Bragging rights…or not

Humility can be a tough sell, even for Christians. We almost can’t help comparing ourselves to others, and don’t like to be found wanting. Every family, every organization, every church has implicit or explicit rules about how to win the approval and admiration of others. Get good grades. Make the most sales. Give the most money to the ministry. There’s nothing wrong, of course, with any of these. But it’s one thing to get good grades because you love learning, and another because you need to please your parents. Topping the sales chart because you believe in the product is different than needing to prove yourself. Giving from an open and generous heart is not the same as wanting recognition from the pulpit.

What researchers call social comparison works in one of two opposite directions, upward or downward. In upward social comparison, we look at people above us on some ladder of worth and feel inadequate: Ooh, look at her. She’s so spiritual! What a mess I am as a Christian… We might then compensate with downward comparison: But at least I’m not as messed up as that person!

Even if we believe we’re at the top of the heap, we usually know that people don’t like a braggart. We know that boasting openly about our accomplishments will make people want to take us down a notch or write us off as an egotist. So we maneuver our way through conversations instead, with varying degrees of finesse. We try to let people know what we’ve accomplished without sounding like we’re boasting. We want people to know we have bragging rights, but are too humble to brag.

As we’ve seen, the apostle Paul warns the Philippians not to fall for the arguments of the so-called Judaizers; Gentiles don’t need to be circumcised to belong to the people of God. If we’re going to boast, we boast only in Jesus, he tells them. We put no confidence in the flesh because nothing we do, no matter how religious it seems, can save us. To believe otherwise is to turn the gospel on its head.

But, Paul says, if we were to brag, I have bragging rights. He lays out his impressive religious résumé for them:

If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. (Phil 3:4b-6, NRSVUE)

Paul describes himself in seven related ways, at the center of which is the claim to be “a Hebrew (born) of Hebrews,” that is, an exemplary Jew. He was circumcised on his eighth day of life, as any boy born into a good Jewish family would be. While a Gentile might (according to the Judaizers) symbolically become an Israelite through circumcision, Paul was born an Israelite; he was also born of the tribe of Benjamin, a mark of distinction. In all likelihood, the Judaizers were Pharisees, and if so, Paul can say, “Me too.” He was trained to be scrupulous in his observance of the Mosaic law, and claims a spotless record.

It sounds like boasting, even if done for rhetorical purposes. But tucked into that enviable résumé is the painful memory of having persecuted the church, of hounding believers to their death. If Paul had trumpeted his zeal this way before he met Jesus, it would be one thing. It’s another to say it now; the words take on a different tone and meaning. Not even the Judaizers were more zealous for our traditions than I was, he seems to say. And I was wrong. Dead wrong.

Paul is neither boasting nor humblebragging. He is able to speak this way because of his close relationship to the Philippians; he knows they’ll take his words the right way. In a sense, he’s playing a game of rhetorical poker — he has the better hand, he knows it, and wants the Philippians to know it. Boasting in the flesh? If the Judaizers want to play that game with me, I win.

But the point isn’t to win the pot. As we’ll see in the next post, Paul’s purpose is to stop the game and kick over the table.

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