Summary: Jesus shows us that humility comes from strength rather than weakness, from confidence, not insecurity.
Matthew 18: 1-4; “1At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, "Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?" 2He called a little child and had him stand among them. 3And he said: "I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. 4Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”
Matthew 23:11-13 11The greatest among you will be your servant. 12For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.
Jesus’ suggestion that the essence of greatness is humility is not an idea that is easily sold in this day and age. Humility and meekness are not what you would call sexy character traits. Can you imagine Madison avenue selecting a humble person to be the spokesperson for a new car? Who would be attracted to that? Our culture worships success, power, ambition, fame and wealth. Just wouldn’t make sense to see Mother Teresa hawking deodorant, would it? William Bennet edited an enormous tome a few years ago called The Book of Virtues. In it he listed a vast array of virtues such as self-discipline, responsibility, work, perseverance, loyalty, courage, faith, honesty, compassion and friendship. Humility did not make the list. Do we look for humility in our leaders? Do we list humility as a character trait on our resumes? If you claimed to be humble, would you be bragging?
I think humility has a bad wrap because the image in our minds is that of a wimp. Some of you might even remember a comic strip character draw by Harold Webster in the 1920’s. Casper Milquetoast was a mousy, painfully shy little feller, the poster boy of insecure introvert. Or you might think of Barnie Fife the bungling deputy Don Knots played on TV. Not the sorts of fellers the guys or girls looked up to. Meek doormat sort of folks who everybody tried to push around.
I think the Church has contributed to this image of humility as well. “Blessed are the meek” creates the same kind of image. And many of the preachers we grew up listening too emphasized our worthlessness. Of course we are humble. What does a worthless sinner like me have to be proud about? The “Prayer of Humble Access” in the communion liturgy of the Methodist church said: “We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy table…” That’ll make you feel humble, won’t it. That’s not a image of humility which will gather a crowd these days.
There’s another brand of humility that is equally unattractive. Eddie Haskell is the classic TV example of the brown noser who feigns humility. Fake humility was very useful to young Mr. Haskell as he manipulated the Beaver’s parents into believing he was a well mannered responsible fellow who could be trusted. The kids could see right through his kissing up behavior but adults most often fell for it. Not an image of humility to which we would aspire.
One writer wrote: “Humility is often merely feigned submissiveness assumed in order to subject others, an artifice of pride that stoops to conquer, and although pride has a thousand ways of transforming itself it is never so well disguised and able to take people in as when masquerading as humility.”
Of course, the opposite of this fake humility is equally repulsive. There’s a country western song that’s the them song for this kid of guy. “Oh Lord it’s hard to be humble, when you’re perfect in every way.” You might hear this gal say, ““People who think they know everything really bother those of us who do!” Ted Turner seemed to fit this bill when he said, “If I only had a little humility, I’d be perfect.” “A legend in his own mind!” And Laurence Peter explained this person’s approach to humility when he wrote, “Humility is the embarrassment you feel when you tell people how wonderful you are.”
These poor folks are frauds. They don’t really feel important They feel deeply inadequate, so they have to put on the mask of arrogance, and become actors impersonating capable people. They try to substitute power, fame, status, or wealth for genuine feelings of self-worth. Most of them don’t fool anyone but themselves. And so often they sabotage themselves with behaviors that bring them down. How often we read of famous athletes; business tycoons, actors and actresses even presidents and ministers self destructing. Pat Robertson comes to mind for some reason. Like the ancient myth of Icarus, they fly to close to the sun and crash and burn.
That’s probably what Jesus was talking about in our text for today. “For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” The Contemporary English Version puts it this way: “2If you put yourself above others, you will be put down. But if you humble yourself, you will be honored.” And The Message says : “If you puff yourself up, you’ll get the wind knocked out of you. But if you’re content to simply be yourself, your life will count for plenty.”