I remind you that I need and want your prayers as I venture to speak in the name of God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
This has been a difficult sermon to write and like every sermon it still needs improve-ment. How does one talk about humility without sounding pretentious and arrogant? Or write about something that is not a static state but a dynamic activity? I’ll say more about that later. Meanwhile, on a happier note it’s good that there is no need for a sermon title in our bulletin because I’ve never had a gift for writing snappy sermon titles. Years ago the propers were the same as today’s when I was invited to be a guest preacher and asked to supply a ser-mon title for the bulletin. Eventually and very reluctantly I submitted a title that I thought was a clever caricature and titled that sermon “Humility and How I Achieved It”. I was naively confi-dent the congregation would see the humor in it. But they didn’t.
So here are today’s counter-cultural propers. Look again at Jeremiah’s opening comment on sin (2:4). “What wrong did your ancestors find in me that changed them into fools who wor-ship idols?” he asked. Then Proverbs says ‘do not put yourself forward – it’s better to wait for an invitation than to be sent back to the end of the line in public disgrace’. And Hebrews tells us the nature of love limits and binds our commitments, so we are not to love things but other persons and be hospitable to strangers because devotion to things like money and power contaminate and compromise our participation in a community of persons. Luke’s Jesus says finally that honor comes not from one’s own self-seeking but from the honors that others bestow. A simplistic take on these verses may think they look like prudential advice from Miss Manners or Emily Post about how to behave at a dinner party so as to avoid embarrassment – but this is a parable and Jesus is not talking about table etiquette. Instead, he is characterizing the kingdom of God, the Messianic banquet, and our humble relationship with God. Most theologians and biblical scho-lars agree that pride was not created by God for human beings. It is not God’s doing but our ori-ginal sin to be confident in our own strength, to be proud, assert our own willfulness, and turn away from the Lord. So our readings point out the dangers of haughtiness and arrogance and the virtues of humility and meekness.
The word itself is interesting and instructive. Webster offers several definitions of humi-lity – from not proud or haughty, to expressing deference or submission, to ranking low in a hier-archy – and all of these meanings occur in our colloquial speech as passive nouns or adjectives. Our English word is from the Latin humilis which literally means ‘low’ and itself derives from humus, the word for earth. But while being ranked low may connote a state of being, the Greek word for humility is tapeinoo which means ‘to make low’. It’s an active verb that occurs 18 times in the NT as descriptive of fitting conduct before God. Think for example of John the Bap-tist’s challenge to his listeners to prepare for God’s coming salvation by preparing the way of the Lord and making his paths straight. So humility in the NT is not about who you are but how you do in your relation to God.
Neither is humility a passive noun when Luke’s Jesus says “for everyone who exalts him-self will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted”. This sentence occurs in both Luke (14:11) and Matthew (23:12) where humility is a deliberate response to God’s salvific activity. Like the publican in Luke 18:14, it sets us in a right relation to God. Nor is it a passive noun in James (4:10) or 1 Peter (5:6) where Christians are exhorted to humble themselves so that God may exalt them. So a biblical understanding of humility is very different from Webster’s definition and its Latin root. At its core is being in right relationship with God. It’s not about who we are but how we do.
So it’s a mistake to make humility in the NT sound like only a passive virtue when, in fact, there is a very active dimension to it. A student interrupted a lecture to challenge me: “The Bible says ‘blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth’ – but that isn’t true. It’s not the humble, modest, self-deprecating people who will inherit the earth – but aggressive people – en-terprising go-getters who will amass fortunes and have control over our economic and political destinies.” I agreed that he represented the presiding American view that humility is only a pas-sive virtue and recommended he learn Greek. And then I reminded him that the Greek word, praus [πρα_ς], that is translated ‘meek’ in the Bible, while literally meaning kind or gentle, was often used to describe a horse that had been domesticated. A horse that had been tamed – ‘brok-en’ as we say – who had learned to be controlled by and take orders from another. They were praus – tamed, broken to pull wagons and battle-chariots – or to be ridden by soldiers into war – or help farmer by pulling plows in fields. But they were hardly what we would colloquially call meek. They demonstrated the active dimension of humility – about power under control. In this case it’s the power of a great horse that is under the control of its rider or driver. So humility in this beatitude is a two-sided concept. It is certainly the absence of pride and arrogance that are hate-ful to both God and human beings – but it is also the submission of one’s life to the control of another. I might say parenthetically that among all sorts and condition of people, wives and husbands may be best equipped to learn the double-sided virtue of being strong enough to submit to another.
The setting of today’s story is the social matrix of Jesus’ time which rewards the ‘haves’ and disadvantages the ‘have nots’. And humility is not a passive noun when he tells about a time when he had been invited to a Sabbath meal in the house of a leading Pharisee. Giving priority to distinguished guests was customary in Greco-Roman society – and meals particularly high-lighted social and political disparities – so humility is very rarely a virtue in Greco-Roman cul-ture. Observing the seating arrangement, Jesus doesn’t excoriate his host but instead exhorts his listeners to pursue humility and discourages them seeking the most prestigious seat at table to avoid the embarrassment and humiliation of being displaced by someone more prominent. Later in vv. 12-14 we hear a more counter-cultural message that speaks to the status structure of his world when he tells his host that he should stop inviting only those who can reciprocate his pa-tronage. “Don’t invite friends, brothers, relatives, and rich neighbors. For they will return the invitation. Instead, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.” And he adds this eschatological note: “At the resurrection of the godly, God will reward you for inviting those who can’t repay you”.
