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“Vices and Virtues – Pride and Humility”
By Rev. Victor Kim
I want to begin a series of sermons over the summer called Vices and Virtues and they will be sermons that deal with what are commonly known as the seven deadly sins or vices, and their perhaps less well-known counterparts, the seven virtues.
The vices are sort of a famous list, pride, envy, anger, sloth, greed, gluttony and lust. These vices aren’t listed in the scriptures as the seven deadly sins, although all of them are referred in parts of scripture. These vices and others were identified early in Christian history and this particular list of vices was formalized by Pope Gregory I in AD 590. The corresponding list of virtues are a bit harder to pin down but after Gregory released his list of the vices, the corresponding virtues came to be identified as humility, kindness, patience, diligence, charity, temperance and chastity.
We seem to be living in an age where people are prone to more extremes than maybe we’ve been accustomed to. Events of the recent past seem to be more reactionary, a push-back against a pace of change that some may have found difficult. In that reactionary response, I’ve sensed almost a permissiveness around behavior that would’ve been considered impolite at best and reprehensible at worst. Whatever the causes may be, it seems that the vices in our lives, which we all are guilty of to some degree, are finding expression in more obvious ways than perhaps they have in the past, and in response, it may be more important than before for us to consider the virtues more intentionally and faithfully. So let’s begin with what some have called the most serious of the seven vices, pride. There may be no better passage of scripture than our text from Luke’s gospel this morning when it comes to speaking about pride. The parable that Jesus tells is familiar to most of us, isn’t it? Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. That is quite the lineup Jesus introduces, two extremes, a religious pillar and an outcast. If Jesus is wanting his listeners to take sides, there’s no question who would come out on top, it’s the Pharisee.
I know, I know, the Pharisee? I mean most Pharisees come across in the Bible as just below pond scum, but really that not at all how they would have been regarded by those listening to Jesus. I mean listen to his prayer. God, I thank you that I am not like other people, thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week, I give a tenth of all my income. He could have gone on if Jesus would have let him. And before you jump all over the Pharisee, let’s take a look at that prayer he prayed. First of all, he prayed. Pharisees were extremely devout, religious people. They were the pillars of the religious community of Jesus’ day. The fact is that much of the Jewish tradition and customs that survived the Roman conquest and occupation of Israel and the destruction of the temple is due to the tenacity and commitment of the Pharisees. The Pharisees preserved the Jewish faith and its practices and kept it from oblivion. Pharisees would regularly, daily, go to the temple to pray. Not only on the high, holy days, the feast days, but every day, regularly, faithfully. Religion was in their bones.
And listen to his prayer. You might think that he’s a pompous jerk, but you need to know that what he prayed was a prayer that’s part of his liturgy, it’s a prayer that all devout Jews would have prayed, I mean it’s in the oldest prayer book in scripture, the Psalms. Psalm 17:3-5 says, “If you try my heart, if you visit me by night, if you test me, you will find no wickedness in me; my mouth does not transgress. As for what others do, by the word of your lips I have avoided the ways of the violent. My steps have held fast to your paths; my feet have not slipped.” He’s praying what he’s supposed to pray. If we want to hold the Pharisee to account for being a prideful jerk, why shouldn’t we also hold the Psalmist accountable? But you don’t see people vilifying the Psalmist as they do the Pharisees.
If you want a villain, just look at the tax collector! No one would have needed to explain about the reputations of tax collectors to the crowds around Jesus. Every time tax collectors are mentioned in scriptures, they are cast in an extremely negative light. They are always in need of redemption. And for very good reason. These guys are the worst of the worst. They are traitors. They have sold out their own people for greed. They have betrayed their country, their community, they are collaborators with the hated Romans. They employ the military force of the Roman soldiers to collect taxes from their own people, but they collect more than what’s owed so that they can line their pockets. I suppose they decided that if they were going to be outcasts from their own people, at least they might as well have a luxurious exile. Tax collectors are defrauders, corrupt, these are the sort of guys that would start a Ponzi scheme and get rich while everyone else suffers the consequences. You wouldn’t expect to see a tax collector at the temple, they wouldn’t be very welcome there. Maybe they’d try to get to the temple once a year for Passover, but it wouldn’t be a common sight. And so it makes sense that he would stand far off, apart from the rest, and he prayed a simple prayer, God, be merciful to me, a sinner! Boy did he ever get that right!
Before we make a hero out of the tax collector, remember he’s praying that prayer for a reason. He is a sinner, he knows it, everyone knows it. Let me ask you a question. Would you prefer to be in a church full of people like the Pharisee or the tax collector? Let’s be honest here. Put aside whatever prejudicial opinion you have formed about Pharisees. Whenever it is that we are able to get back together physically in the church building, who would you like to be sitting next to? Would you prefer a seat next to someone who’s a known traitor, corrupt, someone who steals from the most vulnerable in the community, or would you prefer to sit next to a pillar of our society, a generous patron of the arts, a Bible study aficionado, someone who give so generously to the ministry of the church, who doesn’t only talk about holiness but tries to live it out daily? I mean this is the kind of person who doesn’t need to refer to the printed words to be able to recite the Apostle’s Creed!
