PRIDE IS JUST THE SYMPTOM (Lk 18:9-14): 24 October 2010 (Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time)
Two people are praying in the temple, but God is hearing very different prayers. The first, a Pharisee, claims his place–presumably, the “best seat in the house”–as he recites his feel-good prayer; the other, a tax collector, is huddled at the back of the temple. The Pharisee sounds like he’s thanking God, but if you listen carefully, he’s really just praising himself. The tax collector, on the other hand, can hardly look up in shame, managing only to beg for mercy.
Our Lord concludes by saying that it is the sinner who leaves the temple justified and talks about the reversals that will befall the proud and the humble:
“For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”
For good reason, this parable is used to promote humility and to caution us against pride. When we think about it, God seems pretty allergic to the proud. Isn’t pride, after all, the original sin? It all began with pride, right? Adam and Eve apparently nursed a secret desire to be equal to God, a desire that the serpent understood and exploited to make them disobey God and partake of the one fruit they were forbidden to eat in the entire Garden of Eden.
But lest we misunderstand, pride is only the symptom. The root of our pride–the Pharisees’, our first parents’–lies elsewhere. And we find a recent reference to it in–of all places–a tabloid story that exploded early this year and rocked the professional athletic world.
Last February 2010, in a much anticipated press conference, world-class golfer Tiger Woods confessed that he had cheated on his wife and apologized for the scandal that had hurt his family. As expected, a media circus followed, but in his carefully worded apology, Woods said something profoundly insightful that deserves our careful reflection because he might as well have been talking about us. He admitted that his behavior had been due to a “misguided and over-inflated sense of entitlement.”
“I knew my actions were wrong,” he said as he looked directly into the camera. “But I convinced myself that the normal rules didn’t apply. I thought that I had worked hard my entire life and deserve to enjoy all the temptations around me.”
The operative word here is, of course, “deserve.” Because we work hard, we begin to feel that we’re special and deserve certain privileges, that we have a right to them. Being human like the rest of us, Woods had unconsciously allowed all his success and popularity to get into him, and before he knew it, he began to actually believe that the normal rules didn’t apply to him.
This sense of entitlement is actually a pretty common sentiment. Once in a while, I catch myself feeling entitled. Some years ago, I was assigned to a job where I had to play trouble-shooter in this particularly problematic organization. The work was often painful, as expected, and all the stress began to get to me. All of this showed in the way I dealt with people. I grew impatient and was easily annoyed; sometimes I would even lose my temper and say things that ended up hurting other people’s feelings.
I didn’t like the person that I saw myself turning into. In my more quiet moments at prayer, I would question myself about this. That’s when I heard that voice inside me–that voice of entitlement. How quickly it came to my defense as it protested: “But you’re so burdened with all these problems, and you’re working so hard that it must be okay for you to lose your temper once in a while, right? Youdeserve to have some kind of outlet once in a while!”
It made so much sense at that time, and I would have easily fallen for it if I hadn’t recognized the voice for what it was: a temptation. It was the serpent singing its same old tune except this time the words were a little different. Self-entitlement is such a reasonable feeling that we often don’t detect the danger it poses, and we don’t recognize it for what it is: the slippery slope to pride. But the next time we feel some entitlement, we should be wary. The serpent is lurking nearby.
People who work hard to be good are especially susceptible to the serpent of entitlement. When we work hard at being holy and see others who don’t, we tend to believe, whether we know it or not, that we’re entitled to things that others who don’t try as hard don’t deserve. I suspect that’s what happened to the “holier-than-thou” Pharisee in the gospel passage. He has exerted so much effort to fulfill every single one of his religious duties and obligations–unlike this sinful tax collector! There are many other examples also in the gospel (think the elder brother in the Parable of the Prodigal Son) and in real life!
Entitlement teaches us what pride really means and what true humility is really about. Pride isn’t just an eagerness to talk about ourselves just as humility isn’t just about avoiding talk about ourselves.
Humility has more to do with knowing that everything we have is grace. Though we deserve none of it, every good gift has been given to us freely out of the lavishness of God’s love. The tragedy of the Pharisee is that he doesn’t see that. Pride is just the symptom. What keeps him unjustified is his failure to recognize the utter giftedness of things.
Image: By Gustave Dore from theregeneration.wordpress.com