Ego and Humility
Sermon preached by Fr. Antony Hughes on Sunday, September 3, 2017 at St. Mary Orthodox Church in Cambridge, MA
The Reading from the Holy Gospel according to St. Matthew. (21:33-42)
The Lord spoke this parable: “There was a householder who planted a vineyard, and set a hedge around it, and dug a wine press in it, and built a tower, and let it out to tenants, and went into another country. When the season of fruit drew near, he sent his servants to the tenants, to get his fruit; and the tenants took his servants and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. Again he sent other servants, more than the first; and they did the same to them. Afterward he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him and have his inheritance.’ And they took him and cast him out of the vineyard, and killed him. When therefore the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” They said to him, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and let out the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the fruits in their seasons.” Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the Scriptures: ‘The very stone which the builders rejected has become the head of the corner; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes?’”
There is always a danger that we will try and use Jesus for our personal gain. You see it all the time on television – Christianity as a way to make money or gain power and notoriety. It is shameful of course and frightening the way so many people fall for it. We must be careful that we do not fall ourselves into such obvious corruption. Those who practice the way of using Christianity for egoic self-interest clearly do not know the Jesus they claim to represent.
So (I believe it was Ram Dass who said this), how much ego do you need? Just enough to get out of the way of a moving bus.
And how do we tell the authentic from the corrupt. It isn’t always easy, but the key is to look for humility and CS Lewis has something helpful to say in this regard. “Humility is not thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less.” If someone is seeking to profit from their ministry, you can be sure that the ministry is really all about them.
The cause of this, of course, is ego. The ego perpetually looks for ways to advertise itself by stealth and cares little or nothing for how its methods and decisions affect the welfare of others. The tenants in today’s Gospel go to the extreme of killing the son of the owner. There are no limits to which the unbridled ego will go.
When Jesus Christ points the way by pointing to himself it is not the ego run amok, but the Truth speaking truth, for he is the Way, the Truth and the Life and he demonstrates through his words and deeds what the truth is. He is driven only by devotion to his Father and love for creation and never by self-interest.
Throughout his life as reported by the Gospels you cannot find one example of Jesus seeking to make a fortune or garner fame, security, or comfort. He does not fleece the poor or kowtow to the wealthy. He does not seek to rule over anyone. He walks courageously to his own death by speaking the truth to both the impoverished and the powerful. He is not driven by self-interest. He heals people and then instructs them to “say nothing to anyone.”
Let’s look at one more aspect of the Lord’s humility. Allow me to quote Lewis once more.
“I know now, Lord, why you utter no answer. You are yourself the answer. Before your face questions die away. What other answer would suffice?”
Notice that when Jesus is asked ultimate questions, he does not give answers, he replies with questions. When he says anything, he points to the answer which is not a carefully reasoned reply, but an invitation to know him. In some cases, his replies are mysterious and ambiguous, more like paradoxical riddles, and always an invitation to know him experientially, as in John chapter 6. The responses to these moments are often negative. People walk away and leave him offended.
In other cases, his responses are surprising and intensely personal. He invites himself to lunch with Zaccheus, he opens the door to a way life-changing perspective for the Samaritan Woman who is ready to hear him, he praises the humility and faith of a foreigner from Syro-Phoenicia and a Centurion of Rome. Both of these come seeking healings from Christ and are told by the Lord that it is their faith that supplies the answers. That is, the path to the answers they sought came from within, through an interior process of self-discovery they might not even have known they were on. And Jesus, by the power of Grace and Compassion, reveals, encourages and blesses the process.
For Jesus is the Door to the kingdom within from which all healing flows. And he himself is the chief cornerstone the ego cannot accept. Only the humble can enter through that door. Repentance begins when the path of self-interest fails us, as it most assuredly will, and we find ourselves in need of forgiveness. Humility is the door to all good things.