Disciple: A Call to Humility


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Humility. What comes to mind when you hear that word? I had a friend who, when he first introduced himself, said “Hi, my name is Barry and I’m very humble.” You couldn’t do anything but laugh at that—not laugh at him because Barry was humble despite being very accomplished, winning a national award for the quality of his research in applied physics, or something.

Humility is a rare quality and when we see it in someone we know there’s a strength in it. We marvel that a truly humble person never has to get attention for it.

I have known truly humble persons. I have shared stories of two men: Mr. Beazley and James Houston, so different in many ways. One, an illiterate man who learned to read in order to read the Bible; the other, an Oxford professor who’s friends included C.S. Lewis. One who travelled the prairies in the depression; the other travelled the world with influence. But both these men had a profound influence on me, not for what they intended to teach, but by their deep humility. They loved Jesus and allowed Jesus to shape their character to be more like Him.

I suppose their humility stood in opposition to my natural arrogance, the kind of pride I have, to live independently from God. And I suppose I marvel at their humility all the more as I’ve aged, since I can see clearer now the essential beauty of Christ’s own humility and our groundedness to Him. After all, the word “humble” and the word “humus” share the same root idea of being in the soil.

 

As we have been going through Matthew’s account of Jesus’ life we have seen that Jesus’ teaching is becoming increasingly more urgent, for He is calling us to be Disciples. Today as we look at the first part of Matthew 23 we will find that to be a disciple of Jesus is to be called to humility, called to be just like Jesus.

Whatever else I might say, or you might get out this encounter with Jesus, let it be known: humility must mark us as disciples of Jesus, humility is the life long lesson of our spiritual formation. As we grow in Christ we are humbled but not diminished.

“Humble” is how Jesus describes Himself in Matthew 11:29: “Come to me […] place my yoke on you and learn from me, because I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls […]” Who says that? Who can get away with saying “take my yoke on you for I am humble”? To say that is to put a huge target on your back because people will be waiting to watch you fail. Humble?! Prove it. Not only that, prove it over and over again. Prove it? How? Surely the proof is providing no proof to the contrary, isn’t it?

If Jesus was not humble, do you really think His disciples would keep up the facade? I don’t think so. Jesus’ followers routinely noticed His humility, from His humble birth to His humiliating death—humility marked Jesus’ life.

Humility was so much part of Jesus that it is captured in one of the earliest hymns of the ancient church (Philippians 2:6-8): “[…] though Jesus was in the form of God, He did not count equality with God a thing to be entitled to, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”

Did you hear that? Not entitled; emptied; taking the form of a servant; taking the form of our likeness, which is the mystery of being created in the likeness of God; humbled further by being obedient to death, even the most ignoble death possible: crucifixion.

 

All this is a prelude to the text we are looking at today, Matthew 23:1-12. But let me begin at the end of this section, because I believe everything Jesus says here is to get us to understand this: “The greatest among you will be your servant. For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Let’s look at the text leading up to verses 11 and 12. How I am going to approach each section in this passage – is to read a portion and draw some observations about what it means to be humble. I invite you to do the same.

Last week Tammy taught from the last half of Matthew 22. You might remember that she encouraged us to “not miss the moment”, the moment of the revelation of Jesus as Lord. Now as we enter Matthew 23, Jesus simply shifts from talking with the Pharisees to talking to the crowds and His disciples, but we get the sense that the Pharisees are still there listening, it’s pretty provocative:

Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples: “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.

“Moses’ seat” is an expression to describe the fact that the Pharisees were the major proponents or gatekeepers of the Laws of Moses. They took their jobs seriously. To “sit” was to be in the posture of a teacher, and Jesus respects that, oddly.

“The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must be careful to do everything they tell you.” So far, so good, but there’s a caveat: “But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.”

 

You might’ve followed the news about politicians who were caught vacationing in the tropics while telling us to “stay home; don’t travel during this pandemic.” “Do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach.” I admit, politicians are easy targets, but so are loud-mouthed christians who say one thing and do another; tying up heavy, cumbersome loads on people and not willing to lift a finger.

Not only is our society tired of that, even we as Christians are tired of that. Or, should I say, especially Christians are tired of christian hypocrisy. Let me summarize Humility from this portion:

  • Humility practices what it preaches.
  • Humility does not tie up heavy, cumbersome loads on other people.
  • Humility is willing to help people who somehow have heavy, cumbersome loads.