Doesn’t Jesus get it wrong here? Of course, he doesn’t. There’s something going on here with the Pharisee which goes beyond mere devout religious ritual. If the Pharisee is guilty of sin, it’s only one, but it’s a big one, it’s pride. C.S. Lewis called pride the “Great Sin,” and compared to pride the other sins are mere fleabites. I know that all sin is an affront to God and we shouldn’t be comparing degrees of sinfulness, but there is something about pride that’s especially treacherous. The kind of pride that causes all sorts of problems for us isn’t a parent’s pride about their children or the pride rooted in self-respect and dignity. There’s a kind of pride in taking delight in a job well done, an accomplishment of significance. And there’s nothing wrong with that. But that’s not the issue with the Pharisee. There are aspects of his prayer that go far beyond merely reciting the liturgy. The Pharisee’s problem is in the arrogance he brings in comparing himself to others, to the tax collector.
Faithfulness can never be rooted in despising others. There is nothing faithful about putting others down so that you can be seen in a better light. We all do it, but that doesn’t make it right. The reason pride is so insidious is that it attacks us, not at our weakness, but at our strength. It’s hard not to compare. We watch the events unfolding on our TVs and we look at the images of looters and vandals and we can’t help but compare ourselves and make judgments. We see the pictures of those crowding together in bars and beaches and we can’t help but think that we wouldn’t be so selfish and short-sighted after all that we’ve been through.
And beyond the temptation to compare and find others wanting, even if they are created in the image of God, just like us, beyond our common urge to judge, especially those who when compared to, we come off pretty good, beyond that temptation is the great lie of self-sufficiency. Pride is rooted in idolatry, in a belief that we don’t need God, that we can do it on our own. It’s the first temptation in the Garden of Eden. If you eat the fruit of the tree, you will surely not die, but your eyes will be opened and you will be like God, says the serpent to Adam and Eve. The most dangerous part of pride is the temptation to believe in ourselves above God. Notice the Pharisee’s prayer. He doesn’t ask for a thing from God in his prayer. Look how good I am. I’m not like other people, look at all that I do. The Pharisee’s prayer is all about telling God how good he is. He asks for nothing and he receives nothing.
But before we get all excited about the humility of the tax collector, after all, he does clearly admit his sin, he knows he’s in need of mercy, he knows he’s in need of God’s forgiveness, and Jesus recognizes that in him by saying that the tax collector went home justified, we need to watch ourselves around humility because there’s a fine line between humility and pride. In aligning ourselves with the tax collector and his humility, if we do so at the expense of the Pharisee, we become exactly what Jesus warned about at the beginning of the parable. Jesus told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt. As soon as we regard the Pharisee with contempt, as soon as we side with the tax collector over and against the Pharisee, we become victims to the exact pride we thought we were avoiding.
True humility isn’t about siding with the tax collector, it’s not putting words in the tax collector’s mouth, ‘Lord I thank you that I am not like this Pharisee.’ Humility is not conditional and it’s never comparative. Humility is about recognizing that all of us are sinners, broken in some way and in need of God’s forgiveness, healing, reconciliation and peace.
There’s a dangerous whiff in the air around us these days. The idea of pride is being peddled as a cure for what ails us. But the kind of pride that is being bandied about too often elevates some at the expense of others. We’ve seen it a lot in our neighbours to the south, in the U.S. ‘The pride is back,’ we hear. But there’s a kind of pride that makes judgments about who belongs and who doesn’t, who deserves to be in and who needs to be kept out. The greatness of America now being offered seems to be predicated on others not being so great, putting others in their place. And we have to be very careful as Canadians should we think we are that much better for as soon as we do, we have succumbed to the very same temptation, the same pride we fault in others. And the truth is that we don’t have to look very far or deep to discover our own faults.
What the world needs today is less judgment, less comparison, less conditional love and more humility, genuine humility. Not a doormat humiliation, but an honesty that confesses that instead of identifying with the tax collector over the Pharisee, we need to identify with both, for both are children of God, both are created in God’s image, both are in need of God’s healing, whether they recognize it or not, both are loved by God. The virtue of humility for our age is its capacity to bring people together, to not allow ourselves to be separated by campaigns that seek to divide and conquer. It won’t be easy, there’s a reason why pride is so difficult to resist. The easy way would be to align ourselves with those who are like us, who are righteous because the other side seems so deserving of our contempt. But can we hold people to account without judging their worth? Can we disagree with the actions of people without drawing vast conclusions about their very nature?
The virtue of humility is only won with hard work, with persistence in the face of daunting odds. We live in divisive times and seeking unity in these moments will be difficult. But it’s exactly in times like these that the people of God have to be committed to the ways of Jesus. Humility is swimming against the tide and it’s easy to wonder whether it makes a difference. But it needs to start with us.
Let’s take an honest look at ourselves, at the pride that may lurk in us, the kind of pride rooted in comparison and judgment. Let’s begin by changing those relationships over which we have some measure of control. Let’s embrace humility, and in doing, learn to embrace others.
And friends, the good news is that we are not alone. Our embrace of humility, of generously seeing Christ in the other, no matter how difficult the other may be, is the work of all God’s faithful people. And we will make a difference!
Thanks be to God, Amen.
Written by Rev. Victor Kim.
Preached on June 14, 2020 at Richmond Presbyterian Church
without members in attendance due to COVID-19 Crisis then posted online.