It was my good fortune to know the distinguished English scientist and author, C. P. Snow – and I became an ardent advocate of the thesis in his little book The Two Cultures. In the mid 19th-century it was an astonishing and simple thesis – namely, that the sciences and the hu-manities had for too long pursued their idiosyncratic interests, as it were, on parallel tracks that never intersected. But the problems of the 20th and succeeding centuries are much too great for eith-er discipline to solve independently. What is needed therefore is much more conversation and co-operation between them. My sense is that this point-of-view is still too little embraced by both sides. But that doesn’t deter me. I had the uncommon privilege of teaching students from all 3 of Duke’s professional schools – medicine, law, and divinity – and I offered them that model of indisciplinary and inter-professional collaboration for service and success in their chosen vo-cations. A law student told us that there are still many antiquated laws on the books because state legislators haven’t taken the trouble to rescind them. She said it was illegal to take a lion to the movies in Baltimore – that it was illegal for anyone to give a cigar to cats, dogs, or other do-mesticated animals in Zion, Illinois, and that a special law in Florida prohibited unmarried wo-men from parachuting on Sundays. She said in NC it is still against the law to sing off key and to use elephants to plow cotton fields.
Much like antiquated state laws today’s lections sound very much unlike the conventional wisdom of a contemporary culture that derives from a philosophi-cal tradition that originated with Aristotle. Unlike Aristotle, however, the modern version says little about service but urges each of us to affirm a sense of our own worth and accomplishment – a “proper pride” we some-times call it. We are regularly reminded of the predicates for a sense of self-worth, psychological good health, and social survival in today’s culture. ‘Nobody else will love you if you don’t love yourself’, and ‘nobody will respect you if you don’t respect yourself’.
The ‘prosperity gospel’ and self-realization psychologies offer us more of the same. Hu-mility and sacrifice are merely means to an end that is immediate and tangible rewards. Surely you’ve heard the witnesses. “I gave God $100 and got back $1000 in return” or “We believe in Jesus and go to church and, thank-you-Jesus, Billy plays quarterback and Mary got a full scho-larship.” But the wisdom I read in the Bible does not reinforce or validate the prosperity gospel and self-realization psychologies. Dignity, honor, respect – none of these are self-generated and self-authenticated. Jesus’ says that we are not our own – that we have been bought with a great price – that nothing of ourselves is ever wholly ours or of our own doing. So we neither are nor need not be self-contained, strong persons who have total control over our lives because the gos-pel says that everything is from God.
With the recent Olympic games over and college football about to begin I’ve been re-minded that there is a fine line in sports between arrogance and confidence. One we deplore, the other we applaud. An athlete must be confident that he or she has the capacity to perform at a certain level but not so arrogant as to attempt something for which he or she has neither the training nor the talent. You may remember Joseph Heller’s 1961 book, Catch-22. Heller himself had been a bombardier in the Mediterranean during WWII and the story he tells is a tongue-in-cheek novel about his experiences in the Army Air Corps. In the book, Yossarian is a bombardier on a B-25 who wants to be excused from flight duty because it is dangerous. But the only way he can avoid flying is to be diagnosed as insane by the flight surgeon. The flight surgeon knows full well that no sane person would want to fly combat missions – so by asking to be excused from flying, Yossarian has plain-ly demonstrated that he is, in fact, sane – and thereby fit to fly. Heller called this situation ‘catch-22′ – a paradox in which Yossarian is a victim, whichever choice he makes. ‘Damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t.’
The rational basis for ‘catch-22′ is that sanity is prerequisite for determining insanity. So when you’ve applied for a job and told that you can’t get the job without experience, and you say that you can’t get the experience without a job, that’s ‘catch 22.’ My personal experience is that this situation is actually less a paradox than illustrative of the tragic dimension of human life in which all our choices are contingent and limited. So despite apparently sound reasoning from true premises, so-called paradoxes of this sort lead to a self‑contradictory and logically unaccept-able conclusions. Would a ship repaired over time by replacing each of its wooden parts remain the same ship? I don’t think so. If ‘catch-22′ were really a paradox it could not be used as an warrant for ambiguous choices. So when Heller calls Yossarian a ‘victim’ he is simply acknow-ledging that our choices are always contingent. What he doesn’t acknowledge is that we are re-sponsible for both the negative as well as the positive judgments that accompany our choices.
If pride, as it’s said to be, is the deadliest of the ‘7 deadly sins’, haughty, stiff-necked hubris is an almost certain recipe for disaster. In today’s readings, Jesus came to expose and challenge the conventional wisdom of ‘you first, right after me’ and a reminder of Micah’s coun-sel that we should walk humbly with God. He suggested that humility is not descriptive of one’s static state but a journey toward right relationship with God – a migration that has more to do with how we do than who we are. He himself embraced the very lowest place, was perceived as a common criminal, and was hanged on a cross. But he was also praus – gentle and strong enough to submit himself to the Father – and his gift to us is that confidence and humility are not mutually exclusive – so that we, too, should be both gentle and strong. Have you ever known anyone like that? Perhaps a good friend? Perhaps a parent? Perhaps Jesus? That would be good news. Thanks be to God.
Rev. Harmon Smith, Ph. D.
Emeritus Professor of Ethics, Duke University
Harmon Smith is an Episcopal Priest, Emeritus Professor of Ethics, and an avid golfer.