Humility

Rev. David Bast Uncategorized

READ : Matthew 11:25-30
Luke 18:9-14

If Jesus Christ is the model of what it means to be truly human, then humility is an essential human trait.

Jesus of Nazareth made some of the most outrageous claims ever uttered by a human being. When he was asked one day by some of his adversaries to give them proof of his authority, Jesus replied with more than a touch of annoyance:

“A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a miraculous sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. . . . The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and now one greater than Jonah is here. The Queen of the South will rise at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for she came from the ends of the earth to listen to Solomon’s wisdom, and now one greater than Solomon is here.

Matthew 12:39-42

Jonah was the classic example of the successful prophet; Jesus claimed to be greater than Jonah. Solomon was the wisest man who ever lived; Jesus claimed to be smarter than Solomon. In other words, he was saying, the greatest figures in human history were as nothing compared to him.

On another occasion a paralyzed man struggled to get to him through the crowd. Finally the man was let down through the roof by four of his friends. But before Jesus healed him, he offered to forgive the man’s sins. Can you imagine that! How would you react if your doctor came into the room, took a look at your chart, and before getting out his stethoscope to listen to your heart, declared: “Oh, by the way, I forgive you for lying to your wife the other day.” Preposterous!

Or listen to this quote from Jesus.

“All things have been committed to me by my Father. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

Matthew 11:27-30, NIV

Here is the most extravagant claim of all. Jesus said – apparently quite matter of factly – that he was the world’s only source for the knowledge of God. “All things have been committed to me by my Father. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.” Do you want to know God, to have a clear idea of what God is like? Would you like to learn what God thinks and how he feels and what he says and does? Well then, says Jesus, you’ll have to look at me. No one anywhere can know God except those to whom I make him known. God has entrusted everything to me.

And then in the next breath, in what seems like an incredible contradiction, Jesus says that he is the meekest and lowliest and humblest of men. Why doesn’t that strike us as bizarre? What is it about this strange, inexplicable figure that makes both of these claims – the claim to supremacy and the claim to humility – ring true? You would think that Jesus would be remembered as one of the great egomaniacs in human history, but he’s not. When he says that he alone knows God and can make God known, when he offers to forgive sins, when he claims equality with God himself, I, for one, together with many millions of others, find it easy to believe he is telling the truth. Yet when he invites us to come to him and follow him, adding that he is gentle and humble in heart, Jesus is equally believable.

Jesus is both the Son of God and the perfect man, at one and the same time the greatest – and the humblest – person who ever lived. And nowhere is the beauty of his character more fittingly expressed than in these words of invitation he spoke to those who were weary and burdened with the cares of life: “Come to me . . . and I will give you rest. . . . learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart.”

THE MEANING OF HUMILITY

We need to realize that this wonderful promise of Jesus to give rest and peace to those who come to him can only be experienced by people who are willing to join him in an attitude of humility. If you are bound and determined to have it your own way, to make your own rules, to run your own life without interference from God or anybody else, then you will just have to go on carrying your burdens all alone. Only those who are willing to bow and accept the gentle yoke of Christ will receive what he promised. In the city of Bethlehem there is a church, the Church of the Holy Nativity, which marks the spot – so it is claimed – of Jesus’ birth. By all reports it is a place that bears little resemblance to what Jesus’ birthplace must actually have looked like. But the builders of this ancient church did get one detail right. The original door is only four feet high. Unless you are a little child, you can only come to worship Christ by bending low. The only way in is on your knees.

What exactly does it mean to be “humble in heart”? The English word humility comes from the Latin root humus, meaning “soil” or “earth.” The ancients thought of humility as a kind of groveling in the dust, adopting the posture of a slave who had to fall face down on the ground in the presence of his master. The Greeks and the Romans both despised humility, thinking of it as a quality that was unworthy of free and noble men. But God prizes true humility so much that when he became a man, he made it one of his leading attributes. The Bible says that Jesus “made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant . . . and being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death – even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:7-8).

The best way of understanding the meaning of humility is to think of it in terms of relationships. First, with respect to ourselves. Being humble does not mean we have to pretend to be worse than we are, or to deny our gifts, identity or abilities. Jesus himself shows us this. But humility will keep us from having an inflated sense of our own importance. We will learn to practice the scriptural injunction “not to think of ourselves more highly than we ought” (Romans 12:3). Humility will keep us close to the ground and prevent us from becoming haughty or high-minded, conceited, self-absorbed, walking around with our noses in the air.

