There is something comical about pride. It makes a man look ridiculous. Of course, it is primarily an offense against almighty God and a theological absurdity: the claim that the gifts of God are your own accomplishment. But in the Christian view, the absurdity of pride plays out as foolishness. The ancient pagan stories present pride as tragic. But Christians know that pride has been conquered. We can laugh at it and create stories to mock it. Thus such literary figures as Shakespeare’s Falstaff, Dickens’s Mr. Bumble, and Andersen’s nude emperor.
But before any of those authors appeared on the scene, our Lord Himself painted an amusing portrait of the pompous fool in the parable of the Pharisee and the publican. (Lk 18:9-14) He tells us that the Pharisee, convinced of his own righteousness, took up his position to pray. Now, we can easily imagine the position this kind of man would take: chest puffed out, nose in the air, eyebrows raised. In short, the posture of the aloof, haughty man who doesn’t know how absurd he looks.
More foolish still, the Pharisee then prays, if you pay close attention, to himself. This is inevitable for the proud man, because he regards no one as above himself. In effect, he has no one else to pray to. For him God is not someone to speak with but just an occasion to talk to himself about his favorite topic: himself. He may make a pretense of speaking to God, but his prayer is ultimately self-referential.
This self-centered prayer reveals an inevitable effect of pride: it isolates us. It renders us so turned inward that we become incapable of real dialogue or genuine relationships. We become so focused on ourselves – out of vanity or insecurity – that we cannot see others. The truly proud man might speak at people, but he never speaks with them.
Now, if pride were simply a matter of the pompous fool, then it would be amusing and little more. But pride also tends to become cruel. To preserve his petty kingdom of self, the proud man must beat back any perceived pretenders to the throne. As our Lord makes clear, the proud are not only convinced of their own righteousness, they also despise everyone else. Thus the Pharisee’s silly prayer is also spiteful: O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity – greedy, dishonest, adulterous – or even like this tax collector.
For all its haughtiness, this prayer actually reveals the all-encompassing slavery of pride. Notice that the Pharisee’s good standing before God depends on his being better than others. He gives thanks not for God’s goodness but for his own superiority to others. He knows nothing of God’s simple love for him – not for him as he compares to others, but for him as he is, made in God’s own image and likeness.
So it always works. Pride traps us in an endless loop of comparison to and competition with others in order to establish our worth before God. This assessment inevitably produces either haughtiness, if we find ourselves superior, or insecurity, if we find others superior. Either way, the soul knows no peace.
The tax collector (or publican), on the other hand, reveals the simple blessings of humility. Our culture, of course, would consider him not just unusual but psychologically unhealthy. He seems too hard on himself: standing off at a distance, keeping his eyes lowered, and beating his breast. Clearly a case of “low self-esteem.”
But in fact he has esteemed himself correctly: O God, be merciful to me a sinner. Who is able to say otherwise before God? This humility frees him for dialogue with God. He speaks directly to the Lord, and not just to himself. Such humble words bring him out of the isolation of pride and sin and into a genuine conversation with God. His simple prayer opens him to a relationship with God and, by extension, with other people.
Our Lord summarizes the different consequences of pride and humility: whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted. Now, we need not think that God is the one doing the humbling and exalting. Rather, the results follow inexorably from the orientation of our souls. Pride – the exalting of oneself — leads inevitably to being humbled precisely because it imprisons us in the endless cycle of judgment and isolates us from God and His grace.
Humility, on the other hand, leads to our exaltation – not because of a capricious decision of God but because it opens us to the glorifying work of God. May the Lord grant us an increase in this virtue, to free us from the bondage of self and increase His life within us.