Proper 8 (June 26-July 2)
Texts: Luke 9:51-62;
1 Kings 19; Gal 5
THINKING WE’RE RIGHT: THE ULTIMATE CONCEIT
For these first several weeks in the Pentecost season, we are reading through St. Paul’s letter to the Galatians. It’s a very important book of the Bible, but also a difficult one to understand. Let’s take a few minutes this morning to see if we can understand it better. St. Paul was trying to teach us something very important ourselves in this letter. Let’s see if we can learn it.
You may be used to the fact that I like to take strange angles on things. This morning my strange angle is that those who assigned the readings for today left out a verse. Galatians chapter 5 contains 26 verses, and our reading today, for some reason, stops at verse 25. They left out the last verse of the chapter. Now, that might not seem like a big deal, and perhaps I’m being a bit picky here. But for me it’s important because I think it is verse 26 which really takes us to the crux of the whole matter.
What is this all-important verse, you ask? Well, I’m glad you asked! Here’s verse 26: “Let us not become conceited, competing against one another, envying one another.”
Now, I know, you might be saying to yourself, “That’s it?! A little warning about conceit and competing and envying?! You’re making a big deal about leaving out that little verse? Pastor Paul, you’ve gone off the deep-end again!”
But, you see, this gets right to the crux of the matter that I’ve shared with you before. St. Paul is trying to teach us something about ourselves, which he understands perfectly, so he intentionally ends this chapter with a warning against conceit and competing with one another and envying one another. Here in this chapter, he has talked about it as the flesh, the desires of this world. The word “flesh” can be misleading to us, I think, because we most often start thinking about something having to do with sex.
But Paul is talking about something much broader than that. If we want to get away from what can be a confusing word like “flesh,” the term I have suggested in the past is “mimetic desire.” I have that cartoon about it posted on my office door [about a young girl watching all the commercials on TV who says, when her mother turns it off, “How will I know what I want?”]. All that mimetic desire means is that we get our desires by imitating one another. We copy each other’s desires, or we wouldn’t really know what to desire. That’s the way we are made, so it’s not bad in itself. God created good. In fact, we are created in God’s image. In other words, we have the ability to copy, to imitate, to image God’s desire. The problem is that instead of imaging God’s desire, we image each other’s desires. And when we do that we end up desiring many of the same things. And when we end up desiring the same things, what happens to us? Why, we compete with one another, we envy one another, and we get caught in the conceit of thinking that we deserve what we desire more than the next person. Aha! Do you see!? St. Paul ends this chapter about freedom and love by telling us to watch out for competing and envying and, above all, conceit. He is telling us to watch out for mimetic desire, or what he calls the works of the flesh.
And knowing about mimetic desire also helps us to understand this curious notion of how we can truly be free by being slaves to one another. Notice, first of all, that it says slaves to one another. In other words, we are all masters and all slaves together. It doesn’t work if one group are the masters and one group are the slaves. It doesn’t work, for example, if men are designated as the masters and women as the slaves, to wait on us men hand-and-foot. No, splitting up into two groups is a formula for disunity; it is a formula for conceit and competing and envying. We read last week from Galatians: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28) All of these usual kinds of divisions lead us right into mimetic desire. There is no longer slave or free because we are all slaves to each other and so are all truly free. That happens, you see, when we follow the commandment of God’s love, a love which helps us to love our neighbor as our selves, a love which helps us to love as Jesus loved us. This kind of love, in fact, is precisely what God’s desire is — you know, that desire we were supposed to image, but instead fell into imaging each other’s desires. Well, Jesus came to image for us that love of God, God’s desire, so that we can begin to image that instead (cf., Phil. 2:5ff.).
It all boils down to the crucial choice that Paul lays out for us: either we desire God’s desire, which is what he calls living in the spirit, living by the commandment to love another as we love ourselves. Or we can live by the desires of other people, which Paul calls living by the flesh. That’s it. There ain’t no more choices. And so Paul ends this chapter by saying: ‘Either we live by and are guided by the Spirit. Or we fall into competing and envying and the conceit of think we deserve what we envy.’
Simple, right? No, unfortunately not. Because this choice is never obvious to us. Look at the makers of the lectionary. They left the last verse out. It wasn’t obvious to them. How is it that we continually trick ourselves into thinking that we are slaves to competing and envying and conceit? Well, this is the greatest conceit of all. You see, the ultimate conceit for us is to think that we are not conceited. No, instead, we think we are right. Do you see? If we’re right, if we’re on the side of right, if we’re a member of the right group, then how can that be conceited? It’s not a matter of being conceited; it’s a matter of being right. It’s our way of unifying with a group of folks and having an identity. We tell ourselves that we are not so bad because we get along with this group of people over here, whatever that group of people is for us: our family, our neighbors, our workmates, our fellow church members, other women, other men, etc. We tell ourselves that we can’t be completely embroiled in competition and envy or we be at each other’s throats. We’re fine. It’s those other people over there that have the problem
But St. Paul knows us. He knows himself. He had been a great Pharisee, an upstanding citizen, fighting on the side of right. But then Christ came along, knocked him off his horse, blinded him for a few days, and then helped him to see how conceited he really was. It wasn’t just a problem with those other people over there, it was a problem with himself, with his desperate sense of being right, his conceitedness, right at the heart of things.
Think of a couple examples. What about that verse from last week about oneness in Christ, about no longer being divided by things such as slave and free, male and female. How long did it take us to really understand that. If it were easy for us to see our conceitedness about being right, then why did it take Christians more than 1800 years to finally do away with slavery? And when we did finally abolish it, did we do so out of neighborly love? Or did it take the most bloody war in our history? And has Christlike love abolished the differences between black and white even yet?
Or what about male and female? That’s a lot closer to home, because we’ve only just barely begun to work on that one more seriously. It’s probably still too close for us to see clearly because we are all in our little groups, lobbying for who is most right on these issues. Have we approached these things in the Spirit of Christlike love, or with the fleshly spirit of competition, envy, and conceit about whose right?
One more that’s even closest to home. We’re right in the middle of it here at church. This is not an easy time for the church. Very few churches are growing in numbers. When things are tense, how do we try to re-unify ourselves? By forming groups around whose right. My way of doing church is the right way, each group says. But, of course, instead of unifying, this splits us. And the finger-pointing starts. And pastors are by no means exempt. As the paid leaders, it is natural for us to have the finger pointed most often at us. But, then, that can become our reason for thinking we are on the side of right. We’re the persecuted ones, so we must be on the side of right.
Well, so what do we do? Give up the idea of being right altogether. No. We can’t do that. Slavery is wrong. Racism is wrong. Sexism is wrong. But instead of approaching such things with the divisive, conceited spirit of being right, we need to begin with the humble spirit of knowing that these tendencies to compete with one another and envy one another and conceitedly blame one another is a tendency that each of us has. Even when we are on the side of right, we make it go wrong because of our envy and conceit. We always need to begin, in other words, at the foot of the cross, where we see that the only one who ever lived completely without these sins of envy and conceit was the one who ended up crucified for it, and for us. It is only when we are baptized and rooted in him that we can finally become one with another, that we can finally have a Christlike love for one another. Amen
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Emmaus Lutheran,
Racine, WI, June 27-28, 1998