In my earliest years I attended a parochial school. I remember second grade distinctly because the “character theme” one month was humility. At the end of that month, in an assembly before the entire school, I was named the winner of the “Humility Award,” but they took it away from me because I actually accepted the award!
OK, perhaps the story is not true, but it does illustrate the conflicting ideas Christians entertain regarding what it means to be humble. Where do we get our ideas about humility? If God “gives grace to the humble,” how can I eagerly pursue his best for me without falling into mere self-interest?
This blog draws its identity from the words of Jesus in Matthew 11: 25 - 30. These words point to an important revelation: Jesus invites anyone who would follow him to come under his instruction and learn his way of life. Surprisingly, his first reason for calling us to follow him is that he is “gentle and humble in heart.” Even as he offers the benefit of rest, he highlights his own personality--a gentle and humble man. The Teacher does not want to impart merely information, at least not first and foremost. His first lessons are his very own attributes--gentleness and humility. It is a bold offer to follow him, and perhaps the boldest aspect of this offer is the unimaginable possibility that we can learn to become like him.
Jesus uses the image of a yoke. This image was common enough in his day: A yoke is a large collar which places the strength of an ox or horse at the disposal of someone else. We are the ones placing our strength at his disposal. He will not conquer us, we must bow before him as a matter of choice. The path to becoming like Jesus starts with his invitation, “Come to me;” and after he speaks we can choose to accept that invitation by only one method: to humble ourselves.
In fact, on four separate occasions Jesus employs this phrase: “the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” These passages are not simply repetition caused by the gospels re-telling the same story--each passage is unique (Matt. 18:4, Matt. 23:12, Luke 14:11, and Luke 18:14). Four times Jesus lays out the challenge: humble yourself. But how?
If you have time this week, I invite you to read each passage and meditate on each setting. I would like to suggest that each passage teaches us the “how to” of humility:
Matthew 18: 1 - 4. Lay aside dreams of greatness and embrace dreams of dependency. This is the highway of the Kingdom of Heaven. Jesus said that among men there was none greater than John the Baptist, yet the person who was “least” in the Kingdom of Heaven was greater than John. Living in the Kingdom requires God’s intervention every day. We cannot “make the Kingdom happen,” we can only proclaim that the Kingdom of Heaven is breaking in, and then depend on Him to invade the ordinary with his presence and power.
Matthew 23: 1 - 12. Lay aside the thrill of recognition and find the joy of serving. If we are honest we will recognize ourselves in the people Jesus describes--those who strive for recognition by the way they dress, or where they park, or by the titles they hold. It is thrilling to be noticed, to be selected from among the crowd for recognition. Meanwhile the servants come and go in the midst of all the clamor, quietly attending to the Master’s business. But in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus reveals that the Father is the one who “sees in secret.”
Luke 14: 7 - 14. Lay aside the thirst for honor from others and seek to honor others instead. In fact Jesus tells us to honor those who cannot repay us. True, there is a time of reckoning and a place to receive repayment, but it is not here and now; it is later. Can we delay gratification or does our thirst drive us to be satisfied now?
Luke 18: 9 - 14. Lay aside self assessment and depend on God’s mercy. Jesus draws a picture of two men at prayer. The first begins with “thanks” but quickly tallies up the score of the game he has been playing. He has been keeping score all along and reminds God that he is the winner. The other man starts with God's mercy instead of self assessment. Score-keeping (and judgment) belong to God. Let’s be careful. If we have a measuring stick, we will eventually be asked to stand next to it!
These four passages are the very words of Jesus. Later his disciples would encourage all followers of Jesus to stand in the grace which comes to us as we choose to humble ourselves. It’s how we take the yoke. It’s how we position ourselves to learn from him.