Text: Sirach 10:12-18; Luke 14:1, 7-14
“Pride makes us artificial and humility makes us real.”
Well, we are going on a trip this morning. Each of us to a different place but each place holds a common feeling. So sit back, relax, and close your eyes. I want you to think of a time when you felt pride. In your mind, go to that place. Notice where you are and who is around you. For some, the place might be a classroom. In that classroom you stood before your classmates and presented your class project that you worked on day and night for weeks. At the end of all the presentations, you learned that you scored highest grade of anyone in the class. And you felt pride. For others, your place might be a banquet hall. In that banquet hall there was an important dinner taking place and you were seated at the table of honor and recognized before all the assembly. And you felt pride. For yet others, your place might be the workplace. There, the coveted job promotion that all of your colleagues wanted was bestowed upon you because of your hard work. And you felt pride. I would venture to bet that all of us, including the youngest among us this morning, could tell a story of when we felt a great sense of pride in ourselves for something we did well. This kind of pride is situational – it is earned through actions, and specific to the moment or accomplishment at hand. This pride is one kind of pride.
And then there is the Southern use of pride and proud, which is well described in a bluegrass song called Country Poor and Country Proud. The lyrics go:
We might be poor, but we’re proud
And we’re doing the best that we know how.
We don’t have much, but we don’t look for pity.
That’s why we’re country poor and country proud.
In this context, pride means dignity in the face of diminished circumstances, and fierce independence that rejects handouts. One of you has told me the story of your father, who grew up in the depression. One of 13 children, he was thrilled to come home from school at Christmas-time to find new overalls for each child and a box of oranges given to the family by the county. But the joy was shortlived – as soon as his father came home, it all went back. Papa, his father, declared they would not accept what they had not earned – a crushing, but memorable lesson for a child. This kind of pride has its nobility, but it also has a deep shadow – it speaks to separation and an unwillingness to be indebted to others. A kind of pride that can be harmful.
Finally, there is pride that derives from more than our context or situation – or as Webster says, “having or showing a high or excessively high opinion of oneself or one’s importance.” This is the pride we have in our good name – earned not just from an act or accomplishment, but from a lifetime of good acts, or even the acts of our forbearers. I would submit that we feel a good deal of pride in the name Pullen Memorial Baptist Church. It is also the kind of pride we feel in our children – not just because they do well, but because they are uniquely, perfectly, tragically ours. Or the pride we feel in our nation, not because we live the gospel or win the most gold medals, but because we are American. This kind of pride transcends the temporary, situational pride of an award or a job well done; instead it is an identification – we become in our own minds, worthy of pride at a basic level because of who we are. We are not just good at what we do, we are important because we are good at what we do. We are not just hardworking, we are successful because we are hardworking. We are proud because we are special, we somehow feel we deserve to be set aside, to be elevated, to be distinguished. Now we are getting closer to the kind of pride the Bible speaks of.
Last week our text offered us an opportunity to reflect on shame. This week, our sacred scriptures press on and call to our attention our experiences with pride. This faith stuff is serious business, inviting us to wrestle with those things that keep us from being God’s community here on earth—things like shame and pride.
Maybe you noticed that one of our scripture readings came from a book that we rarely read from—The Book of Sirach. The Book of Sirach is part of the Apocrypha, scripture not included in the Protestant cannon. It is, however, in the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Bibles, but not in most Protestant Bibles. Some believe that the Apocrypha includes the writings during the gap of time between the period covered by the Hebrew scriptures and the period covered by the Christian scriptures. Protestants, and this is what they teach you in seminary, call this the intertestamental period. Traditionally, it is considered to cover roughly four hundred years, spanning the ministry of Malachi to the appearance of John the Baptist in the early 1st century AD. It is known by members of the Protestant community (that’s us) as the “400 Silent Years” because it is believed to have been a span where God revealed nothing new to God’s people. I, personally, am not buying that argument: God is always revealing something new to those who will listen and pay attention. Many also do not consider it divinely inspired, but I’m thinking we shouldn’t be so dismissive and judgmental. For this reading from Sirach, paired with the gospel story, helps us better understand the term “pride” as it was used in the Bible.
This reading in Sirach emphasizes a common biblical theme: the corruption of the prideful. Sirach reminds us that pride, as used in the Bible, is not about feeling good about yourself and your accomplishments. It is not even about being conceited or immodest. You can feel pride for that good grade, and that job promotion. The Book of Sirach reminds us that the kind of pride that the Bible speaks of is a form of hate, the devaluing of others in relation to oneself. A kind of pride that we see often these days on our national stage. Once devalued, Sirach tells us, evil is more easily done to others. So for the biblical text, pride at its core is about the abuse of power. And so when we encounter the word pride in the Bible, we are being asked to think about corruption and abuse of power and institutional violence and systemic oppression.
