28 August – Humility is not a strategy

View or print as a PDF

Pentecost 12

Philippians 2:1-11
Psalm 131
Luke 14:7-11

In a sentence:
The humble heart does not desire to go anywhere, but to create

The item at the top of the news feeds over the last couple of weeks has been former Prime Minister Morrison’s having been sworn in – secretly – as co-minister of numerous government portfolios. It’s not entirely clear why this has been deemed so important. It was, apparently, done legally, if never previously done. Apart from the welcome political leverage it has given the new Prime Minister, the principal reason we are still hearing about it is perhaps simply – as many have said – that it was a bizarre thing for Morrison to have done. Why he did it has been a matter for speculation in the absence of any good explanation from him, and the less charitable of that speculation has included the charge of a less than humble grasp for power and control.

When citizens are asked to assess their politicians, the word “humble” is not often heard, even if those close to our leaders would speak of them as persons in that way. Humility is a tough sell in a modern democracy. When Jesus said, “…all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted”, he was not offering campaign advice to election hopefuls, particularly those running in marginal seats. We might want our leaders to be gentle and humble of heart, but this is not why we elect them.

What is Jesus saying, then? It sounds like he offers guidelines about how not to make a fool of yourself at a formal gathering by not making a higher claim for yourself than others might think is your right. In fact, he seems to imply, deliberately make a lower claim than you could, so that you might be called higher up by the host.

Of course, the lesson that it is better to be exalted than humiliated is clear enough to us, as is the common sense recognition that if you place yourself at the bottom of the table, there is nowhere to go but up. And we also generally resonate with the concept of humility, especially in contrast with pride. Very rarely do we congratulate somebody for their pride or arrogance, but we often celebrate the humble life.

But there is a problem if we hear Jesus’ teaching to link humility and exaltation such that the way to the top involves an intentional lingering around the bottom. This would be a doublemindedness; humility is now a ruse towards elevation in this life or the reward which comes at the end of life (assuming that that is where God pays out, if not already).

So knotted can this become that we will be unsure of even our own motives. We might think that the humble person is more respected than the arrogant one, which is to be interested not in humility but in the respect it would bring. We might think that humility makes us less noticeable than we might otherwise be, which is to be interested not in humility but in keeping out of the limelight. We might think that humility in possessions or attitude is better for our blood pressure, which is to be interested not in humility but in the length and quality of our life. In each case, humility is but a means to an end, and the end can even be the exact opposite of being humble means.

A clue to unravelling this tangle of God’s call and our motivation in answering it is found less in what Jesus says in this teaching than in what the church has said about Jesus himself. We’ve also heard this morning Paul’s account of the humility of Jesus:

Philippians 2.5 Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
6 who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
7 but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
8 he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.
9 Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
10 so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father. (NRSV)

The humility-reward scheme is still here, but it now has a clearer structure. The exaltation which follows the self-humbling of Jesus is not the end in Jesus’ sight from the beginning; the only goal for Jesus is the obedience and service itself. This is what it means to be “in the form of God”. Nothing else is glimpsed or sought. Humility is not a strategy. To have in us – as Paul proposes – the mind of Jesus, is not to know that our humility will end in exaltation but simply to know ourselves subject to the call from a faithful God: live and love, the essence of humility.

This is very easily said. And it is very easily corrupted by our adding other little bits in a way that can only be said to be self-justifying. And so true humility is rare thing – true attention to God in the need of our human neighbours, for the neighbours’ sake and not for our own. When humility happens, the effect is not that we are rewarded for our actions but a kind of renewal of the world. The exaltation which flows from the humble man or woman is an achievement previously thought impossible in and for others. The humble create what was not there before. Humility, then, is not about upward – or downward – mobility which benefits or diminishes the humble. Humility is an outwardness; this turning-out is the possibility of a renewal of the world from wherever we happen to be. The doubleminded – those who feign humility to some other end – make nothing new but are merely manipulators who move stuff around for their own benefit.

We all, Prime Ministers included, know well enough how to manipulate systems – how to look like we’re doing one thing when we’re really doing something else. We are so good at it that it’s scarcely possible for us anymore to know what truly motivates our actions. This might also apply to Prime Ministers.

But any possible lack of humility in others matters less here and now than what there might be in us of a doubleminded humility. “Am I humble enough?” is not a question about the state of my heart but about the effect of my actions: is the world today a better place – renewed – for what I have said and done? Is my spouse or child or neighbour or colleague more than they would have been, had I not been there?

Take your place at the table, Jesus says. And whether that’s where you stay, or you’re called up higher, grow into humility with hands that do not grasp but which are open to give and create.

In this way become, in your place, a surprise: the creation of something new, and open up some cracks in the old world of grasping and manipulation.