I am an emeritus professor from Cornell University and was a Commissioned Lay Preacher in the Presbyterian Church (USA). For many years I have followed the Daily Lectionary as printed in the Mission Yearbook of my church. For each day of a two-year cycle, the lectionary lists four psalms and three other scriptural passages--usually one from the Old Testament and two from the New Testament. My practice is to copy down a verse or two from one of the psalms and from each of the other three passages. After I have written out all four selections, I reflect upon them, rearrange their order, and incorporate them into a meditation. Sometimes I retain much of the original wording; sometimes all that remains of a selection is an idea that was stimulated when I read the original words. All selections are from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible. For the Daily Lectionary, see the link below.

The Remedy for Hubris--March 19, 2018

Occasionally I depart from my usual practice and post a whole sermon related to the day's lectionary.  Mark 9:30-41 deals with the hubris of the disciples when they argued about who was greatest.  In Matthew's parallel passage (18:1-4) Jesus not only puts a little child in front of them, he warns them that they must change and become humble, like the child.  My sermon is about the hubris of the disciples.  Although I preached it two years ago, slightly modified from a sermon I had preached elsewhere in 2008, I am sad to say that it seems more relevant today than ever.

The Remedy for Hubris
Sermon preached at Christ the King Fellowship Presbyterian Church (PCUSA)
June 12, 2016
Elmer E. Ewing
2 Samuel 11:27b-12:13a
Matthew 18:1-4

It is spring, when kings go out to battle…but the king is not going.  Not this year.  Years ago the women used to sing how he had slain tens of thousands for God and country.  The body count may have been inflated, but the king has earned the right to stay home and plan wars for others to fight.  Besides, the current campaign is going well without him.  His troops are devoted to their king, and his commanding general is brilliant on the battlefield.  Sure, the general is ruthless and deviousbut he knows which side his bread is buttered on.  With a king so popular, the general will do the king’s bidding.

It is spring, when even an older man’s fancy may lightly turn to… thoughts unworthy of a king.  The king gets up from a nap and walks on the roof.  On a distant roof he spies a womana young woman.  She is bathing. The king enquires about her.  No one questions his right to asknot out loud, they don’t.  He’s the king.  The king learns that her husband is away, at the frontfighting for the king.  H'mm.  She must be lonely.  He sends for her, that he may…comfort her.  She is helpless before him.  He has all the power.  The king is not above the lawhe makes the law, interprets the law, decides when the law applies and when it does not.  He is the decider.  He enjoys executive privilege.  He is the king.  Then comes the message: “I’m pregnant.”  And the world changes.

What happened to David, the youngest of Jesse’s eight sons, the ruddy lad with beautiful eyes, who humbly tended his family’s sheep?  What happened to David, anointed by Samuel as God’s choice to be king?  What happened to the heroic David, who ran alone with sling and stone to confront the mighty Goliath?  What happened to the honorable David, who twice spared the life of King Saul, the very man who was trying to kill him?  From such heights, how could David have sunk so low?  So low as to force himself on the wife of one of his faithful soldiers, and then conspire to have the soldier killed by the enemy?  Hubris.  Hubris is the word.

David was king, and he began to consider himself the greatest person in the country.  So great that he had the right to do anything.  He saw himself as the center of existence.  He was the very picture of hubris—hubris: arrogance, self-inflated conceit.  The theologian Paul Tillich had a more complete definition: “Hubris is the self-elevation of [human beings] into the sphere of the divine.” 

“Hubris” is a relatively new word.  It wasn’t in the dictionary I had in college—Webster’s New Collegiate, copyright 1953.  But dictionaries change, because language changes.  In the 1950’s prominent theologians like Paul Tillich and Reinhold Niebuhr were using the word.  Maybe they started a trend, because hubris appeared in our 1978 Scrabble dictionary, and by now it is in every dictionary.  In 2005 hubris was voted Word of the Year in an online poll run by the San Francisco Chronicle newspaper.  Type “hubris” into Google, and there will be millions of hits.  The word is here to stay.

