Lectionary (Year B): Job 38:1-7; Psalm 91:9-16; Hebrews 5:1-10; Mark 10:35-45
Job 38, the start of God’s speech/response to Job, opens with a challenge: “How great are you, Job? Can you do or be what I am?” God points out the limitations/finiteness of human beings, Job included. In the Hebrews passage we are reminded that Jesus was humble – he did “not presume to take” the honor of becoming high priest (5:4); he “did not glorify himself” (5:5); and his life was marked by “reverent submission” (5:7). The request from James and John creates a division among the disciples as everyone thinks they should be the ones honored by sitting most closely to Jesus as Jesus’ top aides. Jesus points out the greatest are those who are servant of all.
And at this point the preacher wants to throw up their hands and say: “But everywhere I look people are saying, ‘Humility is not the answer – what I need to do is learn how to be more assertive.’”
John Dickson, an Australian academic and Presbyterian minister, was part of a research team that asked why the Ancient Greek and Roman world changed its view of humility – humilitas. For a long time in the Ancient World humility was not regarded as a virtue, but by the year 100 CE it was a valued trait and virtue. What had changed? The answer was not so much that Jesus died on the cross, but more that Christians lived their lives following Jesus’ example and their humility – their service to others – transformed the way an entire culture thought about humility. (Below are some quotes from Dickson, including his definition of humility.)
Christians took so seriously the call to humility their lives changed a culture. People outside the church saw the lives of Christians and said – “Wow, they are living a way that is attractive, I want to live that way, I want my children to live that way.” There is something winsome – attractive – about a person who lives life not focused on themselves. There is something compelling about people who live their lives without putting themselves first. Jesus’ life shows us how that works – he is our high priest offering a sacrifice for our sins, living and dying not for himself but for others. (Hebrews 5:8) He thereby draws all people to himself (see John 12:32). In Mark 10, Jesus sets up a contrast between the rulers/tyrants who others think are great and the servant/slaves who are actually the first and the great.
While the preacher may be tempted to apply these truths to political leaders, especially in the month before the US election, the preacher cannot let their congregation remain there. The call to humility is a call for all of us. If the church and individual Christians took this truth to heart anew, might the culture again be changed by the example of ordinary Christians living lives of humility?
“My thesis is simple: The most influential and inspiring people are often marked by humility. True greatness, in other words, frequently goes hand in hand with a virtue that on the face of it, might be thought to curb achievement and mute influence. In fact, I believe it does the opposite.”
John Dickson, Humilitas, p. 19
“Humility is the noble choice to forgo your status, deploy your resources or use your influence for the good of others before yourself. More simply, you could say the humble person is marked by a willingness to hold power in service of others.”
John Dickson, Humilitas, p. 24
“Disciples are those who, although perhaps uncomprehendingly, follow Jesus, and who follow with amazement and fear. They are to do as their master has done. Not only are they, like him, to be servant (or slaves) “of all” (vs. 44), but they are implicated in his suffering and death. Mark undoubtedly shaped this material to serve as instructions for the early church. In our day, it can be fruitfully preached not only to explain in very personal terms the atonement and its cost, but to address the question, “What must we do (or avoid doing) to see that our lives conform to Jesus’ (and the kingdom’s) view of greatness?”” Bonnie Bowman Thurston
“Job has spoken as if his innocence gives him direct access to the mind of God and as if his wisdom earns him an explanation from God. His greatest fault, however, is to presume that his own finite mind can comprehend the infinite mind of God….Notably, God does not condemn him for sin. Instead, God chides him for throwing up a barrage of empty words about a subject beyond his knowledge.” David McKenna
A municipal politician died this past week in the community in which I live. At his funeral a story was told. There had been a waterline break and so the houses in part of the city councilor’s ward were going to be without water for a day. Aware there was a single mother with four children living in that part of his ward, the city councilor and his wife went by the single mother’s place at 10:30 p.m. and picked up laundry, which they washed, dried and folded and returned to the family by 7 a.m. the next morning when it would be needed.
My song is love unknown
O Master let me walk with Thee
Meekness and Majesty (Kendrick)
The Servant King (Kendrick)