Sabbath Day Thoughts — “Pride” Luke 4:1-13, Luke 18:9-14
This is the first in a Lenten sermon series on the Seven Deadly Sins and the Seven Heavenly Virtues.
Our Lenten season begins with Jesus in the wilderness. As the Lord fasts and prays, the Devil confronts Jesus with a series of temptations. “Use your holy power to turn stones into bread. Bow down and worship me in exchange for world domination. Put God to the test, reveal your glory, and be worshipped.” Jesus turns away from the tempter’s wiles with scripture quotations. He remains sinless. Unfortunately, we do not.
The Seven Deadly Sins and the Seven Heavenly virtues are grounded in scripture. There are thirteen virtue lists in the New Testament, from 2 Corinthians to First Peter, and there are twenty-three vice lists, from Matthew all the way through Revelation. In the first centuries of our faith with the rise of asceticism, church leaders began to think systematically about those lists of sins and virtues. As Christian mystics and monks withdrew to the Egyptian desert to focus on God, they noticed that they had some big distractions. In the fourth century, Evagrius of Ponta identified a list of eight thoughts that could interfere with spiritual practice—these would become the Seven Deadly Sins. A century later, Aurelius Prudentius Clemens wrote a 1,000-line poem, “Psychomachia,” in which he identified seven heavenly virtues that corresponded to the deadly sins. Clemens argued that Christ our Lord helps us with “the jewels of virtue,” which he places within us to battle sin and delight wisdom. Augustine argued that the seven virtues characterize the new life in Christ and grow within us out of love—agape.
The Seven Deadly Sins and corresponding Seven Heavenly Virtues found renewed interest in the Middle Ages. In his 13th century opus Summa Theologica, Thomas Aquinas wrote that the virtues are habitual dispositions, “patterns of mind and heart,” that bring about good actions and curb our sinful impulses. In meditating on scripture, imitating Christ, and practicing the virtues, God’s grace deepens and matures in us. So popular was this thinking on the deadly sins and heavenly virtues that they became a favorite theme of Medieval art. Church walls were painted with murals depicting them. Countless medieval illustrated manuscripts of Clemens’ poem “Psychomachia” still survive, depicting the sins and virtues—in female form—doing battle.
These days, the Seven Deadly Sins and Seven Heavenly Virtues are a helpful framework in our spiritual formation. We acknowledge that we are saved by grace through faith in Christ alone, yet we realize that God’s grace deserves our response. In meditating upon scripture, in following the way of Jesus, we can look within. We can identify the sins with which we struggle. We can cultivate the virtues, those spiritual weapons given to us by Jesus. We can seek to curb sin and grow into virtue as we grow into the beloved people whom God created us to be.
We begin with the sin of pride. In his 2006 book Pride, Michael Eric Dyson of Vanderbilt University notes that pride has a favorable value in our society. We have school pride. We feel pride in our achievements wrought through long, hard work. We have cultural pride that ties us to our ancestors and celebrates what made them and us the people we are. This reasonable, appropriate regard for others and for ourselves is not what I am talking about.
We can chalk that up to the limits of the English language, in which we have a single word to describe the full spectrum of pride. Latin, on the other hand, uses the word superbia to talk about the sin of overweening pride, arrogance, contempt for others, self-righteousness, and the belief that we are not subject to God. C.S. Lewis taught that superbia pride “is the complete anti-God state of mind. It is ‘The Great Sin’ that leads to all other sins, because pride is the exaltation of Self above all authority, even God’s authority.”
The prime scriptural example of superbia is found in the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector (Luke 18). Two men go up to the Temple to pray. The Pharisee prays, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.” The Pharisee clearly thinks he is better than his neighbors—those “other people.” He also imagines that he doesn’t really need God. His exceptional piety and righteousness are enough to justify him.
The tax collector presents a stark contrast. He knows his sin and feels completely unworthy. He stands far off, unable to lift his eyes to heaven. He beats his breast in mourning and prays, “‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’” The tax collector knows that he doesn’t have a leg to stand on before God. In the punchline of the parable, Jesus cautions his listeners that it won’t be the Pharisee who is justified before God. It will be that scoundrel, the tax collector.
We know this sort of superbia pride when we see it. It prompted Hitler to annex the Sudetenland. It has driven Putin to roll his tanks into Ukraine. We see superbia in the racial pride of white supremacy that drives a speeding car into a crowd of peaceful protesters. Superbia is in the arrogance and utter disdain with which we belittle and trash-talk our rivals and enemies. Superbia pride seeks constant adulation and praise from an army of “yes-men.” Superbia kills our marriages and friendships because we believe that we alone are right—and everyone else is wrong. We see superbia in the context of our faith communities when we believe that we don’t need to practice confession, we don’t have to hear what the preacher says because we’ve heard it all before and we know it all, and we don’t really need church because we don’t need saving—we are just fine on our own. Woe to us when pride drives the bus.
Jesus saw the remedy to superbia in the virtue of humility. He followed that teaching about the Pharisee and tax collector with the words, “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” Humility is the recognition of who we are in relationship to God. In other words, God is God, and we are not. Humility submits to the authority of God and the guidance of scripture. Humility acknowledges that our personal abilities and resources are gifts from God that are to be used and shared to the glory of God and for the building up of our neighbors.
To comprehend humility, it helps to think about the origin of the word. The Latin form humilitas shares the same root as humus, the organic component of soil, formed by the decomposition of leaves and other plant matter by microorganisms in the soil. When we practice humility, we are down to earth, grounded, and aware of our limits and mortality. Yet, Martin Luther warned that even humility can lead to sin. As a monk, Luther sought humility. He wore hairshirts to mortify his flesh. He fasted, prayed, and slept on the floor. “I finally achieved humility,” Luther quipped, “and I was proud of it!”
Humility finds its scriptural revelation in Christ’s death on the cross. Although sinless, Jesus took on the burden of our collective sin and died a brutal, scandalous, shameful death to reveal God’s great love for us. Thank you, Jesus.
So, what does humility look like for us? Humility is knowing that we need God at the very center of our lives and our families. Humility is good sportsmanship—acknowledging our losses and our opponent’s better abilities on any given day. Humility is accepting responsibility for our mistakes and seeking to make things right. We say, “I did it. It’s my fault. Let me make amends. I am truly sorry.” Even if we are convinced that we are right, humility demands that we stay in relationship, listen, find common ground, and work through differences. Humility is identifying with the poor, the sick, and the despised people of our world. It’s seeking to make a caring difference because we know that they are worthy, deserving of our love and tender care. A world shaped by humility is blessed because it looks a lot like Jesus and anticipates the Kingdom.
So, my friends, as we begin our Lenten journey, let’s spend some time building that Kingdom by tempering our sins of pride with the virtue of humility. We can begin by noticing the ways that pride has separated us from God and one another. Then, we can find healing as we ground ourselves in humility, turning to the world with deep truth and abounding love. May it be so. Amen.
Neal Conan. “Interview with Michael Eric Dyson” in Talk of the Nation, Feb. 13, 2006. Accessed online at npr.org.
Jerry D. Kistler. “The Deadly Sin of Pride” in The Montrose Press, March 8, 2019. Accessed online at https://www.montrosepress.com/.
Ryan Griffith. “The Seven Heavenly Virtues: An Ancient Framework for Spiritual Formation” in desiring God, November 1, 2021. Accessed online at desiringgod.org.
Becky Little. “How the 7 Deadly Sins Began as the ‘8 Evil Thoughts’” in History, March 29, 2021. Accessed online at history.com.
9 Jesus also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: 10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ 13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ 14 I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”