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Some Thoughts on the Sin of Pride – Br. David Vryhof

Luke 7:36-50

In his Spiritual Exercises, the great 16th century saint and founder of the Jesuits, Ignatius of Loyola, employs a method of prayer in which one uses the imagination to envision the setting of a gospel story and then allows the story to unfold in his mind’s eye — observing the characters, their words and actions, and noticing particularly where one’s attention is drawn in the story.

If we were to apply this method of imaginative prayer to today’s gospel, for example, we might find ourselves drawn to the woman, labeled as a “sinner” in Luke’s gospel, who dares to enter the home of a Pharisee in order to offer Jesus a sign of her love and devotion. We might find ourselves considering her courage, her generosity, the lavish expression of her affection and gratitude, and be moved to make some similar expression of devotion and love to God ourselves.

Or we might find ourselves drawn to the person of Jesus, the Compassionate One, who sees in this woman these very qualities that everyone else seems to have overlooked. We might find ourselves reflecting on qualities we may have overlooked in individuals or groups of people we have previously disdained, and be moved to a new sense of compassion and sympathy towards them. We might learn to see them as Jesus sees them.

Or we might be drawn to consider the Pharisee, the detached and skeptical witness of this exchange of love, who in his pride and superiority distances himself from this woman and then condemns Jesus for failing to recognize what sort of person she is. It is not a bad thing to probe the shadowy places in our own hearts, to expose our disposition to pride, our tendency to judge others and dismiss them to the margins of our attention and care out of a sense of our own superiority and goodness.

It is this posture of pride and superiority that I’m particularly drawn to in today’s story, perhaps because the theme is so clearly picked up in the other lessons that we have read today.

In the first lesson we heard, the prophet Nathan points out clearly and forcefully just how far astray David’s pride has led him. Pride brings with it a sense of superiority, aloofness and privilege. It is “the inordinate love of one’s own excellence,” [1] and it is this sin of pride which leads David to covet another man’s wife, to take her as his own, and finally to arrange for the death of her husband so that he can cover the trail of his sin and claim for his own possession the woman he so desires.

In the second lesson we see the pride of Peter at work in his distancing of himself from the Gentile believers in order to preserve his good reputation among the Jewish converts. Being well thought of by others is of more importance to him than doing what is right.

And in the gospel, as we have noted, the pride of the Pharisee, his “inordinate love of [his] own excellence,” leads him to distance himself from “sinners” and to despise those who show compassion and pity on them.

Pride is “the essential vice, the utmost evil,” writes C. S. Lewis, the well-known Anglican author of the last century. [2] “Unchastity, anger, greed, drunkenness, and all that,” he says, “are mere fleabites in comparison: it was through Pride that the devil became the devil; Pride leads to every other vice: it is the complete anti-God state of mind.”

What might we learn about the sin of Pride from these three stories?

We might notice first something of the nature of Pride.

“Pride is essentially competitive,” writes C. S. Lewis. “[It] gets no pleasure out of having something, only out of having more of it than the next [person]. We say that people are proud of being rich or clever or good-looking, but they are not. They are proud of being richer or cleverer or better-looking than others. If everyone else became equally rich or clever or good-looking, there would be nothing to be proud about. It is the comparison that makes [us] proud: the pleasure of being above the rest.” [3]

Isn’t this the dynamic that is at work in David’s heart? He is willing to take another man’s wife, not only because he wants her, but simply because he is in a position to do so. He knows he is more powerful than Uriah, and it is this sense of his own superiority that leads to the presumption of privilege and entitlement. He has plenty of wives, as Nathan points out to him, and more than enough of the world’s benefits, and yet, in his pride and competitiveness, he craves more.

And isn’t this what is at work in the heart of the Pharisee? Pride feeds his sense of his own superiority and leaves him indifferent to the plight of this woman. He sees her as lower than himself, a “sinner,” unworthy of the attention of a prophet and teacher like Jesus. “It is the comparison that makes you proud,” Lewis reminds us, “the pleasure of being above the rest.”

Pride is essentially competitive. It is the longing to have more than others, to see ourselves as better than others, to be richer or stronger than others, to dominate and control them to our own ends. It is an “inordinate love of our own excellence,” the conviction that we are special, privileged and deserving of an exceptional status. Pride takes pleasure in being above the rest.

Pride in an individual can lead him to manipulate and control others for his own ends, as it did for David. In a similar way, pride in a group of people – a nation, for example – can lead to the manipulation and control of others for the group’s own ends. This should give us pause. Is it a genuine concern for the welfare of others and for their freedom that has led us to forcefully invade another country, or is it the sin of pride that has led us to forcefully impose ourselves upon them? Is it the sense of privilege and entitlement that comes with the conviction of superiority that has allowed us to convince ourselves that we are justified in our actions, even though the majority of the world stands against us? Is it pride that has led us to disregard the conventions of warfare, to engage in the mistreatment of our prisoners, to keep ourselves aloof from the standards by which nations are expected to conduct themselves? Have we fallen prey to an “inordinate love of our own excellence” that has caused us to be blind to the misery and anguish of others? Has a sense of our own entitlement caused us to ignore them in favor of preserving our own privileges and lifestyle? Why are we the target of so much anger, mistrust and hatred on the part of the world’s people? Is it because in our pride we have preferred to safeguard our own concerns rather than to listen and respond with compassion to the concerns of others?

Pride and love don’t do well together. When we are filled with pride, we are unable to love or feel compassion towards others.

David in his pride is indifferent to the well-being of his faithful soldier Uriah and of his trusting wife.

Peter in his pride is indifferent to the plight of the Gentile Christians.

The Pharisee in his pride is unable to see the woman with compassion and sympathy; his sense of his own superiority blocks the flow of love.

Those who are full of pride, who are enamored of their own excellence and feel superior to others, are unable to love. But those who in humility sense the depth of their own need and their oneness with the broken people of the world, are great lovers. “Do you see this woman?” Jesus asks Simon the Pharisee, “I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment…her sins, which were many have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.”

“Those who do not love feel superior to everyone else,” write Carlo Carretto. “Those who love feel equal to everyone else. Those who love much gladly take the lower place. Each one of us can identify his position somewhere along this spectrum, which comprises the three degrees of the spiritual life here on earth: Death for those who do not love. Life for those who love. Holiness for those who love much.” [4]

“Clothe yourselves with humility,” the author of I Peter tells us, “for God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” [5] If we desire this grace, we must humble ourselves, letting go of our sense of superiority and entitlement, awakening to the beauty and need of those around us, reaching out to them in compassion and love. Only those who have forsaken pride, who have let go of their sense of superiority, privilege and entitlement, will be able to love as God loves. For did not God himself love by “emptying himself, taking the form of a servant, and being born in human likeness”? [6] Did not God come among us “not to be served, but to serve”?

“Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another.” [7]

[1] The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church , F.L. Cross, editor; (Oxford University Press, 1983), p. 1122.

[2] C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity. Quoted in A Guide to Prayer for Ministers and Other Servants , compiled by Rueben P. Job and Norman Shawchuck (Nashville, TN: The Upper Room, 1983), p.126.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Carlo Carretto, In Search of the Beyond . Quoted in A Guide to Prayer for Ministers and Other Servants , compiled by Rueben P. Job and Norman Shawchuck (Nashville, TN: The Upper Room, 1983), p.130.

[5] I Peter 5:5

[6] Cf. Philippians 2:5-8

[7] I John 4:11

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