Proper 17, Year C
Benjamin Franklin describes in his autobiography a program he designed for self-improvement. He created a table of the various virtues he thought he should cultivate, and tells the story of how he worked on each one in turn. But he tells us that he made one fatal mistake in his plan to become perfect in every virtue. He left humility for last, and by the time he got to it, he was already so near perfection in every other area that humility was impossible.
Franklin told this story with his tongue firmly planted in cheek, but he makes a serious point in the process about spiritual pride. Spiritual pride just might be the deadliest of the Seven Deadly Sins, because it can corrupt even striving to be good and generous and turn it into an occasion for further pride. Fight it successfully for a moment, and you might just find yourself saying inwardly, "Wow ... I'm being humble. And I'm MUCH more humble than Jean, or for that matter George. Maybe I should teach a class on humility."
Pride is rife among those of us striving to be good. We don't have a corner on it, though. Have you ever caught yourself saying, at a time when you felt a deep (and unhealthy!) burden of guilt, "I can't tell anyone, and I can't pray -- I'm so bad that God can't forgive me." That line of thinking sets you and whatever crime you think you've committed as being more powerful than God, and "I think I'm more powerful than God" is a statement of supreme hubris.
People at both ends of this pride spectrum, though, have something in common: they're deeply concerned with boundaries, with what's right and wrong, with what's appropriate, with who deserves what, and they have a very hard time seeing anyone -- themselves or their neighbors -- getting something that's given "out of bounds."
The lectionary gospel for this Sunday jumps from verse 1 to verse 7 of Luke 14, leaving out the occasion (unique to Luke's gospel) for Jesus' parable: Jesus heals a man with dropsy at the meal, and on the sabbath. That was completely uncalled for. The man's condition was chronic; it could have been dealt with the next day, when the healing would have offended no one. It's not even clear from the text that the man Jesus healed was an invited guest at the dinner; Luke just says in verse 2 (if I can translate it in a wooden way), "And behold, there was a man with dropsy in front of him." Interrupting everyone's dinner would have been rude; bringing impurities (as Leviticus 13 suggests someone with dropsy would have been doing) into the midst of a Pharisaic meal would be worse. And it was the sabbath! There was no compelling reason -- by conventional reasoning, anyway -- for Jesus to 'diss' his hosts by precipitous action.
But that's not how Jesus thinks. When presented with human need, Jesus doesn't ask, "Is there any compelling reason to act now?" In fact, he doesn't ask any questions at all until after he's acted, and even then, he doesn't make much of an effort to soothe the wounded pride of those offended. Instead, he tells a parable that would offend the proud even more.
And in the process, Jesus presents a cure for pride: humble service, the kind that actively seeks opportunities to yield honor and advantage to others. Such opportunities are at least as plentiful as are opportunities to indulge pride, but it takes a lot of psychological and spiritual 'rewiring' for most of us to take them, meaning that most of us (including me) need a lot of practice. So here are a few concrete ways we could try to be intentional in that practice:
- When driving, especially in rush hour or in particularly nasty traffic, take that instinct (finely honed in most experienced commuters!) to look for the fastest-moving lane and cut into it by any means necessary, and use those instincts to look for opportunities to make the drive easier, faster, and less stressful for someone else. The person who just really enraged you by driving by you on the shoulder and then trying to cut back into the lane would be a particularly good person to practice with: the point is not to try to reward another nice driver, but to give up the position of judging who deserves to be let in ahead of you. Pick one day a month or one day a week to try it until you get to a point where you actually prefer driving this way.
- Maybe you don't drive. Here's something that we all (including, or maybe even especially young people in school) have opportunities to do: practice looking around you for the person you think has the most reason to be ashamed, and then look for opportunities to say or do something that makes this person feel genuinely honored and appreciated.
- Those of us who have the right to vote have a responsibility to our power the way Jesus used his -- to others' advantage rather than our own, and especially to the advantage of the poor, the sick, and the marginalized. Christians can and do disagree in good conscience about what specific candidates and laws will most benefit the poor. We can disagree about how we can best serve the poor, but we cannot afford to ignore the poor. The National Council of Churches has put out an extremely helpful leaflet on Christian Principles in an Election Year, which might be a good impetus to further prayer and study about how we can use our power with humility, in a way that lifts up the lowly and invites the poor and outcast -- especially those we think could never repay us -- to the feast.
Any of these things will undermine something that I think does a great deal to build and exacerbate pride: the twinned convictions that there are only so many good things -- only so much honor, love, and justice -- to go around, and that it's very important to see that only the deserving get them. When we live as Jesus teaches us, and as Jesus lived himself among us, when our lives become parable for the world of God's infinite generosity and inexhaustible love, then we can take in the vision of Isaiah 55, of free-flowing wine and milk for all, of an everlasting covenant made with an undeserving but humble king and realized in his crucified and risen heir.
Thanks be to God!
Proper 13, Year C
We can never ransom ourselves
nor deliver the price of our life.
And that's the folly of the American Dream as I've heard it expressed so many times. We dream of accumulating -- by our own merit, of course, because we're more clever and more industrious than others -- enough to take care of any need, any crisis, in our lives and in the lives of those we care about.
It's a lot more common than we'd like to admit that something arises for which no amount of money or insurance or planning or work can do what we think these things are supposed to do -- keep us handsome and happy and healthy and successful. We can be purpose-driven and prayer-minded too, and we still can't deliver the price of our life, let alone the price of eternal life.
The Good News is that somebody else already did that. Somebody else already did all that was necessary to give you love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Somebody else already did everything necessary to give you what you -- the person you really are, the person you are in Christ -- what you truly need and desire.
What would your life look like if you stopped trying to store up enough money, enough duties fulfilled, enough respect, enough approval, to stave off disaster?
What would your life look like if you really believed that "it is for freedom that Christ has set us free" (Galatians 5:1)?
Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us. We are free now to live as God's people are called to live -- in the wideness and the wildness of God's mercy.
Thanks be to God!