Opening the Word: The two sides of pride

We all know there are many things that can keep us from repenting of our sins and returning to full communion with God.

Two of these various impediments are presented in today’s readings, and it is safe to say that both are timeless and universal, for they reflect deep errors rooted in our fallen, human nature. The first is pride, specifically the arrogant conviction that our intentions are always good and our actions are always pure — if only because we believe it to be so. Pride, at its core, is relentlessly self-centered, turning us inward and propping ourselves up as final judge of good and evil. In short, pride displaces God from his rightful place at the center of our lives. This pride was displayed dramatically in the infamous construction of the golden calf by the Israelites. As serious as the story is, there is also a certain element of humor, for the people, God informed Moses, are now “your people whom you brought out of the land of Egypt,” even though it was God’s liberating power that made the Exodus possible.

The point, of course, is that the people had forsaken God, “for they have become depraved,” having turned aside from the way God pointed out to them. The proud always reject God’s way in favor of their own way, and in doing so, they quickly turn to false gods.

As Pope Francis pointed out in his first encyclical, the rejection of God does not result in skepticism so much as it does in idolatry. God spoke to Moses of destroying the idolatrous people, but the prophet begged for mercy on their behalf, referring back to God’s covenantal promises. The point is not that God is capricious, but that the people really deserved severe punishment.

The temptation to reject the way of God is a continual one. That was surely a key point in the famous parable of the prodigal son. The parable was the last of three addressed to the Pharisees and scribes who complained about Jesus eating with sinners (Lk 15:2). The two sons in the parable represent the two sides of the coin of pride. Sometimes pride is lived out in brash, dramatic ways, leading to open ruin and humiliation, as with the younger son. But sometimes pride is deeply hidden, and is all the more deeply rooted because of it.

“There are various kinds of pride,” remarked Robert Hugh Benson in his 1912 novel, “The Coward,” “but there is no pride in the universe such as that dead, silent pride, claiming nothing, yet certain of everything.” Which brings us to the second impediment to repentance: the failure to recognize that God is both just judge and merciful Father. The parable of the prodigal son might be better described as the parable of the merciful father, for the father is really the central figure. The two sons are sinful, self-centered and materialistic in their respective ways, while the father possesses a serene, pervasive holiness that reveals the heart of the heavenly Father. Yes, God does require that we pursue holiness and moral purity, but that is because he desires for us to be fully human, free of anything that damages or destroys our dignity and our relationships.

All three of the parables in Luke 15 point to a single truth: “he was lost and has been found.” God our savior, St. Paul told Timothy, “wills everyone to be saved and to come to knowledge of the truth” (1 Tm 2:4). Like the father in the parable, he waits for the lost sinner to come home.

Carl E. Olson is the editor of Catholic World Report.