Written by Pastor Ed
August 28, 2016
Sirach 10: 12-18
Luke 14: 1, 7-14
It’s Hard to Be Humble
By Mac Davis
Oh Lord it’s hard to be humble when you’re perfect in every way
I can’t wait to look in the mirror
Cause I get better looking each day
To know me is to love me, I must be a good lookin’ man
Oh Lord it’s hard to be humble
But I’m doing the best that I can
How many times has this happened to you? You are positive, sure that what you have said is true, you know the answer, you remember what happened as through it were yesterday, there is little if any doubt in your mind! And then you are proven wrong!
All of us have probably experienced something like that in our lives. And, indeed it can be an honest mistake. But it’s also rather humbling when it happens, and most of us don’t like to have our pride pricked. We may not be as blatant at Mac Davis’ song implies, but we do like to think that we’re pretty good, even if not quite perfect.
Perhaps it is because of all the political posts I’ve been seeing recently, that this theme from two of today’s lectionary readings struck me as an appropriate one.
We don’t often use reading from the Apocrypha, but one of the alternative reading for today comes from the Book of Sirach, as we heard. Sirach is one of the Wisdom books, much like Proverbs or Ecclesiastes, filled with saying and teaching. And in this section, we are admonished to beware of pride, which is equated with violence and arrogance. Pride throughout the Bible is generally seen in a negative way, also translated as haughty, boastful, and arrogant.
How can you be proud, the writer asks, when really all you are is dust and ashes? Even kings and rulers are brought down, so they have no reason to boast, language that echoes the songs of Hannah and Mary. It is also interesting that the writer equates arrogance and injustice as going together. “Arrogance is hateful to the Lord and to mortals, and injustice is outrageous to both.” (10:7) That insight agrees with one commentator who noted that pride doesn’t have to do with how you view yourself, but rather how you view others.
And then our Gospel lesson for today relates a parable that Jesus told as he had dinner with some Pharisees. We are told that the Pharisee were watching him closely, but obviously he was also watching because he noticed how people chose where to sit. It is a fascinating exercise to watch in any situation, but in that culture, seating order made a great deal of difference. You recall the disciples arguing about who would get to sit at Jesus’ right and left hands in the kingdom. With a fairly rigid code of hierarchy, where you were placed at table meant a great deal. And so Jesus told them a parable about seating etiquette.
First a word to the guests, saying be careful and don’t presume that you are one of the important guests and take a seat at the head of the table, for you might get asked to move down, which would bring shame not only on you as you get up to move, but might also affect future invitations. How much better to take a lower place, and then be invited to come closer. Wouldn’t that make you feel better?
But he also had a word for the host about who should be invited. If you only invite your friends and relatives, whom you expect to invite you back, well, they may do that and you’ll all feel good. But how much better to invite those on the margins of society, who can’t possibly pay you back, for your rewards will be so much better in the long run.
Now Jesus may have been concerned about who sat where at the banquet and certainly his point makes sense, but I don’t believe that’s what his parable was all about. Rather Jesus is talking about the place we give ourselves, and others, in society and the church. He’s talking about the issue of pride and how it manifests itself in even such mundane things as table etiquette and who we invite or want to be seen with.
For the Pharisees, or at least some of them, being seen in the right place, with the right people, was of utmost importance. Being seen with the wrong people could be ruin. And so they made a show of who came to dinner, and even there they vied for the most prominent places. And, Jesus said, that may work to your advantage in the short term, but hardly in the long run.
Pride, as I noted, is spoken against again and again in the Bible. David Brooks, in his book The Road to Character says, “Pride is the central vice. Pride blinds us to our own weaknesses and misleads us into thinking we are better than we are … Pride deludes us into thinking that we are the authors of our own lives.” (p. 263). On the other hand, he defines humility like this. “Humility is having an accurate assessment of your own nature and your place in the cosmos. Humility reminds you that you are not the center of the universe, but you serve a larger order.” (pp 262-3)
As the writer of Sirach notes, pride and injustice often go hand in hand. If I think I am the centre of the universe, the author of my own life, then it is only a short step to thinking that other are certainly less important, don’t really matter, and can be treated in less than just ways. One of the resolutions passed at the MC Canada session in July was a repudiation of the Doctrine of Discovery, an ancient dictum that white, European, Christian people were vastly superior to anyone else and could therefore had a right to “civilize” other people, or if others weren’t happy about being civilized, then one could rightly eliminate them. It’s a doctrine that allowed for colonization and slaughter of many people.
Pride says I’m superior, just because of who I am. I don’t need anyone else, I am never wrong, and I certainly don’t need anyone else’s help. And the corollary that if I’m superior, then everyone else must be inferior. How unlike the Jesus we follow, who as the hymn in Philippians says, did not count equality with God as a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, and humbling himself accepted that most human of all things, death.
Now I also want to be clear that I’m not talking here about needing to have what is sometimes called a “worm theology.” We are not worthless, no better than dirt, slugs. Perhaps Vaclav Havel says it best when he said,
Nor would I say that we should never be proud of accomplishments or of achieving something that we have strived for. There are certainly things to be proud of, like our children. But when pride becomes self-glorification, boastful, and arrogant, then it turns onto something to be shunned. Indeed, it becomes sinful.
On the wall in Jim and Ruth’s little washroom, there is a wall hanging of life’s lessons, or something like that. Two lines stuck out at me when I saw it, probably because I was thinking about this sermon. “Be ready to say, ‘I’m sorry’” and “Be ready to say ‘I don’t know.’” For some people those phrases are perhaps the hardest ones to say. To admit that we might not have all the answers is not a sign of weakness, it’s a sign that we are open to learn, something all of us should be doing.
Does our pride keep us from associating with certain people, or even groups of people, for fear that they will somehow ruin our reputation? In my previous position as Conference Minister I regularly talked with the leaders of the Brethren-Mennonite Council (BMC), whose offices were in Minneapolis which was part of my territory. BMC is the advocacy group for LGBTQ concerns in Mennonite Church USA. I wanted them to know who I was and to know who they were personally so that if either of us had issues we would be talking with someone we knew, not just a label. I was chagrined to learn that some national leaders would only agree to talk with them if the meeting was kept a secret so no one else would know the leaders had been talking to “those people.”
Luke follows up the account we read with another parable about a banquet where the invited guests all make excuses as to why they can’t attend, and so the master tells his servants to go and invite “the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame.” And when there is still room, he tells them to go bring in anyone they can find until the banquet is full.
The kingdom of God, we are told, will be full of people from every tribe and nation and language. The invitation to the great banquet is an open invitation to all, and we are invited to participate in that kingdom, even in the here and now in the church. There is no room for pride and thinking that we are somehow better than others just because of who we are, our particular heritage, or anything else. If we are too proud to associate with others here, we can hardly expect to be part of that great banquet which is to come.
This past week I spent canoeing with 7 other people in the wilderness on the border of Minnesota and Northern Ontario. Along with many other reasons that I give for canoeing like that, I often cite the fact that canoeing in the wilderness for 5 days reminds me that I’m not in control and keeps me humble. Yes, I’m proud that I can still do it; each time I think it may be my last. But I can’t do it on my own. I have to rely on others to help. And being in the wilderness reminds me that I am a small part of the universe, and I don’t control the weather or many other things in my life.
But I need to keep reminding myself of all that, because it’s too easy to forget, to think that I have all the answers, and be overly concerned with how I’m viewed by others. Following in the way of Jesus is to follow in the way of humbleness, being willing to serve rather than be served, and associating with even the lowliest of society.
May we all follow in that way.