Sermon given at Matins on Sunday 7 March 2010: Pride
7 March 2010 at 10:00 am
The Reverend Dr Nicholas Sagovsky, Canon in Residence
Readings: Deuteronomy 6:4-9; John 17: 1a, 11b-19
The first lesson we heard this morning is called in Jewish tradition, the Shema. ‘Shema’ is a Hebrew word, meaning ‘hear’. We heard the Jewish version of what is the first and greatest commandment for Christians and Muslims and Jews: ‘Hear, O Israel: The LORD is our God, the LORD alone. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.’ (Deut 6:4-5). For the Jews and Christians and Muslims, nothing is to take the place of God. Anything that takes the place of God in our hearts, or in our society, is an idol. Only God is to be worshipped; only God is to be obeyed unconditionally.
All the seven deadly sins, which we are thinking about through Lent, are concerned with letting our passions run out of control. We have already thought about lust, greed, covetousness and sloth. This week are thinking about the sin where our sense of our own power and importance runs out of control, and we end up putting ourselves in the place of God. This is the sin of pride. In Christian tradition it has been regarded as the sin of sins, the root of all sin, because it denies the proper place of God in our lives.
These days, all of this takes a bit of sorting out. We are used to speaking about pride in a good sense: we rightly take ‘pride’ in our appearance, in the achievements of others, in our team’s success at football or our country’s in the Olympics. We have become familiar with ‘Gay Pride’, or even just ‘Pride’. But we also use the word pride to mean something like ‘arrogance’. We talk about pride coming before a fall. Actually, the full saying in the Authorised Version of the Bible is that ‘Pride goeth before destruction and an haughty spirit before a fall.’ In the Litany of the Book of Common Prayer, we pray, ‘From all blindness of heart; from pride, vain-glory and hypocrisy, …Good Lord deliver us.’
There’s surprisingly little in the New Testament about pride. Jesus names it as one of those things that come out of the heart and defile a person (Mark 7:22), but there is much less in the New Testament about pride (hyperephania) than about its opposite, humility. In the world of the Early Church, pride in achievements, in success, was acceptable and understood – but humility was a completely new idea. Why would anybody want to be like a slave? Humility was something that was forced on the people with least power and social clout. Slaves had to be humble because nobody allowed them to be anything else. It was Christianity that changed all that – attacking the idea that pride was a good thing and commending humility as virtue to be desired. As the Prayer Book version of the Magnificat says:
He hath showed strength with his arm: he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He hath put down the mighty from their seat: and hath exalted the humble and meek.
For the early Christians, the supreme example of humility was of course that of Christ himself. We are told he ‘emptied himself, taking the form of a slave’ and that he ‘humbled himself’ (cf. Phil 2: 7-8). In John’s Gospel, we are shown exactly how he ‘humbled himself’, when he washed his disciples feet and said to them, ‘So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.’ (John 13: 14-15). What stops us following the example of Jesus? Fundamentally, it is pride. We consider certain things beneath our dignity; but Jesus shows us that the most dignified thing is to accept the place and the task that God gives us. If taking the lowest place was not beneath the dignity of Jesus, how can it be beneath ours?
There is one place in the New Testament in particular where we see Jesus struggling to break the hold of pride, and that is in the story of the Temptation in the Wilderness. The issue is that of accepting the will of God with one’s whole heart. The devil tries to do is to get Jesus to fulfil his destiny the easy way, seemingly cost-free, and not the way God is showing him – to follow the way of pride.
Jesus, we are told was driven into the wilderness by the Spirit immediately after his baptism (Mark 1:13). At the very point where he has dedicated himself completely to the will of God, he has to confront the costliness of doing God’s will. It would be much easier not to be hungry, to turn stones into bread, and at the same time to amaze the people who followed him. Jesus responds to this temptation by saying, ‘Human beings do not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God”’(Mt 4:4). God’s word, God’s promises, which have been good enough for the prophets, are to be good enough for him. He humbly accepts the teaching God has given as enough to satisfy his spiritual hunger.
Then the devil takes him to the pinnacle of the temple. The suggestion comes to Jesus that he should thrown himself down, and he thinks of the texts, “He will command his angels concerning you”, and “On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone”. Jesus responds by saying “Do not put the Lord your God to the test” (Mt 4:5-7). He is not going to set himself up to use God’s word or God’s power against God; he is not going to draw attention to himself by some flashy miracle. He is here humbly to accept whatever is God’s will for him.
Finally, the devil takes him to a high mountain and shows him all the kingdoms of the world, offering him as much earthly power as he wants if Jesus will only fall down and worship him. Think what a wonderful position or experience or life you can have, says the evil one, if you only do this or that which, deep down, you know is against God’s command. This is the temptation Jesus rejects most violently – he quotes the Shema: ‘Away with you, Satan! for it is written, “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him”’ (Mt 4:8-10) This is Jesus’s uncompromising response to the temptation of pride.
Having set himself so firmly to obey the will of God, Jesus is prepared for the test which comes at the end of his life in the Garden of Gethsemane. Faced with the agony to come, he begs his heavenly Father that the cup may be taken away from him, but adds, ‘Yet not what I want but what you want’ (Mt 26:39) In these words, it is clear the temptation to pride has been overcome, and that Jesus is ready, with complete humility, to accept God’s will for him, however painful and costly it may be.
What is it about pride that is so deadly? Pride blinds us to the reality that, wonderful though human beings may be, we are just creatures, like other creatures, and it is good for us humbly to accept what God has willed for us. As Dante says, ‘In his will is our peace’. We have our place within God’s good creation; we live and flourish and die; we are not little gods. As human beings, we so easily get an exaggerated sense of our own importance or cleverness or power. We think of ourselves as Masters of the Universe, when within the universe we are hardly more than a speck of dust. Human beings are not Masters of the Universe and when we think that we are we have fallen into pride – the most deadly of all the deadly sins, because it blinds us to our need of God; and what can be more deadly than that?