If Jesus had gone around telling everyone he was the Son of God, he wouldn’t have been. That’s why in our Gospel today (Mark 1:21-28) he tells the possessed man who is shouting about who Jesus really is to “Be quiet!” We can find Jesus doing this in many other places in the Gospels. Humility, not puffing oneself up as someone special, is at the heart of what it means to be a Christian. Indeed one of the best known of Jesus’ teachings is where he warns people not to sit themselves in the highest place at a wedding feast, but to allow the host to place you where he thinks is most appropriate.
Of course, as with all that Jesus says, he is really talking not just about morality, but much more about our relationship with God. No-one is virtuous, no-one is good by their own efforts. Those who say to God, or to other people “Look at me. I am important. I am special.” These are the people who are furthest from God; and if they happen to be holy people (the scribes and the Pharisees) wearing elaborate clothes to show their status, so much the worse for them.
But there is more than one way of showing off. False humility, for example, deliberately taking the lowest place, can be just as attention-seeking as doing the opposite. Indeed the classic do-gooder who fusses around people trying to “help” them all the time, can, as we all know, be a complete pest. Perhaps this is why Jesus so often tells us to be like little children. He doesn’t wants us to fuss and fret about what people think of us, about what we should wear or what we should do. Like little children, he wants us just to enjoy life and company, as they do. Remember his saying, “Do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ ……. Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well. Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. (Matt 6:31-34)
I don’t think by this that Jesus wants us wandering around in dirty smelly old clothes, living off tins of baked beans. Once again, if we take the teaching too far, we end up being attention-seeking again. St Thomas Aquinas, whose day we celebrated last week, always taught that true virtue lies between two extremes, and that’s certainly true of what I am talking about today. Pride can show itself at either end of the spectrum.
There is, after all, a kind of pride that is surely part of being a true Christian. To be proud of one’s children or grandchildren or a loved-one when they do something special; or to take pride in one’s work – to do a good job whether you are working at something yourself, or for an employer. This natural pleasure in what is good, provided it doesn’t become another kind of showing-off – “Look at me, look at my children” – is simply the right thing to do. Those who never give praise, and are surly about everything, are just plain wrong. It is one thing to say, as we should, that without God I can do no good, but to go on from that to refuse praise for oneself of for others. No. That misses the point.
However, the wrong kind of pride is always lurking there, and we ought to watch out for it. Most of you know that I am a married priest, and I remember vividly how proud I was when I became a father. Like any good father, I love my two boys to bits (now very grown-up), but I remember on a number of occasions asking God in prayer whether perhaps I loved them too much. What would happen to my faith in God if one of them died? I shudder now even to think about it. Were they more important to me than God? I was never put to that test, but it was important to ask the question.
This is surely one of the reasons why celibacy, which we heard about from St Paul in our 2nd reading (1 Cor 7:32-35), is required of priests in our Western Roman Catholic Church. Certainly in the ancient and medieval world the priest often had influence and power, and was thus in a position to promote his children in unfair ways, and thereby extend his influence, and that of his family, at the expense of others. Taking a pride in one’s family can thus easily become more important than serving God. The best kind of celibate priest can give himself to his people without any other commitments to hinder his work. The people become his family. I know, as a married priest, how hard it is to balance care for one’s family with care for God’s people. It is very easy to get the balance wrong, and then either the Church or the family suffer. Those who think priests should be married need to recognise that married clergy create an awful lot of extra problems for the Church – and that includes difficult wives or children. Read or watch Trollope’s Barchester Towers for more on this!
I wonder perhaps if the virtue I am really talking about today is temperance? Let’s finish by listening to the Catechism on this. (Para 1809) “Temperance is the moral virtue that moderates the attraction of pleasures and provides balance in the use of created goods. It ensures the will’s mastery over instincts and keeps desires within the limits of what is honourable. ….In the New Testament it is called “moderation” or “sobriety.” We ought “to live sober, upright, and godly lives in this world.” (Titus 2:12) Then the Catechism quotes St Augustine “To live well is nothing other than to love God with all one’s heart, with all one’s soul and with all one’s efforts; from this it comes about that love is kept whole and uncorrupted (through temperance). No misfortune can disturb it (and this is fortitude). It obeys only God (and this is justice), and is careful in discerning things, so as not to be surprised by deceit or trickery (and this is prudence).
Now there’s a challenge for us!