The Tarnished Side of God’s Coin

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Theologian Thomas Merton wrote, “Pride makes us artificial and humility makes us real.” But some biblical accounts make it seem like pride and humility are two sides of the same coin. In fact, pride often seems to be humanity’s birthright.

That may explain why the prophets and Jesus continuously remind us to be humble. The people surrounding Jesus, and even those in his parables, always seemed to be embarking on journeys that humbled them. Maybe they’re reminding us how humility feels so we can distinguish it from the puffed-up images our egos project to the world. 

This Sunday’s readings inspire our humble side by tweaking our ego’s natural desire for rewards. The first from Sirach (Sir 3:17-18, 20, 28-29) addresses us like a child who expects a standing ovation from mommy and daddy for taking out the garbage without being asked.

My child, conduct your affairs with humility, and you will be loved more than a giver of gifts.  Humble yourself the more, the greater you are, and you will find favor with God.

And why not? Mankind is God’s greatest miracle. That’s not just MY pride talking, but St. Joan of Arc’s—at least the Joan depicted by our pop culture as one of sainthood’s greatest examples of childlike innocence mixed with pride. The Lark, a 1955 Broadway production and ’57 TV adaptation of her story, introduces us to this French peasant girl as she’s being tried for heresy. She claims that in leading French forces against the British she was following God’s command. Her inquisitors tell her, “Beware of your pride!”

“I know I’m proud,” she answers, “but I’m a daughter of God; if He did not want me to be proud, why did he send me saints all dressed in light, telling me I should lead brave soldiers into battle?”

Then, to entrap her with one of those “no good answer” questions, she’s asked Do you know whether or not you are in God’s grace?” She answers: “If I am not, may God put me there; and if I am, may God so keep me.”

The inquisitor retorts that the church neither believes in the miraculous nature of her mission, nor that she could be the instrument of divine miracles. She replies, “True miracles are created by men when they use the courage and intelligence God gave them. That makes man God’s greatest miracle. In his courage and splendor, even at his worst moments, man makes God happy because God made him for just this contradiction: even in his sin he is like a bright new coin in the hand of God.”

Whether or not this version of St. Joan is accurate, we still have Christ’s parables. They acknowledge our weaknesses while telling great truths that inspire the strengths we hope God loves in us.  In the gospel we read this Sunday (Lk 14:1, 7-14), Jesus is attending a dinner where he notices guests jockeying for places of honor around the table. He advises:

“When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not recline at table in the place of honor. … Rather, take the lowest place so that when the host comes to you he may say, ‘My friend, move up to a higher position.’ Then you will enjoy the esteem of your companions at the table.”

Jesus doesn’t advise us against enjoying esteem. He seems to acknowledge it as one of God’s natural rewards within us. So here’s that contradiction where God encourages humility but promises that “the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

The miracle of humanity is that even as we grasp for the self-sufficiency our world exalts, we can still somehow maintain the childlike innocence that made the classic image of Joan of Arc the kind of two-sided coin God prizes. Maybe our struggles while flipping between pride and humility endear us to God our Father. It’s comforting to imagine Him smiling when seeing His children struggle to emulate Him as we deal with life’s many trials. “How cute,” He might add.

–Tom Andel

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