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Thursday, August 29, 2013
Lectionary Scriptures: Jeremiah 2:4-13 AND Psalm 81:1, 10-16 OR Sirach 10:12-18 OR Proverbs 25:6-7 AND Psalms 112:1-10, Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16, Luke 14:1, 7-14

The histories and experiences we bring to almost any conversation color our approach to that exchange, even the things we associate with the various words we use.  This is true when we talk about, among other things, pride.  Some grew up in such a judgmental environment that they have struggled, with varying degrees of success, to learn to see themselves in any kind of positive light.  Tirades against pride are seen as attempts to keep them “in their place.”  Sometimes whole groups have been denied basic human respect.  In response they have developed “pride” movements, black pride, gay pride, etc., attempting to claim and build up a sense of self-worth.

Others have looked around and seen pride as an attitude which has perpetuated the divisions and injustices in society.  Those who seek to dominate demonstrate a pride that says, “I am better than you are.  You are subordinate to me.”  That kind of pride expresses an arrogance that sees no need to consult with others.  Obviously I know best; maybe I know all there is to know, rivaling even God’s omniscience.

Those who’ve grown up in the church sometimes see it contributing to the call for a humility which deprives people of a sense of self-worth.  Or they see church people who act in prideful and hurtful ways.  Some struggle with scripture because they see it as defining human beings as evil, portraying a God who is always looking for someone to blame---most likely me.

All of those realities and interpretations are present, but I choose to believe that they do not define the church or scripture or our own self-worth.  It is true that scripture warns against pride.  “Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall” (Proverbs 16:18) is a verse many of us learned in Sunday School.  It was often abbreviated:  “Pride goeth before a fall.”  The reference here is not to self-worth, but to an arrogance that believes one is invincible.  Great achievement is to be celebrated, but with a humility that recognizes the next step may be a collosal stumble.  In another widely-known verse Paul calls his readers “not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think.”  (Romans 12:3)  I’ve always liked the nuance in those words.  They don’t instruct us to deny our self-worth; they simply remind us to be realistic in our self-evaluation, both our strengths and our weaknesses.  In fact, these words introduce one of Paul’s reflection on that fact that we all have gifts to be used to build up the entire body.

Ultimately I see many of the warnings against pride, including those in some of the lectionary readings for this Sunday, as a reminder that we are to relate to one another with mutual respect.  We all bring something of worth to the table.  A certain kind of arrogant pride, a pride that emphasizes superior place, destroys the kinds of relationship intended by God’s creative love.

The reading from Sirach specifically mentions pride.  Sirach is considered by many Protestants and Jews to be an apochryphal writing.  It is included as scripture in Catholic (and some other) Bibles.  For the rest of us, if it is included at all, it is in a special section between the Old and New Testaments.  The lectionary includes selected readings from these apochryphal writings.  Sirach is attributed to Jesus ben Sirach from the second century before the Christian era.  It is in the tradition of the “wisdom” literature of the Bible, much like the book of Proverbs.  It has been called “The Wisdom of Sirach” and, sometimes, “Ecclesiasticus.”

Sirach says, “The beginning of human pride is to forsake the Lord; the heart has withdrawn from its Maker.  For the beginning of pride is sin, and the one who clings to it pours out abominations.’  (Sirach 10:12-13)  We certainly don’t have a positive view of pride here.  The Bible makes much of a human tendency to put ourselves in the place of God.  Think Adam and Eve and the forbidden fruit or the Tower of Babel.  In the lectionary reading from Jeremiah the Lord, in lamenting the wandering ways of the people of Israel, asks, “Has a nation changed its gods, even though they are no gods?”  (Jeremiah 2:11)

