On being humble

On being humble

September 1, 2019

          Proverbs 25:6-7, Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16, Luke 14:1, 7-14

On being humble.

          “Oh Lord it is hard to be humble, when you are perfect in every way. I can’t wait to look in the mirror cause I get better looking each day. To know me is to love me….” These words of course come from Mac Davies’ song that became an international hit in 1980. You all know about the person who said that he received a medal for humility but then wore it and they took the medal away.

          The author CS Lewis said that being humble doesn’t mean to think less of yourself, it means to think of yourself less.  To think of yourself less. Now psychologists have shown that there is a reason why our brains should be selfish. From a basic evolutionary sense, the individual’s first order of business under ordinary circumstances is to preserve the individual.

           Sigmund Freud in 1909 called this “primary narcissism,” an essential tendency to be self-centered. This is present from the earliest stages of life. It has to do with the instinct of self-preservation. Later in life, however, the primary focus on oneself remains crucial to basic survival, but social relations become more nuanced and interactive with self-referential processing. Freud goes on to suggest that in illness one’s focus on others is turned back upon oneself in the form of “secondary narcissism,” resulting in power lust and the inability to properly empathize and form relationships with other people.

          Another study shows that when self-referential thinking or processing becomes a repetitive and distressful form of thinking it can be symptomatic of depression. Thinking too much of oneself is necessary for survival but it can also be a problem, diminishing life and joy. Repetitive self-referential thinking is therefor in a sense the opposite of being humble. It is when I think that the entire universe revolves around me. So once again the Bible addresses an issue that can be destructive and in fact can diminish the quality of life.

          “Do not put yourself forward in the king’s presence or stand in the place of the great for it is better to be told, “Come up here,” than to be put lower in the presence of a noble.

          The Book of Proverbs is a very practical book. The Book of Proverbs is one of seven books of what is known as wisdom literature. Proverbs of course is attributed to the wise king Solomon even though it is generally accepted that he did not write all of it. It is a practical book with the main purpose to instruct young people to live wise lives and to make the right decisions. The Book of Proverbs affirms God as Creator of the universe who made everything in and with wisdom! The book is unique in the Old Testament because the way it speaks about God is universal. In other words, The God of Proverbs is not exclusively the God of Abraham or the One who liberated Israel from Egypt. The wise person does not see the world divided in Jews, Greeks, Syrians, or Edomites. The wise person sees ha-adami’m, people, or Adam, human being. Let me remind you that the word for human being, Adam is of course the word used in the Genesis story of Adam and Eve. Another important distinction is that the book of proverbs focuses on the individual and not as the other OT book on the collective people of Israel. The book furthermore wants to instruct individuals to live right, to be wise and to figure out life. Why? Life is complex, life presents us with many choices: some or are good and leads to a full life. Others are foolish which lead to destruction and diminished lives.

          I wish he had more time to focus on the book of Proverbs for its wisdom is almost unlimited. But let me just point out a few guidelines on how people according to the Book of Proverbs make wise decisions: Wise people, sees God as the creator of the universe, they see humanity consisting of people, human beings and not Jews, Greeks etc. They know that life is complex and life is not always easy to figure out. So easy answers to life’s complicated questions are not always wise answers.

          And then, the Book also warns about being arrogant. Wise people know their place in the creation and they don’t promote themselves at all costs. When you do that there is a good chance that you may experience humiliation: “Do not put yourself forward in the king’s presence or stand in the place of the great for it is better to be told, “Come up here,” than to be put lower in the presence of a noble.

          In the ancient world place and ranking were very important. Depending on your position in the community there would be a specific place for you at meetings, meals, weddings and other public gatherings. A wise approach back then would be to seat yourself where the host or MC would personally invite you to a more important place. That would be a public honor. On the contrary, if you would take a seat that was above your ranking you would be publicly embarrassed by being asked to move to a less important place. This proverb was generally known in the ancient world as we find it in Egyptian literature as well. The bottom line of course is that someone who takes a more important seat thinks of himself too highly. He would be seen as arrogant and not humble. In the word of Proverbs 16:18: “Pride goes before destruction and a haughty spirit before a fall.”  OT scholar McKane writes: “A man should not parade himself ostentatiously before the king on some formal court occasion or otherwise be guilty of bumptious behavior, giving himself airs and representing himself to have a dignity and rank which are not in fact generally accorded to him. Nor should he stake his claim to precedence in the ranks of the notables, for nothing damages esteem and reputation more than to outreach the limits of one’s dignity and to suffer a rebuff to which no rejoinder can be made. The person who is demoted suffers a grievous loss of face.

          This is the wisdom that Jesus picks up in his parable in Luke 14. Jesus affirms the wisdom of the Book of Proverbs. “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you.  For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

           Jesus connects with the view that one should not think of oneself too often or too much. One should be humble. This is not a new thought and Jesus later on would personify humility. The Apostle Paul in Philippians 2 explains Jesus’ humility: “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourself.  Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.  Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross. Therefore, God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, 

so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus is the Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

Jesus’s humility is the reason why his followers should be humble, In Colossians 3:12 we read:

As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.”

          Following Christ is therefore a call to be humble. Arrogance is not what God wants of God’s people. “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.  He said also to the one who had invited him, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or our brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid.  But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous..”  In the words of the renowned scholar Eduard Schweizer Jesus wants to free his listeners from the need to always advance their own cause and come out on top or to count the profit. Not to have to impress others with our talk or with our silence, with our accomplishments or our social status, not to have to think: “someday they could also do something for me”. But to be unconditionally generous- that would set us free to lead truly human lives.  So, Luke’s Jesus is proclaiming the same truth as the Book of Proverbs!

          However, Jesus, as he often does, brings in another, deeper theological perspective to the table. You see, Jesus himself is the guest, dependent on the invitations from others, and at one with all who are in the same position. He frees us from the need always to be first, to compare ourselves with others and define our own value on that basis, and makes us people in whose company others can find happiness.

          At the same time, Jesus is also the host, who invites the outsiders and the unimportant, the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind, and gives freedom for a meaningful life on behalf of others. Jesus calls those blessed who give without expecting anything in return. That is true generosity.

          And Luke’s Gospel shows that this is exactly what Jesus did in his person: He gave his life for those who neither deserve it nor can repay it. Jesus embodies true and divine generosity. His life shows what it means to give without holding back. And his Disciples are called to follow his example!

          On this Sunday, I am convinced that God’s Word is calling us to be humble. Not to think less of ourselves, but to think of ourselves less. Thinking too much of oneself is necessary for survival but it can also be a problem and can diminish life and joy. The book of Proverbs warns about being too self-absorbed and too important in our own eyes. Jesus connects the wisdom of Proverbs with a call to focus on others, outsiders and the unimportant, the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. Being unconditionally generous to those who cannot repay shows that one is humble. Both the Book of Proverbs and Luke’s Gospel agree, such an approach brings joy, purpose and meaning to life. Amen