Pride Goeth before a Fall
We stand at the edge of a major American celebration. It’s one of those holidays that many preachers, including this one, struggle with. There is this expectation that the church should become a national shrine, with the pastors serving as priests for the nation. But is that our calling, and do these expectations keep us from speaking prophetically? Few of us have the courage and wherewithal of a prophet like Elisha, who not only didn’t fear the people, he didn’t fear the king either. In fact, not only didn’t he fear his own king, but he didn’t fear the supreme commander of his nation’s rival kingdom’s army.
Reading the three lectionary texts together our reflections can go in a number of directions, but what caught my eye was the problem of ego or pride. Naaman is a general, the head of his nation’s army, and yet he also suffers from a skin disease that should make him an outcast. When he learns that there is a man in Israel who can cure him, he seeks the blessing of his own king before heading to Israel in search of this man in whose hands his future lies. When he finally encounters Elisha the Prophet – or should I say, Elisha’s assistants – he is put off first by the fact that Elisha doesn’t come to meet him and also by the demand that he wash himself seven times in the Jordan. Why should he do such a thing? It seemed silly and demeaning, after all, his own country had superior rivers. Finally, at the urging of his servants, he consents, and he’s cured.
In the Gospel of Luke, we read of the missionary journey of the Seventy Disciples. Each goes out into the world in pairs. They’re to preach the message of the kingdom of God and heal all who come their way. As Luke tells the story, they go off on this journey without any provisions at all, subject to the elements unless they can find a home to take them in. When they return to Jesus, they exult in their good fortune. Even the demons obey them. They are quite pleased with themselves, but Jesus reminds them that their celebrations should focus on their presence in the Book of Life.
Paul’s letter to the Galatians helps tie these lectionary texts together. Paul not only reminds us that we tend to reap what we sow, but if we boast in the flesh, we’re running in the wrong direction. Instead, our focus should be spiritual, that is, we should be sowing spiritual thoughts and actions, ones that lead to the appearance of the New Creation. Yes, it appears that boasting is a sign of the flesh not the Spirit. There is no spiritual value to be found in boosting our own egos and stroking our own pride.
Consider Naaman for instance. Although he was a leper, and would seem to be an outcast in his society (this is one reason why I always struggle with this passage – how did he keep his job and family considering his condition?), he continued to think very highly of himself. He sought a cure, but when he was asked to do a simple thing, such as washing himself in the Jordan, he balked. After all, he was an Aramean (Syrian), a citizen of a nation (at least in military terms) that far surpassed Israel. Not only that, he was a highly regarded general, a leader among his people. Why then, should he humiliate himself by taking a bath in this little river that flowed through Israel?
As for the seventy – they seem to have gotten caught up in their “ability” to cast out demons. Perhaps in their joy at their success – much like a football player who scores a touchdown and does a little dance despite the fact that the team is still a couple of TDs behind, they had forgotten the purpose of their mission. In Luke’s account, Jesus suggests that they be content that their names are written in the Book of Life.
If we are to sow and reap spiritual benefits, it would appear that we should look with modesty at our own achievements, so that we might be of use to the realm of God. Remember too that old adage – pride goeth before a fall! It’s a good one to remember at a time of national celebration!
by Bob Cornwall
Bob Cornwall is Pastor of Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) of Troy, MI and Editor ofSharing the Practice, the journal of the Academy of Parish Clergy. Holder of a Ph.D. in Historical Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary, he loves to write, having authored several books, with a book on the Lord’s Prayer due out in November. Besides contributing to this blog, he writes nearly every day at his personal blogPonderings on a Faith Journey, as well as contributing regularly to the Christian Century blogTheolog.