Proper 17, Year C, St. James’ Church, Dickson & Calvary Church, Cumberland Furnace

“Pride was not created for human beings, or violent anger for those born of women” (Ecclus. 10:18).

Students of English literature will know Milton’s great poem Paradise Lost, which tells the story of the fall of humankind. “Of man’s first disobedience, and the fruit/ of that forbidden tree, whose mortal taste/ brought death into the world…” If you know the story that the poet tells, you’ll know that it does not begin in Eden, where the story told in Genesis begins, but instead in Hell, with the fallen angel Lucifer and all his host. “Th’ infernal serpent; he it was, whose guile/ stirred up with envy and revenge, deceived/ the mother of mankind; what time his pride/ had cast him out from heav’n, with all his host/ of rebel angels, by whose aid aspiring… he trusted to have equall’d the most High.”

In many ways, Milton’s Lucifer is the most fully realized character in the poem; the one with the most recognizably human motivations and personality profile. The bad news for us is that the fallen angel Lucifer is marked chiefly by his pride, envy, and violence. He wants to take God’s place; he’s envious of humanity; he’s willing to fight to prove his point. He’s proud enough to tell his followers, “Better to reign in hell, than serve in heaven.”

In the Christian moral tradition, pride is the first and foremost sin. C.S. Lewis wrote that “the essential vice, the utmost evil, is Pride… 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” (Mere Christianity). Lewis knew his Milton. You might say that pride puts us out of place, in the wrong place where we don’t belong. For Milton’s Lucifer the wrong place was in the place of God. The ancient Greeks, for their part, talked about hubris, excessive pride, the putting forward of self into a place reserved for the gods. For the Greek poets, hubris led to nemesis or destruction.

The wisdom tradition of Israel, from which our first reading from Sirach comes, also identifies pride as a danger. As it says in our reading, “The beginning of human pride is to forsake the Lord; the heart has withdrawn from its Maker” (Ecclus. 10:12). “The beginning of pride is sin” (Ecclus. 10:13), says Sirach. If pride puts us in the wrong place, the role of nemesis is provided by God, who destroys the proud. “The Lord overthrows the thrones of rulers” (Ecclus. 10:14). Yet “Pride was not created for human beings, or violent anger for those born of women” (Ecclus. 10:18).

So where is the place for us to be, the space we are meant to occupy? Our Gospel reading today is all about being in the wrong place, and how we find the place we truly belong. The occasion is a meal at the house of a Pharisee. Jesus is under criticism and close observation by the Pharisees, and he’s noticed that the guests at the meal have chosen the best places. At the meal, he tells them a parable about people who choose the places of honor (an example of hubris) at a wedding banquet, and then to their shame are invited to vacate those places so that those who are more distinguished may occupy them (an example of nemesis). Jesus says that the people in the story should have chosen more humble places instead, so that the host could have invited them to go up higher.

The remedy for pride, in other words, is humility; and to choose the humbler post is the better part. Humility is the antidote to pride. “Do not think more highly of yourself than you ought,” St. Paul says in the Letter to the Romans, “but think with sober judgment” (Rom. 12:3). Humility defines the place we’re called to. The place where we belong is the place of service, the place that Jesus himself occupies.

As Paul says elsewhere in the Letter to the Philippians, “Let the same mind be in you as was in Christ Jesus… who took the form of a servant, being born in human likeness” (Phil. 2:5,7). From the very beginning, from the incarnation of the Word of God in human flesh, Jesus took the form of a servant. As he carried forward his ministry, “in the days of his flesh” (Heb. 5:7), Jesus fulfilled this role. So, as he tells the folks at the dinner party, “But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind” (Lk. 14:13). They can’t repay you for your act of service, so you will be blessed in heaven.

 Pride was not created for human beings. We were created and called to a different place. All of us are invited to this wedding banquet, here at this Eucharist. Let our confirmands this morning show us the way! May we all gathered here today embrace the way of humble service, and take our places together in the kingdom of God.

  • The Rt. Rev’d John Bauerschmidt, Bishop of Tennessee