Second, humility is what we need to practice in relationship with others. Being humble means considering others, as the Bible says, to be more important than we are, putting their needs ahead of our own, loving our neighbors as ourselves rather than looking down upon or scorning other people.

And then most of all humility means having a right relationship with God. We have no claim whatsoever upon God’s goodness or love. We do not approach God from a position of strength or status. Humility causes us to see and remember the gap between what we are and what we ought to be in God’s sight. It makes us “get low” before him, coming to him and asking for his mercy rather than entering God’s presence as though we deserved his favor and attention.

A TALE OF TWO WORSHIPERS

Jesus himself made that point very clear. Characteristically, he did it with a story. One day Jesus told about two men at worship. “ . . . one was a Pharisee and the other a tax collector” (Luke 18:9-14). These two worshipers presented a stark contrast. They came from very different backgrounds, with different reputations, and different attitudes. One entered the temple with a confidence born of many years’ experience. He was comfortable, relaxed, even smug, feeling nothing but satisfaction with his life and his religion. He was a Pharisee, a temple regular. The other man approached the worship very differently. He was nervous and uneasy, as uncomfortable as a Baptist at High Mass. He felt like he didn’t belong there. Maybe he thought he shouldn’t have come at all.

The Pharisee was a fine man who displayed many admirable qualities. He was devout and honest. He wasn’t a hypocrite; he lived his religion. He gave generously to religious causes. He went beyond the demands of the Law even. But there was one thing terribly wrong. For all his virtue and religious behavior, the Pharisee had lost touch with God. Looking at himself, he began to admire what he saw and in his pride he despised those whom he considered beneath him. God can forgive just about anyone except the person who doesn’t think he has anything to be forgiven for.

Then there was this other man, the tax collector. He called himself a “sinner.” This wasn’t false modesty on the man’s part; a sinner is exactly what he was. “Tax collector” says it all. It was a job that attracted only scoundrels and thugs, men who were a cross between an underworld goon and a Nazi collaborator. Tax collectors were the most despised members of society, and with good reason. But there is one great thing about this tax collector: he knows – and confesses – exactly what he is.

These two men offered radically contrasting prayers. The Pharisee prayed about himself. In today’s terms, his prayer went something like this: “Thank you God, that I’m not a drunk, or a thief, or an adulterer. I go to church twice every Sunday. I go to Sunday school. I even go to the midweek service. I’m one of the best givers in the church; I tithe every week, and on top of that, I give monthly to four different charities. Thank you, Lord. I’m just so thankful I’m not like that guy sitting in the back over there, who’s living such a sinful life. Of course, I give you all the glory!” The Pharisee’s effort wasn’t so much a prayer as it was an exercise in self-congratulation.

But the prayer of the tax collector was direct and to the point: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” That’s true humility. He prayed for nothing but mercy because that was all he dared to ask for. And he knew he didn’t even deserve that. Alone with his sin, this man could only cry out and cast himself on the mercy of the Lord. The great Reformer Martin Luther once said that it is the beggars before God who are blessed – and we are all beggars.

GOD RESISTS THE PROUD . . .

So here is one more reason why humility is such a vital quality of an authentically human life. Up front we saw the stunning example of Jesus’ own humble, self-sacrificing service and love. But in addition to that, the Bible also says this: The God who made us hates human pride but loves those who are willing to humble themselves. Those who think highly of themselves will discover one day that the Almighty God does not share their opinion. “God opposes the proud,” wrote the apostle Peter, “but he gives his grace to the humble” (1 Peter 5:5). Think about that. Would you like to have God himself working against you? Or would you rather have God on your side, pleased with you? That’s a pretty powerful incentive to humility.

A while back I noticed a tabloid magazine that carried this headline: “The Spirit of Elvis Helps Fans Get Good Luck, Health and $$$.” The subtitle explained, “How to get ‘the King’ to work for you.” I suspect that for many people, this describes the way they approach religion. Millions of people think the purpose of faith is to get good luck, health and wealth. Prayer is the way you “make the King work for you.” For many religion is a kind of transaction – we behave and God delivers. Our end of the bargain is to be pretty good people, at least better than average. God’s responsibility then is to reward us by giving us blessings, preferably money, comfort and happiness.

Does it really work that way? If you think so, I’m afraid you’re in for a big disappointment. Because, you see, the truth is, we are all just beggars. The best we can do is to humble ourselves before God and ask for nothing but his mercy. The good news is that, if you do that, God will always give it to you.