I love musicals and one of my all time favorites is Lerner and Lowe’s, Camelot. The evilModred sings a song in the play about “The Seven Deadly Virtues,” one of which is humility.He sings, “I find humility means to be hurt; it’s not the earth the meek inherit but the dirt.”Those words pretty much sum up our societal opinion of humility. Humility is something tobe valued, but only in the abstract, not in what we might call the functional, real world. Competence and aggressiveness are the components of success, and few points are awarded for humility.
Which brings us to this famous saying of Jesus: “Some who are last will be first and some who are first will be last.” It is interesting to note that in this newest translation, Revised Standard Version of the Bible, we have changed this verse to read “some.” It used to be much more direct: “those who are last will be first and those who are first will be last.” Either translation from the Greek is possible, but clearly we have grown uncomfortable with the inclusiveness of all the “those” and we have changed it to “some”. No one knows which way Jesus might have said it, but for almost two centuries it was read as “those,” meaning that if you live your life so your rewards are garnered on earth, you miss something very important about life.
Humility is no longer viewed as an essential Christian virtue. Few parents tell their children to be humble; rather we teach our children to speak up and to join the “me first” generation. Then we are appalled at what we have produced. It simply isn’t practical to be humble in our world. We are taught that what others think about us is more important than what we think of ourselves. We grow to know the value of the old adage: “If you want to get ahead, you have to blow your own horn.”
Humility, when it is taken seriously, is often confused with the idea of polite self-deprecation: for instance, saying that you are not much of a tennis player, when you’ve just won the U.S. Open; or saying you are not a very good parent, when you know perfectly well that you are; or saying that someone else knows more about the subject, when you consider yourself an expert. All of this is false humility. It is self-promotion through manipulation. In fact, we are even apt to feel a little proud of feeling confident enough to say we aren’t very good at this or that. It is a form of low comedy, whether conscious or unconscious.
Do you know about the man who was so humble, and he was happy that he was humble, and he was sorry that he was happy that he was humble, and he was so happy that he was sorry that he was happy? This kind of convoluted confusion is what led Martin Luther to believe in the forgiveness of sins because there was no way to get out of our self-centeredness by ourselves.
Jesus is most concerned about those who are last and those who see themselves as last. It runs all through his ministry and it ought to give us pause. It is difficult when you are educated, wealthy, comfortable, and enjoying life to not think that you deserve all your blessings and that you are better off because you are better than those who have less.
Most of us are taught at an early age to strive to be number one, to be the best you can be. And at one level that is sound advice, until being the best you can be becomes your formula for life. God is not interested in your resume, your bank accounts, or your adolations. God is interested in your heart and how you reach out in love to others, especially those whom you might think are beneath you. In God’s eyes there is no difference between a person sitting in church at St. James’s and a person sitting down to eat at Freedom House. Yet that is one of the hardest things to get good Episcopalians to believe.
God counts the real in your Spiritual life, not your tangible assets. Jesus’s hard sayings in the Bible are intended to strike into the heart of our humanness. Jesus is desperately trying to get us to recognize that it is possible to be human and holy at the same time. The measuring up we try to do, the manipulating of others to get them to think we are more than we are, the impetus to self-promotion is carried out at the expense of our inner souls. The basic difference between Jesus and you and me, is that Jesus takes the soul more seriously than he takes the tangible, real world. For him the spiritual world is more real than the outer world of our five senses. It is to this spiritual world that Jesus tries to draw us time and time again, a world that remains suspect to most of us, and whose real value to our lives is questionable.
There are actually two reasons why we find it difficult to believe in the inner reality of our spiritual world. One is that we do not have an understanding of life that allows room for an inner world; and secondly, we are not very good at perceiving this inner world. We are used to believing in what we can see and measure. Anything that cannot be explained by our rational minds is not accorded much reality or value. So when we hear Jesus talking about our relationship to God, or saying things like “the last shall be first,” we don’t believe it. It’s a bit like reading Shakespeare because it sounds good, but it really is from a different world than we know and inhabit.
The world of spiritual intuition, of connections that are unseen, of dreams, of healing, of spiritual energy just cannot be real to us. Part of this mind set is our consistent need for control. We can control what we can explain; it is what we cannot explain that makes us feel small and vulnerable. Nevertheless, for our inner worlds of connection to God to exist, the first thing we must do is relinquish this need to control.
