(Jeremiah 11:18-20, Psalm 54, James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a)
(watch here: https://youtu.be/roXElgBMcnE)
30They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; 31for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” 32But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.
33Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” 34But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. 35He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” 36Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, 37“Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”
There was once a kangaroo who became an athletics champion. However, with this success he became arrogant and nasty, and he spent a lot of time making fun of others. His favorite target was a little penguin whose walk was so slow and clumsy that it often prevented him from even finishing the race.
One day the fox, who organized the races, let everyone know that his favorite for the next race was the poor penguin. Everyone thought it was a joke, but still the big-headed kangaroo got very angry, and he ridiculed the penguin even more than usual. The penguin did not even want to take part in the race, but it was a tradition that everyone must do so. On the day of the race, he approached the starting line in a group which was following the fox. The fox led them up the mountain, while everyone made fun of the penguin, commenting on whether he would roll down the mountain or just slide down on his fat belly.
But when they reached the top they all shut up. The top of the mountain turned out to be a crater that had filled with water, making it into a lake. At this point, the fox gave the starting signal, saying: “First to the other side wins.” The penguin, excited, waddled clumsily to the water’s edge. Once he was in the water, though, his speed was unbeatable, and he won the race by a long distance. Meanwhile, the kangaroo barely managed to reach the other side; tearful, humiliated, and half drowned. And although it seemed like the penguin was waiting to make fun of the kangaroo, the penguin had learned a lot from his suffering, and instead of ridiculing the kangaroo, he offered to teach him how to swim.
For the rest of the day the animals enjoyed themselves, playing in the lake. But the one who enjoyed himself the most was the fox, who, with his cleverness, had managed to bring the kangaroo down a peg or two.
It is all too easy to fall into the same mentality as that kangaroo. We’re plugging along at the race of life, trying our best to do what God calls us to do. We quickly realize that God has gifted each of us with certain talents and abilities. Some of us are gifted with a keen intelligence, others with strong athletic abilities, and yet others with astute problem-solving skills. Once we realize our particular talents, we naturally seek out situations that enable us to use them. Problem solvers seek out situations of conflict and discord. Athletes seek out situations that expect physical strength and endurance. Intelligent people seek out situations that use their wit and mental prowess. Whatever the talent is, there are situations that allow us to show it off and we consciously or unconsciously gravitate towards them.
The kangaroo, being a fast runner, gravitated towards foot races that enabled him to show off his skill. Pride quickly consumed him and he started picking on those around him that weren’t as adept as he was in his particular race. Overcome with pride, the kangaroo failed to consider that there were other types of races besides a foot race. The clever fox used the kangaroo’s pride against him and developed a race that highlighted the penguin’s talent instead.
It’s easy to lose perspective and let pride overcome us. We tend to believe that because we’re succeeding at our own particular races then we’re better than others. We don’t realize that each of us is given a unique race and have been given unique gifts for running them. We can’t fall into this prideful mindset. We can’t fail to respect the unique gifts of each other. We can’t forget that each of us runs our own unique, specially tailored to highlight each of our gifts. Why? Because God can just as easily come into our lives as a clever fox, expanding our perspectives and teaching us a little humility. Pride is a great sin, arguably the greatest sin, and God doesn’t like to see us succumb to it. God creates everything. God created us and our unique set of gifts. God created the situations of our lives and will continue creating situations in our lives. God creates all of the races set before us. We are fools to believe that we are masters of our races. We are even bigger fools to believe that successes in our own races somehow enable us to criticize and belittle the performance of others in their races.
Similar prideful thinking runs through our readings assigned for this week. In our first reading, we heard the cries of the prophet Jeremiah. Like all prophets, Jeremiah had the undesirable job of speaking to the pride of those around him. God was angry with the pride of the people of Jerusalem. They had fallen away from a right relationship with God. They believed they were masters of their races. They believed that God wasn’t sovereign, worthy of their praise and admiration. Their pride had consumed them and God called upon Jeremiah to bring nothing but words of judgment and condemnation to them. Poor, poor Jeremiah had to judge the people’s pride. And did this make him particularly popular with those around him? Of course not! They sought to kill him, saying, “Let us destroy the tree with its fruit, let us cut him off from the land of the living, so that his name will no longer be remembered!”
Was Jeremiah the first person to speak to the pride of God’s people and not be particularly liked for it? Of course not! There were many prophets who have been tasked with bringing God’s words of judgment to His prideful people. Indeed, there were even kings…kings like King David. King David always honored God’s words and this invariably got him in trouble with the prideful people he ruled over. In our psalm for today, we heard David cry, “For the insolent have risen against me, the ruthless seek my life; they do not set God before them.” God’s people have a long history of shutting God out of their lives, of allowing pride to run their lives. God uses prophets and kings to bring His people back into right relationship and the people put up great resistance, threatening to kill the prophets and kings as a result.
Pride is a nasty sin. Pride contaminates like no other sin. Pride is at the heart of most sin. The apostle James spoke to the products of pride. He said, “Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they come from your cravings that are at within you? You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures.” It is pride that causes us to ask wrongly, with selfish motives behind it. It is pride that keeps us from asking in the first place. It is pride that makes us do stupid things to get what we don’t have. If only we would ignore our pride, “submit ourselves to God, resist the devil, draw near to God” as James advises.
Even Jesus’ very disciples fell victim to pride from time to time. We heard in our gospel reading of how they were arguing about who was the greatest. Presumably it was an argument over who was the most worthy to carry on Jesus’ ministry once he died. Rather than get caught in the argument and inadvertently show favoritism, Jesus uses the argument to teach about how the disciples are to carry on his ministry. Jesus teaches, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Like the clever fox from our earlier, Jesus adds perspective to the argument: being first means being last. What a radical reframing of perspective! To win the race, one must help others win their races! Jesus broadens our perspective on our races to include all the races of others. Jesus helped the disciples, and us, to see the complexity of life and ministry in this world.
But is God simply a clever fox, waiting to add perspective when we’ve allowed pride to run our lives? No, God is more than a clever fox. God is also like the penguin in the story who teaches the kangaroo to swim. God not only adds perspective but helps increase talents and abilities as well. None of us if fully formed to run the race set before us. God instills and nurtures talents along the way. God creates situations that implant and develop talents. What situations has God created to implant and develop talents in your life?
Jesus broadens our perspectives and develops talents along the way. Jesus has utmost humility, never allowing pride to overtake his life. Jesus knows where he comes from…from whom he comes. Let us seek to live our lives like Jesus. Let us realize and respect the gifts and talents of those around us. Let us honor the races set before each of us. Though we walk with unique gifts along unique ways, let us always strive to…walk the way of Christ.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.