Sunday, November 2, 2008
The Pride of Humility
Please pray with me:
Father, we ask that you would grant us the wisdom to understand, the courage to face things as they really are and the power to change, Amen.
Martin DeHann said: "Humility is something we should constantly pray for, yet never thank God that we have."(i)
Saint Augustine said: “It was pride that changed angels into devils; it is humility that makes men as angels.”(ii)
Archibald Alexander said: “Humility is to the Christian what ballast is to the ship: it keeps him in his proper position and regulates all his thoughts and feelings.”(iii)
The Lord Jesus was so disappointed with the teachers of the law and the Pharisees. They had been given a really important task. They were supposed to teach and explain God’s laws and commandments and help people as much as possible to live by them. They had been entrusted with the responsibility of teaching, leading and guiding the people in the ways of God, of showing them His love, His grace, His compassion and forgiveness. The reality though was often very different. In looking at yet another encounter that Jesus had with the religious leaders (Matthew 23:1-12), we might be tempted to think that this was all a long time ago in a faraway place and in a culture very different from our own. That may be true, but the warnings and lessons learnt from this Bible passage are startlingly relevant and contemporary.
The Lord Jesus concisely and clearly lists five problems with the religious leaders, all of which could apply equally today:
First of all, they did not practise what they preached. Isaiah put this in a nutshell when he said: “These people come near to me with their mouth and honour me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.” (Isaiah 29:13a). We need to be careful that our faith isn’t just us putting on a good performance of being a Christian, like wearing a mask or making sure that everyone knows about it when we do some act of kindness or charity. The Pharisees loved to tell people how to live but didn’t back that up by living that way themselves. Do we call ourselves a Christian? If so, then how well exactly do we know Jesus and how much does He work in us and through us?
Secondly, the religious leaders were not willing to do what they asked of others. What’s the point of encouraging people to abbey God’s laws if you don’t do it yourself? How we have seen the media revelling in the hypocrisy of famous preachers who have made stands against adultery, homosexuality etc., only to be found to be engaging in the very acts which they condemn! Or how about the religious leader who promotes keeping Sunday special who goes shopping after church or who teaches about the importance of sacrificial giving and only puts pittance into the collection themselves!
The third problem was that the teachers of the law and the Pharisees loved to show off. They wore little leather boxes on their foreheads, which contained verses of scripture – a little strange we might think, but nevertheless a practical way of trying to be constantly reminded of God’s word. However the problem Jesus saw was that they were wearing the Phylacteries to get attention “Oh look how holy and devout I am” they might as well have been saying. I can remember when I was a new Christian and going to Bible studies with my shiny new Bible I used to feel a bit unholy because I would look at some of the other Bibles and marvel at how worn-out they were; the paper covers would be torn, the pages (even the Old Testament) would be all dog-eared and generally they would have a battle-scarred look, like they had come though a few hedges backwards! Wow, I thought, these people must have read their Bibles hundreds of times and probably know the whole thing off by heart by now! Call me cynical, but looking back I can’t help but think that some of those Bibles were deliberately roughed up a bit and were carried proudly around like badges of honour. Nowadays of course my Bible too looks like it’s a hundred years old and been owned by a succession of devout monks, not because I am super-holy, but because as well as reading it, I have dropped it, spilt tea on it, left it on the roof of the car whilst driving off and with the help of two small boys it has been much written on and rummaged through…
The fourth problem was that they revelled in grand titles and they loved to be given much honour at banquets and in the synagogues. This is like the clergy person today who loved to be called “Reverend”, or the medical practitioner who glows when called “Doctor”, or the academic who delights in being called “professor”. What is Jesus’ response to this attitude?
You must not be called ‘Teacher’, because you are all members of one family and have only one Teacher. And you must not call anyone here on earth ‘Father’, because you have only the one Father in heaven. Nor should you be called ‘Leader’, because your one and only leader is the Messiah. The greatest one among you must be your servant. Whoever makes himself great will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be made great. (Matthew 23:8-12 GNB)
The Lord is making it clear that He is in charge. He is our teacher and we are his students – we go to church, we go to Bible studies, home groups etc., to learn from Him. His life is our model, our pattern and our example for the way to live. The Lord is not saying that we should do away with all earthly titles and positions of authority, He is warning against the yearning for rank, of putting ourselves or letting others put us on a pedestal. The attention of Jesus’ followers must not be on human titles and distinctions but on God in Christ, who alone is worthy of all praise, reverence and honour.
There was once a church that realised the importance of humility, so it formed a committee to find the most humble person in the church. Many names were submitted and numerous candidates evaluated. Finally, the committee came to a unanimous decision. They selected a quiet little man who always lived in the background and had never taken credit for his years of devoted service. They awarded him the "Most Humble" badge for his faithful service. However, the next day they had to take the badge away from him because he had pinned it on and was wearing it with pride!(iv)
The fifth problem was that the religious leaders misunderstood the purpose of ministry and service. One of the things that so clearly makes the follower of Jesus different from the norm is the way that greatness is achieved. Rather than putting ourselves first, rather than racing to be at the head of the pack or the top of the pile, we are encouraged to humble ourselves and to seek greatness through service. Success therefore is not measured in terms of wealth, academic achievements, business victories or any other quantifiable asset; it is measured in terms of submission to Christ and of service. The greatest Christian is the one who has learned to be a servant, to have the heart of a servant, the attitude of a servant and the actions of a servant(v). Of course Jesus Himself is the perfect example – He practices what He preaches, he doesn’t ask of us anything that He Himself has not already undertaken and He wants us above all to know, understand and believe that He loves us so much that He humbled Himself upon the cross that we might receive forgiveness, eternal life and freedom, freedom to love and freedom to serve…
(ii) The Complete Gathered Gold, John Blanchard, Evangelical Press, 2006, p.319
(iv) http://www.kentcrockett.com/cgi-bin/illustrations/index.cgi?topic=Humility (adapted)
Michael Green, Matthew for Today, Hodder & Stoughton, 1989.
William Hendriksen, New Testament Commentary - Matthew, Banner of Truth, 1989.