Now I want to say something here that I’ve been thinking about lately. I believe that our faith has a personal element to it. We learn this from Jesus in those moments when he retreated from the crowds and pressures of the world to care for his own soul—to pray and to rest and to be still with God. The biblical writers, especially Paul, give witness to a personal faith that is sustaining in all of life’s transitions. Our faith and spiritual forbearers also give witness to a personal faith upon which they draw strength and courage in the face of adversity and hardship. They also speak of the joy of faith—the kind of joy and peace that surpasses all understanding. AND yet, we cannot ignore the truth that Jesus’ ministry and his focus was on an empire, an institution, a system that was oppressive—that valued a few and marginalized the many; that made the rich, richer and the poor, poorer; that honored some and devalued others. His teachings, his ministry, his life, his faith was about speaking truth to this empire—this power –while caring for those who were on the outside of the system—those who had no power. Every story, every parable, every teachings is about lifting the lowly, caring for the poor and valuing each person as an equally beloved child of God. So when we come to these stories of banquets, and weddings, and good Samaritans and biblical themes such as shame and pride, sin and mercy, crucifixion and resurrection we can certainly think about what they mean for our own personal faith journey. But we must never forget that for Jesus these stories were always about challenging the power and privilege of the empire and lifting the lowly.
And so now we come to the story of the banquet in Luke’s gospel. We are not just being asked to think about how our individual and personal pride keeps us at the head table, and therefore others on the outside the banquet hall. We are also being asked how our collective and institutional pride keeps us at the table of honor while others sit at the back of the room if they can even get into the banquet hall. And, we are not only being asked how our individual and personal pride corroborates and validates the empire but how our collective pride corroborates and validates the empire. This story begs us to ask the question: How does our pride as a church shape our invitation list? Jesus isn’t merely offering advice on social etiquette in this story. He is asking his listeners this:
“…not to take into account the social payoff or reward of their invitations and hospitality. Jesus says they should not invite to dinner those who already respect them or who are in a position to reward their hospitality…but rather invite the outcast—the poor, the sick, the socially undesirable, and more…Jesus’ whole life is centered on inviting into the presence of God those who neither expect nor deserve such an invitation. And he expects us to do the same. He expects us to stop counting the costs, the benefits, and the rewards of our actions, to set aside our pride and live from a sense of abundance and blessing [and humility].” (David Lose)
And that is why Sirach also speaks of humility and pride in the same passage.
Listen again to the wisdom of Sirach:
God overthrows the thrones of rulers,
and enthrones the lowly in their place.
God plucks up the roots of the nations,
And plants the humble in their place.
This week in lectionary we not only shared our stories of pride, we also told our stories of humility. Some of the stories were funny. Like the spelling bee story from grade school where the person spelled the word forty “f-o-u-r-t-y” and felt humiliated when she realized her mistake. As she told the story in lectionary, all these years later, her tone and face reflected the humility she felt in that moment. She said in lectionary, as if reliving the experience, “and I am a numbers person.” She would go on to have a career as a “senior research computer scientist”—her every day spent with numbers. Other stories were about life’s humbling moments when mercy was given, grace bestowed, and love lavished. I’m sure each of us could tell a story of when we experienced or witnessed humility.
Thomas Merton says that “Pride makes us artificial and humility makes us real.” I wonder this morning if we can hear the wisdom, and not the old narratives in this statement. Pride is not the same as a sense of self-worth, of being worthy of love, of being “good enough.” And humility is not the same as self-loathing, born from generations of sin-based theology that we have used to shame and limit ourselves. Pride makes us artificial not because it is a sin to know we are loveable, but because pride tempts us to not just believe we are worthy of love, but that we are more worthy of love. And humility makes us real not because we are unworthy of love, but because humility reminds us always of grace, and of the love that doesn’t need to be earned.
Sirach 10:12 says, “The beginning of human pride is to forsake the Lord; the heart has withdrawn from its Maker.” The kind of pride the Bible speaks of causes our hearts to withdraw from God. When we grow to depend on and identify with our own worth, on our earnings, on our status, we diminish God’s love, a love that is freely and abundantly given to all. And this love, God’s love, is hard to know and feel and share when we become artificial with pride and withdraw our hearts from God. Only when we keep our hearts connected to God’s heart can we host the banquet that honors all of God’s children. So whatever we do or don’t do as a church, may we always keep our pride at a distance and our hearts connected to our Maker.