true.”
Jesus said, “No.”
Then Luke says that the devil sauntered away, leaving Jesus until “an opportune time.” He stays out of sight, until the very end of the story. As Jesus is crucified, the tempter’s words are repeated. But this time they are on the lips of soldiers who work for the “kingdoms of the world.” They say, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself.” Even one of the criminals nailed next to him says, “If you are the Messiah, save yourself and us.” This is the “opportune time,” and the devil’s words are now on human lips.
What are they asking? If you are the Son of God, then act like we think the Son of God should act. We are the ones who define you, Jesus; pay no attention to what God says. It’s all about us – save us, do it on our terms, fulfill our needs, answer our desires – forget about God; it’s all about us . . . or at least, it’s all about you, and what you might do apart from your Father.
And Jesus hangs there on the cross until he dies; in his silence, he says, “No.”
There was a spiritual writer of the seventh century, by the name of John Climacus. He understood clearly about “superbia,” the sin of pride, and what it threatens to do to a person. Here’s what he says:
Pride is a denial of God, an invention of the devil, contempt for men. It is the mother of condemnation, the offspring of praise, a sign of barrenness. It is flight from God's help, the harbinger of madness, the author of downfall. It is the cause of diabolical possession, the source of anger, the gateway of hypocrisy. It is the fortress of demons, the custodian of sins, the source of hardheartedness. It is the denial of compassion, a bitter pharisee, a cruel judge. It is the foe of God. It is the root of blasphemy.
Now, does that sound a little harsh? I thought so; and then last Friday, a world famous golfer stood to make his apology. Tiger Woods took a short break from rehab, and this is what he confessed:
I stopped living by the core values that I was taught to believe in. I knew my actions were wrong, but I convinced myself that normal rules didn't apply. I never thought about who I was hurting. Instead, I thought only about myself. I ran straight through the boundaries that a married couple should live by. I thought I could get away with whatever I wanted to. I felt that I had worked hard my entire life and deserved to enjoy all the temptations around me. I felt I was entitled. Thanks to money and fame, I didn't have to go far to find them. I was wrong. I was foolish. I don't get to play by different rules. The same boundaries that apply to everyone apply to me. I brought this shame on myself. (2/19/10)
As we make our way toward the cross, we pay attention to pride. Pride is more than the positive feelings that accompany good work. To quote C.S. Lewis, it is “a spiritual cancer” that takes over the soul. It is possible to be so full of ourselves that there is no room for God. Or just as deadly is when we allow just a little-bitty-Sunday-only spot for God. Integrity evaporates, justice is forgotten, peace is replaced, others are bulldozed.
Like all of the deadly sins, pride starts small, and then begins to take over. We won’t pick up the dirty clothes, because it’s beneath us. We refuse to take a service job or a volunteer opportunity, because we are qualified for so much more. We want to be a positive influence, but begin to push our opinion, defend our position, exert our force – and we seek our own way, rather than open ourselves up to God’s way. We win an argument, and then we need to win the next argument, and the next . . .
Perhaps the clearest sign that pride is slowly choking us to death is when we refuse to take any direction from anybody else. We can’t even listen to God. Nobody can tell us what to think or what to do, because we know better. Should that happen, it is a stage four cancer.
The antidote to pride is humility. It occurs to me to quote an anonymous sage: “If you get an attack of importance, call your mother or scrub a toilet. Either one will put your talents in perspective.”
Jesus did not take the crown that Satan offered him in the wilderness. His road was the humble road, all the way to the cross. When he got there, jokers put another kind of crown on his head, a crown of humiliation, a crown woven from thorns. But that did not define Jesus, either.
No, Jesus was defined, as we were defined after him. It was the day of his baptism, when God said the same thing to Jesus that God has said to us: “You are my beloved child. Now, get to work…”
(c) William G. Carter
All rights reserved