Pride and Humility: 30th Sunday OT
Of all the deadly sins, which is the principal? Of all the virtues, which is the queen? They are Pride and Humility. Pride is the first deadly sin, and the chief among them. Humility is called the queen of the virtues.
What exactly does that mean? Does it mean that being prideful is worse than murder? Does it mean that being humble is better than being a martyr? No. It means that at the root of every murder you’ll find pride. In the heart of every martyr you’ll find the seed of humility.
We should clear away a few misunderstandings. We use the word ‘pride’ in different ways. When we talk about the sin of Pride, we aren’t talking about being proud of a job well done, or proud that your daughter won the spelling bee or something. We’re talking about hubris, the kind of Pride that poisons everything. The Pride that sent Satan into Hell. Contempt for God or neighbor. Arrogance. It’s the “ME” monster. And though we don’t think of this way consciously, it really is the worship of myself instead of God.
Likewise, when we talk about humility, we aren’t talking about putting yourself down, or being a doormat, or thinking you’re trash. It isn’t false modesty. It’s simple honesty about who we are, what we deserve, and who God is, and what we owe Him. True humility recognizes that we are fearfully and wonderfully made, and thanks God for that. It also recognizes that we are the creatures and He is the creator. So humility, really, is just the acknowledgment of reality. Pride is a fictional puffing-up of ourselves.
Pride spoils everything. This is why it’s the first of the deadly sins. Pride makes good things rotten and bad things worse. Any virtue is spoiled if Pride is added to it. Courage is good. But courage plus pride makes you a show-off. Affection is good. But add pride to affection, and you’re condescending or patronizing. You really feel affection for others, but deep down it’s affection for those beneath you. The poison of pride is on bright display in Jesus’ story about the Pharisee and the tax collector. The Pharisee has so much going for him, so much good in his life. He’s observant, generous, temperate. The things he’s bragging about are really good things! But his pride spoils them.
The opposite of Pride is humility, and the opposite of the Pharisee is the tax collector. Jesus isn’t setting him up as a perfect example. The whole point of using a tax collector is that there’s some bad stuff in his life. Remember, tax collectors in Jesus’ time were collaborators with the Romans, traitors to their people. When they appear in the Gospels, they are assumed to be dishonest as well. So, Jesus is not suggesting that we imitate this man’s life. But with all that wickedness, this man is honest. He knows it’s wicked. He feels sorrow for his sins. He understands that his only chance is mercy, and he asks for it.
That man goes home justified. He’s got a lot to be sorry for, but you know what? He’s in a good place. That humble, sincere heart is all God needs to work with. This man’s going to be okay, as long as he keeps that humble heart. It doesn’t make his wicked choices okay, but it gives him the hope of redemption, mercy, and new life.
I’ll tell you on a personal note: this is why preaching the Gospel is nowhere so rewarding as in a prison. Not to generalize about everyone who’s locked up, nor to say that everyone in prison is a paragon of humility. But you meet guys locked up who really, truly know what it is to meet the mercy of Jesus Christ. They hear about mercy, and they’re thirsty for it, and they’re beyond grateful. They receive the Gospel as the good news it is. I don’t know a word for whatever is the total opposite of a Pharisee, but I’ve met guys like that in prisons.
And preaching the Gospel is nowhere less rewarding than when someone looks you right in eye and says “I’m a good person. I mean, it’s not like I’ve killed anybody or anything.” Well, okay. Have a nice day, and call me if you ever think you need a Savior. I know one.
The point isn’t that we have to have big terrible sins to ‘get’ the Gospel. I hope you don’t have any. I hope you never will. You’ll be happier, and the people around you will be happier, and the world will be a better place, and God will be better served the less you sin. But whatever’s in the past, where are we right now? Standing in the Temple, before the altar of God. We can stand here like the Pharisee. We can be puffed up with pride, thinking that we’re above other people, at least certain other people. Or we can stand before God today like that tax collector who went home justified. Big sins? Little sins? Never mind. We all need forgiveness for something. We all need healing from something. We all need salvation, and that’s what’s waiting here free for the asking. But we have to ask. And that takes humility.
And that’s why a humble prayer pierces the clouds. And that’s why anybody here who can humble themselves before the Lord will go home justified today.