They say to each other, ‘Don’t come too close or you will defile me! I am holier than you!’ These people are a stench in my nostrils, an acrid smell that never goes away. Isaiah 65:5
There’s a stench in the air. It’s the pungent smell of arrogance. I smell it in both American culture and the culture of the Church. It has trickled down from above, not from a heavenly above, but from the heads of churches and of state. Our country, our church, our ideology, our politics is better than yours! In fact, I’m better than you!
The Left is smarter than the Right and the Right is more moral than the Left. Social media and talk radio self-proclaimed pundits bolster their frail egos by preaching to the converted with bluster and conceit. Don’t forget folks, we’re better than them! If they disagree with us and our candidate or our theology they’re fools, idiots––stupid and depraved! Name-calling and slathering paint with the broadest brush possible is a favorite pastime.
All smoke in God’s nostrils!
“The essential vice, the utmost evil,” says C.S Lewis, “is pride… Unchastity, anger, greed, drunkenness, and all that, are mere flea bites in comparison: it was through pride that the devil became the devil. Pride leads to every other vice: it is the complete anti-God state of mind.” And again, “A proud man is always looking down on things and people; and, of course, as long as you are looking down, you cannot see something that is above you.”
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At least twice Jesus’ disciples argued among themselves about which of them was the greatest. The circumstances that gave rise to their competitive spirits are telling (Luke 9 and 22). You can almost draw a straight line from their survival of the smuggest to ours.
In first instance their conceit raised its ugly snout when nine of the twelve were unsuccessful in casting a demon out of a boy. Jesus and his inner circle (Peter, James, and John) were just returning from his spectacular glory morph on the mountain when they encountered the others exhausted and sweaty from their failed deliverance attempt. I speculate that after Jesus delivered the boy of the demon, the three, still celebrating their transfiguration high boasted to the others that if they had been there, they would have been able to overcome such a paltry spirit. “Yeah?” “Yeah!” and so it goes…
In the latter case, Jesus and his posse were eating the Passover meal when he announced that there was a betrayer in their midst. They mused among themselves who it might be when an argument about their relative greatness broke out. “It’s obviously not gonna be me! I’m the most devoted disciple here!” “It’s gotta be Matthew. He’s a dirty tax collector …” “I think it’s John. He’s a fake. He acts like he’s so close to Jesus, but he’s just gathering information to betray him…”
Do you recognize the stink of competitive arrogance? Does our national dialog and / or do our spiritual conversations smell at all like this? Let me unpack the two narratives and see if you don’t connect with them on some level…
In the first instance, in reaction to their pissing contest Jesus brought a child into the room and displayed him as the kind of person he was looking for in his followers. “He who welcomes this little one… welcomes me… He who is least among you all––he is the greatest.”
Right after this to show how little they understood the lesson, John the Beloved chimed in about having seen a man driving out demons in Jesus’ name. He proudly reported that since the man wasn’t part of their club of twelve, they told him to stop. Jesus had just finished scolding them for vying for The Greatest Insider Award and now they claim a superior position to outsiders––outsiders, by the way, whose performance in the deliverance ministry surpassed their own!
The most common tactic of the proud when upstaged by others––discredit them. The outsider was doing something they couldn’t do, so rather than celebrating their success they vilify them, make them the enemy. Rather than appreciating a sort of collective accomplishment they malign them and elevate themselves above them.
We wouldn’t dare say that we are as wonderful as these other men who tell you how important they are! But they are only comparing themselves with each other, using themselves as the standard of measurement. How ignorant! 2 Corinthians 10:12 [NLT]
What happened next was part of Jesus’ class on “Humility 1.0.” He sent some of them to Samaria as an advance team to prepare for his arrival there. And since the Samaritans weren’t entirely welcoming, John (again) and his brother James (the duo they called, “the Sons of Thunder, and for good reason) proposed a heavenly firebombing of those worthless outsiders! They don’t even believe like we do and they don’t want anything to do with us or our Master. To hell with them!
They advanced from arguing about who was best in their own circle, to wanting to censure people from outside their group, and finally to proposing their obliteration!
Peter was no better. He, on the same night of their second battle over their comparative superiority, arrogantly claimed to be above the rest and would stand up to any and all threats of prison and even death. A boast, when push came to shove, he was unable to back up with action.
Jesus had all along taught his apprentices about true greatness. He went so far as to wash their filthy feet and then order them to do the same with one another. The greatest followers, he said, are not the ones who vaunt their importance, but the ones who don the servant’s towel. His elites are foot-washing servants, not spiritual heroes who can’t get along with each other.
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But like a flu bug, from too close a contact with the angry spirit of the media (social and otherwise), we’ve been infected with the contagion of condescension.
I can only imagine Jesus’ frustration with us over our sluggish progress toward the goal of humility. If our lukewarmness makes him nauseous, our arrogance brings tears to his eyes, the kind that come from campfire smoke blown in his face. The degree to which we treat each other as competitors and the world as enemies, we fail as followers of the one who was born in a barn, washed feet, and arrived at his “coronation” on a donkey.