Two social psychologists, named Postman and Brunner, did a study at Harvard some years ago called the “Red Six of Spades Study.” They were interested in cognitive learning. It was a simple experiment. They took a six of spades and painted it red. Then they showed the deck of cards to 400 people. They wanted to see what percentage of people would pick out the red six when asked what’s wrong with this deck of cards. How many people out of the 400 do you think saw it? Zero!
They concluded that, far more than we imagine, we see what we think we are going to see. Our presuppositions narrow our frame of reference and our ability to see. In our spiritual life as well as in our conscious life, it becomes important how we are able to allow ourselves the freedom to see what is really there rather than what we expect to be there.
An artist once said that the first thing his teacher taught him was that, if he wanted to paint a tree, he had to go out and see a specific tree. He had to learn how to see what he was seeing. Most people think they know what a tree looks like and fit every tree into that presupposition which takes it away from reality. We do as much perceiving by what we think we will see as by what we actually see.
Because we are taught so much to be concerned with how others see us, we minimize the necessity of how we see ourselves. Nothing that Jesus teaches us separates the outer world from the inner world. We are not to be one way in public and another in private. We are indeed to be real, to be wholly ourselves.
Humbleness is not acting as if you had no value, nor is it some type of
pseudo-self-deprecation. It is just the opposite. It is the sure and certain knowledge that you have immense value and worth to God. The whole Christian story is the story of God interceding because of God’s great love for you and me. Jesus dies so that we might see life as it really is. Life lived in relationship to each other formed in a covenant with God.
Jesus is not simply warning us against self-promotion, but trying to help us understand that the inner life produces a person rich in the security of God’s love, so that nothing we encounter in this life can be stronger than that bond with God. It is a deep security in the reality of our personal worth to God. The Christian life is a beacon to a world filled with self-doubt about its own worth and reality. Not only are we valuable to God, we have a reason for living. Our purpose is not found in our status, in our self-esteem drawn from the affirmations of others, but from the opportunity be part of Jesus. Our success is already assured. Once a person begins to understand their very being, their self-worth in relation to Jesus, a huge burden is lifted. It is not so much that we care not about what others think about us, as it is to say we are not dependent upon what others think about us. We are able to care more about them than worry how they see us.
When we notice the red six of spades in the deck, we begin to see the self-worth in others that they fail to see in themselves. We see in the poor and imperfect the soul of Jesus. We reach for love deep in someone’s meanness. We try to draw out of others the love we know God has put there, even if they cannot feel it or see it for themselves. We stop merely socializing with those who are like us or can help our careers. And we begin to meet each other not in the unreality of our outer worlds – the world of what we do and own – but in the inner world – the world of who we are and what we love. It produces the most genuine affection for others that we are capable of feeling.
To see the inner world in another is not to judge them by their status, or their dress, or their performance, but to meet them on a level of humanness that is at the level where Jesus seeks to love us. We are not judged by the standards of this world, but we are related to each other by a different standard made known to us in Jesus Christ. In Camelot, Modred ruins the nobility of the roundtable because he fails to see the nobility of his own humanity, his own need for virtue.
The foundation of Christian virtue is not based on the whims of society, but upon the rock of love in Jesus Christ. Jesus doesn’t change. He doesn’t decide that yesterday he was your friend, and today there is someone else more important. He doesn’t decide to love you based on your goodness, or by what you have accomplished or done. Jesus purely wants your heart to be his. And his love stays there for you and me yesterday, today, and tomorrow.
Let us pray:
O God, pardon us together and singly:
If we are sunshine soldiers,
weatherwise our souls that we may serve You in any season.
If we are enamored with ourselves,
impress upon us the need for Your Grace.
If we have lost You in a changing world that will not stand still, help us to know You again
as the same from age to age,
a faithful God who keeps promises.
Ask, O God, and we will give ourselves to You
Knock and we will open ourselves to You
For you are our light and our salvation
And we have no life save the life we have in You.
Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen
– – – – – – – – – – – – – –
O God, the hope of all who seek You and the joy of all who find You move in our hearts
Some of us are low and need to be lifted up.
Some of us are high and need to be deflated.
Some of us are angry with the world.
Some of us are not angry enough.
Some of us are certain about too much.
Some of us are certain about too little.
You know us, everyone, for what we are and what we might be. Bless us each, with that which we most need, to the end that we might serve You better from now on. Through Jesus Christ Our Lord. Amen.