by Daniel Harrell
Ancient Christian tradition teaches pride to be chief of the seven deadly sins. Modern Christian tradition teaches this too. CS Lewis famously labeled pride as “spiritual cancer: it eats up the very possibility of love, or contentment, or even common sense.” Take a way Christian tradition, get rid of Jesus, and pride is much more virtue than vice. Parents strive to instill a sense of pride and self-esteem in their children. We are told to take pride in our work and in our accomplishments. Our culture celebrates black pride and gay pride, Southern pride and school pride. Psychologists insist pride is an essential characteristic of a well-functioning personality. Arrogance and conceit may be undesirable by-products, but neither is worse than having no pride. Pride fuels the pursuit of excellence and achievement, it’s what moves you from good to great and makes you the best you can be. Were all humans proud of themselves, assured and self-confident, would there ever be conflict or envy among us? Bertrand Russell once quipped how no peacock ever envies another its plume because every peacock believes its own tail is the greatest. As a result, peacocks are very peaceable birds.
For the disciples to ask Jesus who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven would seem to us to be an welcome question. We’ll watch and see who’s awarded best actor and actress tonight. We research the best car before putting down a deposit, the best restaurant before going out to eat, the best school before enrolling our kids. We need to know how things stack up, who’s at what table, if only to know our own place in the pecking order. Self-esteem needs a point of comparison. We can’t all be peacocks.
The disciples asked the wrong man. Sniffing in their question a instinctive yearning for greatness—a hunger evident in humans since they first showed up in the garden—Jesus reorders the ranks. He calls a little kid over and tells his disciples that they have to change. “Unless you become like little children, you will never even enter God’s kingdom.” To lessen the shock, interpreters traditionally highlight childlike qualities of simplicity, innocence and trust as those intended by Jesus. But I’ve chaperoned kindergarten field trips. Kids punch and make fun, they cry and push and create a huge ruckus. They don’t do as their told and jump into mud. They stick their tongues out at their vegetables but will eat crayons and chalk. All our lives we’re told how we need to grow up and take pride in ourselves. But Jesus says grow down and lose the pride. “Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom heaven.”
We talked about humility a lot during Lent. However, this line about becoming humble like a child always takes me back to Christmas. On Ash Wednesday we wore ashes to bewail our humiliation as humans, but at Christmas we sing songs to celebrate. We sing as if the Son of God being born a poor baby was a really good thing. And it was. But isn’t it enough that Jesus became humble like a child? Why do we have to do it? At the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem they built the entry door purposely short so that people have to stoop low to get in. The verb to humble in Greek basically means to bend down.
As I mentioned on Ash Wednesday, humility does ground us in the material from which we were made. “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” God created us out of the dust of the ground, so in one sense, you might say to be humble is to be who you were made to be. In another sense, given we’re all made from the same material, being humble connects us to one other. But finally, given Jesus’ own humility, being humble connects us to Christ. Humility gets you in to see Jesus. In the end we really have no choice in the matter. One way or another we all end up like children again. The unavoidable course of human life remains ashes to ashes, dust to dust, diapers to diapers—like it or not.
Pride makes the inevitable intolerable. It puts a stumbling block in the doorway. To be great is to stand tall, meaning not only that you can’t get through the door, but nobody else can get past you. Scripture calls Christians children of God rather than grownups on purpose. In Jewish culture, children were loved, but they had no status apart from that love, no power or privilege apart from what they gained from being totally dependent. As Christians, our entire identity derives from being loved by God: Jesus loves me this I know. And yet we struggle with this. We look at all the suffering that goes on the world hand wonder how God can be called loving. Sensitive to the plight of others, we humbly consider ourselves to be more compassionate. We could do better given the power. We could be better than God.
Seriously. “If your hand or foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away?” “It is better for you to enter life maimed or lame than to have two hands or two feet and to be thrown into the eternal fire?” (That line’s enough to make you miss Revelation.) “And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into the hell of fire.” How is this love? Why would Jesus ever say these things? On the other hand, when you read the nonstop headlines about crimes against children: 680,000 in the United States were victims of abuse and neglect last year. More than 1,500 of these children died. In Maplewood last month, an 18-month-old girl was found dead at the hands of her mother’s boyfriend. When paramedics arrived on the scene, they discovered bruises on the little girls stomach and chest, and a large bruise on her face. It appeared the abuse had gone on for quite some time. According to the police report, the suspect said he had “roughed her up little bit” when he was changing the toddler’s diaper. “Better for him had he cut off his hands and gouged out his eyes? Better to tie a huge millstone around him and drown him in the depth of the sea?” Damn right.
“Whoever welcomes a child in my name welcomes me,” Jesus said. “Whatever you have done unto the least of these you have also done unto me.” “See to it that you do not despise one of these little ones,” he says here, forgoing the term children for the more inclusive little ones once he gets to dismemberment and millstones. Jesus fiercely loves the little children; he fiercely loves all who are weak and least and lost no matter their age. “What do you think?” he asks, “If a shepherd has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray?” This has got to be the dumbest piece of shepherding advice ever spoken. What responsible herder would ever abandon a whole flock to locate a single lost lamb? Losing a few is the cost of doing business. We could do better given the power. We could be better than God.