More accurately, the word 'hubris' is not new, just reborn.  It goes back 25 centuries.  In Greek tragedy, hubris was always the fatal flaw that doomed the hero.  The hero would reach for what belonged only to the gods, and that was his or her undoing.

The word hubris is not in the Bible, but the concept is there—yearning to play God, to be above the limits that apply to mere mortals.  It was hubris that made Adam and Eve want to eat the forbidden fruit, because eating it would make them like God.  Hubris led the disciples to argue about which of them was to be greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven.  And it was a clear case of hubris that made David suppose he could have his way with Bathsheba.  Hubris—self-elevation into the sphere of the divine.  A perfect description of what overcame David.  David wielded absolute power, and as Lord Acton said, “absolute power corrupts absolutely.”  The name of such corruption is hubris.

George Will, the prominent conservative columnist, reviewed Peter Beinart’s book on the history of how hubris has controlled American foreign policy.  I haven’t read the book; but according to George Will’s column, Beinart sees hubris in the way the map of the world was redesigned by President Wilson after WWI.  He sees it again in the Viet Nam War and in many smaller military actions (Guatemala, Dominican Republic, Kosovo), and in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. 

Say the word hubris, and famous names roll off the tongue: elected officials of both parties, CEO’s, movie stars, generals, athletes, financiers, religious leaders—the list is long, the examples are legion.  The greater our power over others, the greater the temptation to hubris; but we simple folk are by no means immune.  It is easy to see the speck of hubris in the eye of another person while overlooking the log of hubris in our own.  We need to focus on identifying the hubris in ourselves.

Hubris involves building myself up by tearing others down, climbing to the top by stepping on anybody in my way.  Hubris is my attempt to make myself the center of all things; to gratify my own needs and wants at the expense of the rightful needs of others; to control my own destiny rather than leaving myself and the world in the hands of God.

It is common to say that hubris is a form of pride, which is the word generally used in the Bible to describe it.  The two words are related, but not quite the same.  The athlete is proud of his talent.  Then he decides he is entitled to boost his talent with performance enhancing drugs.  He has gone from pride to hubris.  The political candidate is so convinced he or she deserves to be elected that it seems okay to use unfair accusations or dirty tricks, and pride has become hubris.

You may be proud of your daughter, which probably means that you love her, take great joy in her, and are thankful for the kind of person she is.  If such pride develops until you demand that your daughter be granted special privilege in school or work, then you could be edging over into hubris.  You may be proud of your school’s athletic team—you watch every game you can, you cheer for them, follow the athletes, and rejoice when they do well.  When you swear at the referee, or maybe let him know how much he needs a visit to his optometrist, you are sliding down the slippery slope to hubris.

It is fine to feel good about yourself—after all, you are a child of God.  We just need to be careful when we want to feel like God’s favorite child, like Joseph in his fancy coat, lording it over his brothers; like the teacher’s pet.  A good worker takes satisfaction—call it pride—in a job well done.  When that worker is so proud that she belittles anyone who dares question her accuracy, or she puts down other workers to make herself look better, then pride has begotten hubris.

George Will ended his column on hubris by saying this: “Hubris is a vice arising from ambition, which is, in moderation, a virtue.  Hubris is a by-product of success, of which America has had much.  By producing folly, of which America has had too much, hubris is its own corrective.  There is, however, a high tuition paid for such instruction.”

Pride (or hubris) comes before a fall.  Unfortunately, when we practice hubris, it not only brings us down, it often has consequences for others.  Hubris typically has victims.  Bathsheba was a victim, her husband Uriah was a victim, and more and more victims were sucked under by an ever-widening whirlpool.  David’s sons were affected, and several of them developed their own cases of hubris.  Eventually the whole kingdom was involved in a royal coup, and after son Solomon’s death the kingdom was ripped in half by hubris. 

