What Is Pride?

Welcome to the Knox Talks blog. Here you can find recent and past sermons relating scripture to a wide variety of topics. I would like to thank Shelley Rose for transcribing my notes into text for the blog.

What Is Pride?

Scripture: Sirach 10:12-18 Luke 14:1, 7-14

I should begin by pointing out that I almost never preach from the Apocrypha. The book of Sirach is not considered scriptural in the Reformed Tradition although it is canonical for the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and most Oriental Orthodox churches.

It came up in the Revised Common Lectionary for today as an alternate reading for Anglicans and Lutherans and the fact that the Capital Pride Parade is today just made it too tempting to resist. The Sirach reading summarizes well what the Christian church has felt for centuries about the idea of pride.

Anyone who has read Paradise Lost knows that pride was considered the sin that caused Satan to rebel and fall. It was the most original sin and our Sirach lesson describes the reasoning: pride is said to be the sin by which we replace God with ourselves, so we see ourselves as the centre of the universe.

The medieval church declared Pride to be the first and worst of the Seven Deadly Sins; the one which caused a person to go directly to Hell: do not pass GO, do not collect $200.

Jesus even addresses pride a bit with his advice about not taking the best seat at a celebration. Jesus’ words are in the tradition of Wisdom Literature, like the kind of advice we read in Proverbs. Jesus spins it differently, making this into another lesson on one of his favourite themes: about the first being last and the last being first.

He tells us not to assume we are better than others. The lesson even reminds us that in God’s economy helping others is more important than trading meals back and forth with friends.

But Jesus doesn’t go as far as the Church would in later years. Yes, there are Biblical injunctions against pride: typically they are aimed at rulers. After all, people with great wealth and power are at much greater risk of needing to keep their egos in check than average people are. The Romans even had a special staff position for this: the auriga was a slave whose job was to whisper “remember, you are mortal” in the ear of any leader who was being cheered as he celebrated a victory.

Sadly, for centuries in the west these biblical teachings on pride were used to keep people in line. Society accepted that kings were allowed to be proud while the rest of us had to be good, humble Christians and not challenge the social order.

One practical reason for this acceptance of royal pride is demonstrated over and over in the Bible and in other history: prophets who were sent by God to challenge the pride of rulers were tortured or killed for their words.

Can you imagine how well you would be treated if you were to go up to Vladimir Putin and denounce him for his overweening pride? Or to go up to Xi Jinping, the Chinese president, and suggest he looks like Winnie the Pooh? I wouldn’t recommend it.

This long and troubled history has given the word “pride” a deeply negative meaning for many people in our society and particularly for many religious people.

The Pride Parade and related Pride celebrations approach the idea of pride from a very different perspective: pride is presented as the opposite of shame; it’s about people not having to hide who they really are.

That approach raises some issues which are important to our faith: human dignity, truth, identity and the value of a person. It should make us ask whether our faith demands that we conform to cultural expectations that don’t reflect the values that Jesus taught.

This approach to pride didn’t start with the LGBTQ community. I remember it being used years ago by other groups that have been similarly oppressed. In the early 80s I went to a multi-media presentation (remember those in the days before PowerPoint?); a friend of mine in an Evangelical communications group was putting it on in a university auditorium near Toronto.

One of the things the show did was to play a piece of popular music that sang of pride while they projected images that clearly criticized the idea of pride. The point the very white, Canadian university crowd missed was that the song was about being black in America and the black youth who were the intended audience for this song were being encouraged to be proud of their heritage, their skin colour; to be proud of who they were.

The problem here is one of language: we are trying to make one word do a new job without giving it the chance to lose its centuries of baggage.

People have always known that too much individual pride can be a problem. The pagan Greeks didn’t care about the Bible’s perspective and they wrote about it. They called it Hubris, the kind of pride that leads to the destruction of someone great.

Nowadays many people call it Malignant Narcissism where people consider that their own needs are much more important than anyone else’s.

At the same time, we know we need to value ourselves. If you don’t love yourself, then loving your neighbour as yourself can be destructive.

And that’s where we can identify the core of the problem: pride is destructive when it causes us to think that other people don’t matter as much as we do, or when we believe that because someone is different we can ignore their concerns.

God gives us a focus for our faith that requires us to look beyond ourselves. That is at the very core of what Jesus taught every day.

If we are fortunate enough to fit the expectations of society, we can become very comfortable and we may not want to be unsettled; we may not want to be reminded of how difficult others may have it.

One of the things a Pride parade is supposed to do is to challenge us to consider what life is like for a community that was illegal until the 1970s and which is still considered by some to be a legitimate target of hatred and violence.

I would suggest that an important part of our faith is our call to love and support people who have been pushed to the margins, people who have been told they are worthless, people who have been told they are wrong just because of who they are,

We are not called to this because they are poor or pathetic or because we’ve been moved by a sad story, but because God loves them for who they are and we should too.

That can be challenging.

But if we assume that everyone should be like us, or that everyone should conform to the expectations that our culture has held for years, that is when we become guilty of the kind of pride that is condemned in scripture, the kind that drives a wedge between us and God as we fail to love our neighbours as ourselves.

Jesus calls us to look beyond ourselves and to love others as much as God does. Today is a good day to challenge our assumptions and push our comfort zones to see who that love should include.

Amen.

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