Not that loving those who are weak and least and lost is a bad thing to do. On the contrary. A good way to round out the resume is to do good for the less fortunate. People should be proud of their work on behalf of the poor. The best charities and churches even win awards for their social concern. Get rid of Jesus and we could be a great church. Instead he steps in and stomps all our balloons. He says its not enough to care for the weak and the needy. He says you have to change and be children, be weak and needy too. Remember that you are dust and dust you shall return. Understand that your entire identity derives from being loved by God; that you have no status, no power or privilege apart from that love; there is no pride in being loved by God. You help the weak and needy. You are weak and needy.
There is a beauty in this, a solidarity of identity and a joy and freedom that humility engenders. Watch children play. Kids seek out and eagerly strike up friendships with other kids they’ve never met. They cooperate on playground adventures without ever bothering to learn each other’s name. They fall down and get up, take turns and make fun, run around and build castles with strangers who aren’t strange because they’re kids too. Once we grow up, we grow suspicious of strangers, suspicious of collaboration and sharing for fear we may lose what rightly is ours. The Christians who first labeled pride as the chief deadly sin did so after living together in monasteries. Stay strangers and pride is no problem. Self-esteem doesn’t need other people. Stay peacocks and we don’t have to care for anyone but ourselves. Get rid of Jesus and you can be our own person.
Be Christian, however, and you can’t be independent. Scripture declares only each of us “all together” can be the body of Christ. ““Each of you is part of one body,” is how Paul defines church. Should we vote to join with the Upper Room and share space with them in this church, it could be a genuine witness to the unity and dependency Jesus calls his churches to live out as his body. Yet this is not easy for peacocks. A question that keeps coming up from both our churches is whether either is afraid of losing members to the other. The unspoken concern is whether their church is better. What if we’re not the greatest in the kingdom of heaven? Instead, the apostle Paul writes, “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it. The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’ On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable.”
Get rid of Jesus we could treat pride as a virtue. It’s not like we haven’t tried. Instead Jesus steps in and stomps all our balloons. Its not enough to care for the weak and the needy. You have to become like them too. You don’t really have any choice.
In Luke’s gospel Jesus tells an especially unpleasant parable about a great man proud of his accomplishments and wealth. He’s starkly contrasted with a lowly weak beggar named Lazarus. Concluding, perhaps, that God helps those who help themselves, the proud man refused to lift a finger to ever help Lazarus. The dogs licked Lazarus’ sores, the proud man did nothing. When the proud man died, he got tormented in hell, just like Jesus promised, while Lazarus got to snuggle up beside Abraham in heaven. Jesus warned in our passage against despising the weak on account of the fact that they are God’s favorites. “Their angels in heaven continually see the face of my Father.” This is where we get the idea of guardian angels. In the Jewish theology of the day, only the most important angels got to hang out in the presence of God. Jesus’ point is clear: the least and the lost are the greatest in the kingdom. “He rejoices more over the one than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. So it is not the will of your Father in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost.”
The now thoroughly humbled and tormented man in the parable cried out to Abraham for just a little mercy, just a drop of water to soothe his burning tongue. But Abraham replies, “Son, remember that during your lifetime you had everything you wanted, and Lazarus had nothing. So now he is here being comforted, and you are in anguish. Besides, there is a great chasm separating us. No one can cross over to you from here, and no one can cross over to us from there. I couldn’t help you even if I wanted to.” One commentator I consulted wanted to know why Abraham had to sound like such a prig. It’s not like the proud man was asking for a pardon. He just wants a drop of water. And who put such a vast chasm in place to begin with? God? Where is God? Why would Jesus ever say this?
Read it again and you recognize the chasm between Abraham and the proud man is contrived. It’s only the distance between the proud man and Lazarus on earth. God does not overtly pass sentence on anyone here. Whenever we hear this parable we pass sentence on ourselves. It’s like when we read about the Levite and the priest who slink past the wounded man by the road in the Good Samaritan story. Or the older brother of the prodigal son who snubs the welcome home party going on right inside the house. Or the unmerciful servant who refuses to cancel a debt of a couple measly bucks even though his master had only a moment prior wiped his enormous debt clean. Though as close as a few feet from doing the right thing, they each might just as well have been on the other side of the planet.
It is as if Jesus is saying that every day we come within inches of humbling ourselves both for our own sake and for the sake of others who need us, yet if we fail to close that small gap, it amounts to an infinity of separation. An uncrossable chasm. The real distance between heaven and hell.
The late Lewis Smedes once wrote how “our inner selves are not partitioned like day and night with pure light on one side and total darkness on the other. Mostly our souls are shadowed places; …we cannot always tell where our light ends and our shadow begins or where our shadow ends and our darkness begins.”
The difference between pride and humility is only a matter of inches, the depth of a shadow. There are so many in our lives who need us and want our love and whom we could love if we’d only move a bit more, if we’d only stop and stoop for a second we’d see how we’re all the same dust. Too proud to close these small gaps, we risk creating a chasm we will never cross, isolating ourselves among all those others also too proud to budge. Perhaps you’re heard the one about the difference between heaven and hell as the difference between two groups of people each gathered around identical soup pots with the same kind of long spoons. The only difference is that those in hell starve because they cannot reach their own mouths while those in heaven feed each other and are full.