Wednesday, July 08, 2015

Pride's Conceit

Pride’s Conceit
Psalm 123[1]
Another of the fundamental problems I see in our society today is pride. I don’t mean the healthy sense of satisfaction we all have with a job well done. I’m talking about the arrogance by which some people think they have the right to look down on others. That kind of pride is an indication that something has gone wrong with our fundamental outlook on life. Instead of humbly recognizing that we are dependent on God for every aspect of our lives, those who fall to the temptation of pride seem to think that they don’t have to depend on anyone for anything. That is pride’s conceit. And it is a radical character flaw that leads to the deadly sin known by its Latin name, hubris.[2]
I think we see all kinds of signs of this kind of pride in our day and time. Corporate CEO’s make 100 times or more what their employees earn to scrape out a living. Politicians consistently pass legislation that benefits their wealthy campaign contributors instead of doing what’s right for the American people. “Talking heads” in our society take an “I’m right and you’re stupid” approach to the events of our day. And yes, even in religion, pride has a way of raising its ugly head. Many religious leaders seem more anxious to get their names in the paper or their faces on the news than caring about the welfare of the people they serve.
Our Psalm for today addresses this problem as it impacts those who seek to live faithfully in a time when arrogance seems to prevail. In fact, it’s easy to get the impression that perhaps the Psalmist had it even worse! While we can’t be sure of the setting, it would seem that this Psalm came out of the Jewish Dispersion, the scattering of the Jewish people throughout the world after the Babylonians destroyed their homeland.[3] In ancient times, as today, there were Jewish communities scattered throughout the civilized world. While some of them inevitably compromised their faith in response to the pressures they faced, many made every effort to remain true to the God who had carried them for centuries.[4] And for that, it’s not hard to imagine that they had to endure “the contempt of the proud” (Ps. 123:4).
After all, there they were, living in a foreign land. In that time, people still believed that “gods” were tied to a certain territory. From that perspective, it would stand to reason that the Jewish people had obviously been forsaken and forgotten by their God, left to make their own way in the lands of other gods. The fact that they continued to worship the God of their ancestors must have seemed humiliating to the peoples among whom they lived. Worse than that, many of them saw it as laughable, and they didn’t hesitate to taunt the Jewish people, asking them constantly, “Where is your God?”[5]
And yet the Jewish people clung tenaciously to the God of their ancestors—praying consistently for God to be gracious to them, as the Psalmist does here. Most translations render the appeal as “have mercy upon us, O Lord” (Ps. 123:3), which might suggest that the people are seeking forgiveness for some kind of wrongdoing. However, most scholars render this cry as “be gracious to us, O Lord” (NASB), which implies something more like a cry for deliverance from those who were mocking them.[6] The rest of the verse seems to back up this perspective: “for we have had more than enough of contempt”!
Perhaps more importantly, the Psalm also called the Jewish people to take a very different stance toward life than their arrogant neighbors. They were to see themselves as “servants” of God, as those who were ultimately dependent upon God for everything, including their very lives.[7] And so instead of looking down their noses at the people who heaped scorn on them, they they were called to look in a very different direction. They looked humbly to God for everything—from the basics like their livelihood to the ability to cope with living in a situation that demanded every ounce of faith they could muster. They were called to turn away from pride’s conceit to the humility of faith.[8]
That’s not always an easy thing in our world. “Dependence” is not necessarily a positive word to us. We like to think of ourselves as independent, as able to stand on our own two feet, and standing on equal footing with anyone we meet. Humility may not come easily to us. Sometimes we’d rather have our teeth pulled out than have to admit that we’ve made a mistake. And yet, the Psalmist reminds us that we are not the self-made, self-sufficient individuals we’d like to think we are. We are all “servants” of God. We are all ultimately dependent upon God for all of life, even life itself.
It seems to me that we live in a world where we have all kinds of reminders of pride’s conceit. There’s simply no disputing the fact that, with few notable exceptions, the wealthiest segment of our society doesn’t hesitate to use their power to control everything from the markets to the government to the media, ensuring that they get exactly what they want no matter what the cost. I think we could say with the Psalmist that we’ve had “too much of the scorn of the indolent rich” (Psalm 123:4). But instead of fighting fire with fire, the Psalmist calls us to a different approach. Rather than looking down our noses at those who think nothing of trampling on us, the Psalmist calls us to look in a different direction—to the God upon whom we depend for all of life. Instead of indulging in pride’s conceit, the Scripture calls us to look humbly to the God who will always keep us in his grace and love and mercy.

[1] ©2015 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 7/5/2015 at Hickman Presbyterian Church.
[2] See H. Berkhof, Christian Faith, 194-197, for a brief overview of the theological discussion of sin as pride; see also Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology II:49-51.
[3] Cf. H. –J. Kraus, Psalms 60-150, 437: “Ridicule and mockery, disgrace and shame weigh heavily on the community …The people of God live in the Dispersion and are mocked because their God fails to provide proofs of his goodness and power in historical life.” It may have also come from the time immediately after the exile, when the Jewish refugees returned to their homeland to find it a shambles. Cf. J. Clinton McCann, Jr. “The Book of Psalms,” New Interpreters Bible IV:1187, where he cites several links between the contempt and scorn of the Psalm and the situation described in the book of Nehemiah. In that situation, they were in constant danger from tribal chiefs who had taken control of the land. They also bore the brunt of constant ridicule for even attempting to rebuild their lives. 
[4] Many believe the “Psalms of Ascent” were originally written for the pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the high and holy feast days. Cf. McCann, “The Book of Psalms,” NIV IV:1176. The very fact that they would continue to use these Psalms in exile or even after their return to Jerusalem, when they faced the total devastation of their land, is a testament to the Jewish people’s efforts to be faithful.
[5] Cf. James L. Mays, Psalms, 395: “the scorn was a challenge to their faith that had the form of the taunt, ‘Where is your God?’”
[6] Cf. McCann, “Book of Psalms,” NIB IV:1187. The petition to “have mercy”  “is a frequent one in the psalms, often translated ‘be gracious’ … . While it may imply the specific need and desire for forgiveness, it more general is an indication that the psalmist or the people depend on God for life itself.”
[7] Cf. McCann, “Book of Psalms,” NIB IV: 1187. The image of the psalmist as a “servant” and the emphasis on the “eyes” both “clearly portray the humble dependence that characterizes the psalmist’s approach to God.” Cf. also Kraus, Psalms 60-150, 437.
[8] Cf. Mays, Psalms, 395: “The pilgrims look from a world that questions their god to the God who rules the world.”

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