Pentecost 18

So, I had a friend while growing up named Steve (names have been changed to protect the innocent).  When we were teenagers, Steve’s family left the Episcopal Church and started going to an offshoot of a California outfit called Calvary Chapel.  Calvary Chapels were non-denominational and very conservative, not to mention very Pentecostal and Calvinist.  Anyway, Steve and his family joined Calvary in the midst of a long series of sermons on humility, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but when I would see Steve during that time, he would talk incessantly about his humility – he would brag about just how humble he was.  I think Steve, in his youthful fervor, missed the point.  Steve also gave mini-New Testaments as tips in diners, so this was not the only point he missed.

Humility is not a new concept in religion, of course, and neither is the concept of missing the point.  Both concepts are on full display in today’s Gospel story.

In the Gospel Reading, Jesus rebukes his disciples for arguing about who among them was first and greatest.  But how do we suppose their argument went?  As Eleonore Stump taught, there are two possibilities:

First Possibility:  Each disciple was saying, “I am the greatest!” while the others were saying, “Oh no, you’re not!  I am!”

Second Possibility:  Each disciple was saying to one of the others, “You are the greatest among us!,” and that person was saying, “Oh no, I’m not.  You are!”

“On the First Possibility, each disciple is trying to put himself ahead of all the others.  On the Second Possibility, each disciple is trying to be small by putting some other disciple ahead of himself.

“We are naturally inclined to think that the right possibility must be the first one.  That is because Jesus rebukes the disciples, and we unreflectively suppose that Jesus wouldn’t want to rebuke them if each one was trying to be small.

But notice that if we adopt the first possibility, then Jesus’ rebuke doesn’t make sense.  On the first possibility, what is wrong with the disciples is that each one is trying to be first.  And so Jesus should rebuke them for trying to be first.

But that is not what Jesus rebukes the disciples for.  On the contrary, Jesus gives the disciples a short instruction manual for how to get to be first.  If you want to be first, he tells them, you have to be the servant of all.  Would Jesus have explained to them how to get to be first if he thought that trying to be first was wrong?

“So the Second Possibility is (probably) the right one.  Each disciple was trying to be small in order to seem humble.  But there is no true humility in trying to be small.”[1]

True humility, Christian humility, is something else entirely.  As C.S. Lewis put it, “Humility is not thinking less of yourself, it is thinking of yourself less.”  But thinking of yourself less is not only difficult, but increasingly difficult.  I’m not one to harp on social media – I think Facebook and its sisters are some of the most remarkable tools ever developed – but I think we have to admit that most people, maybe even some of us on occasion, use it not to see how other people are doing but rather to see what other people think of us.

So again, “Humility is not thinking less of yourself, it is thinking of yourself less.”  “We discover that from the Greek word Jesus and the apostles used, tapeinos, which conveys the idea of having a right view of ourselves before God and others.  If pride is an exalted sense of who we are in relation to God and others, humility is having a realistic sense of who we are before God and others.  We must not think too highly (or too lowly) of ourselves.  Rather, we must be honest and realistic about who and what we are.”[2]

Last week I told you to go out and do great things for God without worrying about saying or doing the wrong thing.  This week I’m saying to go out and be the greatest you for God, the greatest humble servant of everyone, and pray that none of us miss the point.


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