Pride is not just an individual thing.  It can lead whole nations into destructive ways.  In the reading from Jeremiah the people’s arrogance makes them chase after worthless things.  They “went after worthless things, and became worthless themselves.”  (vs. 5)  It is a pride that leads not to a sense of self-worth but to a feeling of worthlessness.  “ . . . my people have changed their glory for something that does not profit . . . for my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living water, and dug out cisterns for themselves, cracked cisterns that can hold no water.”  (vss. 11 & 13)  Psalm 81 has a similar tone when God speaks of a people who “did not listen to my voice . . . so I gave them over to their stubborn hearts, to follow their own counsels.”  (Psalm 81:11-12)

If you have trouble, as I do, with the punitive tone of these readings where pride is simply rebellion against a legalistic God, think instead of pride as putting self above all things.  I will follow my own counsel and no other.  This kind of pride is a way of putting oneself above others. My opinion, my truth, is the only thing that matters.  I don’t much like that face of pride.  Do you?

Well, I wandered from Sirach whose tone is judgmental as well, a judgment that is directed not just toward individuals, but toward the pride of nations.  Such nations will be overthrown and God will plant “the humble in their place.”  (Sirach 10:14-15)  Whatever one makes of all this judgment and destruction, the reading from Sirach ends with this stark verse:  “Pride was not created for human beings, or violent anger for those born of women.”  (vs. 18)  Think of a world where we were not prideful or violent toward one another.  Peace might have a better chance.

The pride against which the Bible speaks is pride in one’s place, a pride which creates a hierarchy, a seating chart of privilege so to speak.  The short reading from Proverbs warns against seeking such a position in the presence of the king.  (Proverbs 25:6-7)  Those two short verses may have inspired Jesus in his banquet parables in this week’s Gospel reading.  Behind both readings is a strict pattern of seating based upon social rank.  Jesus goes to a meal at “the house of a leader of the Pharisees” and he notices how the guests are vying for “the places of honor.”  (Luke 14: 1 & 7)  Are the parables a critique of the hierarchies we build?  Like the verses from the Proverbs, the first parable seems to suggest humility only so that you may perhaps be called to a higher place.  (vss. 9-10)  Some also find the second parable troubling, thinking it calls into question hospitality to our friends and relatives and neighbors.  (vs. 12)  Instead, it is probably a critique of our fawning over the rich while ignoring the poor.  Jesus is using these pictures to portray a “kingdom” in which all are treated with equal self respect, where “the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind” have an equal place, where their self-worth is affirmed.  (vs. 13)  They are all part of a “pride” movement in a kingdom where “all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”  (vs. 11)

While Psalm 112 does not speak of pride, it also describes, and praises, a “kingdom” in which justice and equity prevail.  “ . . . they are gracious, merciful, and righteous.  It is well with those who deal generously and lend, who conduct their affairs with justice . . . They have distributed freely, they have given to the poor . . .”  (Psalm 112:4-5, 8)

That leaves us with the reading from Hebrews which brings mutual respect and self-worth down to earth.  It describes how to live together without arrogant pride, what it means to live in “mutual love.”  (Hebrews 13:1)  “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers , , , Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured . . . Keep your lives free from the love of money, and be content with what you have . . . Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.”  (vss. 2-3, 5, 15)

So---maybe we can cast this discussion of pride more in positive terms than negative.  To speak against an arrogant kind of pride is simply to open the door to a vision of society in which justice and mutual respect---and love---prevail.  In such a society another face of pride is perhaps released---the face which allows all of us to see ourselves and those around us as having infinite worth in the eyes of the loving God revealed in Jesus Christ.

I went back and looked again at the 12th chapter of Romans (not one of this week’s reading) that told us not to think of ourselves more highly than we ought to think.  It then goes on to talk about each one of us having gifts---something of worth---to be used in building up the body.  The chapter ends, paralleling part of the Hebrews reading, with these words which bring my reflections to a close this week.

Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor.  Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord.  Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer.  Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.  Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.   Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.  Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are.  Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all.   If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.  Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.”  No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.”  Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”  (Romans 12:9-21)

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Kairos-Milwaukie UCC Blog

Reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary by Rev. Rick Skidmore and Rev. Jim Ogden.

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