Even for us commoners, it is not hard to find examples where the hubris of the parents is visited upon succeeding generations.  Bad things happen to the victims of hubris.  Oppression is connected to hubris, among nations and among families.  Extreme oppression, suffered long enough, may break the human spirit.  Victims come to blame themselves; victims of spousal abuse often feel they deserve to be beaten.  They feel worthless, like dirt, debased.  At one time or another in our lives, to some extent, I dare say most of us have been guilty of hubris and at other times have been victims of hubris.  Hubris hurts.

So, what to do about hubris—starting with our own?  We need to see our own hubris for what it is.  Give David some credit—when Nathan confronted him with his guilt, David saw himself for what he was.  “I have sinned against the LORD,” he said.  A lesser king would have had Nathan’s head lopped off.  To admit that we are wrong is a defeat for hubris.  Hubris wants us always to be right.  Hubris must win every argument.  Our hubris never concedes our own mistake, let alone the fact that our hubris exists.  Hubris just complains about others—never content with the world, always a victim.

But don’t wait for God to send old Nathan to point an arthritic finger.  That may be too late.  We must be the constant observer not only of our own actions, but of our own emotions and thoughts.  This is not easy or pleasant; it is not done quickly or once-and-for-all.  Take time daily for self-examination.  Self-examination and repentance go together.  It is by the grace of God that we are able to do them.

Sometimes we need a visual aid.  In response to the hubris of his disciples, Jesus set a visual aid in front of them…a little child.  Then Jesus told them to be humble like a child if they wanted to enter the kingdom of heaven.  Reflect on what it means to be humble.  Jesus was humble.  He said, “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart …”  In Philippians Paul reminds us that being found in human form, Christ humbled himself.  Think what it means to be humble as Jesus was humble; as a little child is humble.


To be humble like Jesus is not self-abasement.  Humility gets a bad rap. It is not to feel worthless, or worse than worthless.  In his classic book, Markings, Dag Hammarskjöld writes: “Humility is just as much the opposite of self-abasement as it is of self-exaltation.  To be humble is not to make comparisons.  Secure in its reality, the self is neither better nor worse, bigger nor smaller, than anything else in the universe.”


To be humble like a child is not to feel like a nobody, not to feel that we are scum of the earth.  A child who has been born into a loving family does not feel worthless about herself.  A little boy who has been loved does not consider himself among the world’s great sinners.  God so loved the world that God gave God’s only son.  We are part of the world that God loves, part of God’s family. 


God loves you, God loves me, just as much as anyone else in the world—not more, not less.  We don’t need to pump ourselves up by putting others down, don’t need to claim that we are number one and that all the rest of the world ranks lower, in order to earn God’s love.  We have that love already.  You are worthy.  God loves you as you are.  “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us,” said Paul.  “To be humble is not to make comparisons,” said Hammarskjöld.  There is no need to compare; each of us is a child of God, loved by God—and that is sufficient.


Be grateful for that kind of love.  It is enough to make us leave hubris behind; enough to heal us if we are a victim of hubris; enough to make us want to share God’s love even as God shared Jesus with us; enough to make us servants of our servant Lord, who gave his love for all.  Jesus loves me, this I know—remember that!

1 comment:

Wayne Heym said...

This rare departure from your usual practice of offering a short meditation is very valuable. The sermon you offered in its place moved me to tears, or, at least, moisture and its accompanying feeling, by its beauty. It explores the territory thoroughly. By doing so, it is a strong example of a complete delivery of the good message: it is excellent evangelism. At the risk of fracturing this completeness, I wish to lift out what I experience as the heart of the matter: "We must be the constant observer not only of our own actions, but of our own emotions and thoughts. This is not easy or pleasant; it is not done quickly or once-and-for-all. Take time daily for self-examination. Self-examination and repentance go together. It is by the grace of God that we are able to do them."

This comment also serves as a test whether these days the author, Elmer Ewing, can still see comments made about his blogs, despite changes in this blogging system.

In gratitude both for this sermon's insights into God's grace and for that grace,