We do not lay guilt and shame on people; when we find people who are loaded with guilt and shame we don’t judge them, we help them! We bring them to Jesus. One of the reasons we can help is because we know what it is to be loaded with guilt and shame. In fact, I would say, any ability we might have to help others comes first from the fact that we have learned to go to Jesus with our guilt and shame. This says more about Jesus than it says about ourselves.

While it is an act of humility to go to Jesus with our burdens it did not start with us; we owe it all to Jesus who invited us to Himself, “for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” Jesus is the person we bring people to.

 

Father Greg Boyle, founder of “Homeboy Industries”, a job creation network for ex-gang members, was asked, “What’s it like to have enemies working together?” (Tattoos on the Heart, pp. 142, 179)

He said it is almost always tense at first. A gang member will beg for a job and Father Boyle tells him he’ll have to work with so and so from enemy gangs.

He thinks a bit and invariably will say, “I’ll work with him, but I’m not gonna talk to him.”

In the early days, this would unsettle me. Until I discovered it always becomes impossible to demonize someone you know […]

You stand with the least likely to succeed until success is succeeded by something more valuable: kinship.

Not only does humility not tie up heavy, cumbersome loads on people, but, when we find people who are weighed down we exercise kinship with them. It is the costly work of friendship building, and it’s worth it.

 

 

Jesus continues, “Everything they do is done for people to see: They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long; they love the place of honour at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; they love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and to be called ‘Rabbi’ by others.”

As I said, these were devout people and they wanted that to show, but don’t Jesus’ words here contradict something He said earlier in Matthew 5:14-16? “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”

Aren’t the Pharisees obeying Jesus here, “let your light shine before others so they may see your good works[…]”? Keep in mind the key words that Jesus says: “[…] let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” We live to the praise of God’s glory. As the answer in the Westminster Catechism goes, “The chief end of mankind is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever.” John Piper changes one word in this and says, “The chief end of mankind is to glorify God by enjoying Him forever.” (For more, I recommend John Piper’s book, Desiring God)

To summarize humility from this section:

  • Humility does not do what it does so people can see them do it for their own glory; Humility does what it does to glorify God. Huge difference.
  • Humility does not make a religious show of how good we are. Brennan Manning used to joke about the burden of working hard, trying to be “brother Teresa.” Oh, the pressure.
  • Humility does not “crave places of honour”, nor does it crave the reputation it might get from the marketplace; humility loves how God bestows our identity and our worth.

 

Finally Jesus says in this section:

But you are not to be called “Rabbi,” for you have one Teacher, and you are all brothers and sisters. And do not call anyone on earth “father,” for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. Nor are you to be called Teacher, for you have one Instructor, the Messiah. The greatest among you will be your servant. For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.

To summarize humility from this section:

  • Humility understands its identity is found profoundly in God and not in titles. We are ever in danger of being subsumed into our occupational identity or any other identity that robs us of the dignity found in Christ.
  • Humility recognizes that teaching comes through as a conduit from the One Instructor—our Messiah—Jesus, the Son of God.
  • Humility understands greatness as service, not as position.
  • Humility does not exalt itself, it is grounded, it’s connected to the earthiness of the soil.

“Naked we came from the earth, and naked we shall return” (Job 1:21, Ecclesiastes 3:20, Genesis 3:19)

Perhaps nakedness before the Lord is a good way to think about humility; out of hiding, bare and un-adorned with any false pretence—we simple come before the Lord as we are.

 

I said earlier that to be a disciple of Jesus is to be called to humility, called to be just like Jesus. Whatever else I might have said, or you might have received from this encounter with Jesus, may you know: humility must mark us as disciples of Jesus; humility is the life-long lesson of our spiritual formation. As we grow in Christ we are humbled but not diminished.

How do you become humble? Not by taking a course, not by mere study. No, we gain humility over the long arc of our short lives by hanging around people who are humble, befriending people who are becoming like Jesus.

 

Let’s review the Characteristics of Humility:

  • Humility practices what it preaches.
  • Humility does not tie up heavy, cumbersome loads on other people.
  • Humility is willing to help with people weighed down with guilt and shame and unreasonable expectations.
  • Humility does not do what it does so people can see them do it for their own glory; Humility does what it does to glorify God.
  • Humility does not make a religious show of how good we are.
  • Humility does not “crave places of honour”, nor does it crave the reputation it might get from the marketplace; humility loves how God bestows our identity and our worth.
  • Humility understands its identity is found profoundly in God and not in titles. We are ever in danger of being subsumed into our occupational identity or any other identity that robs us of the dignity found in Christ.
  • Humility recognizes that whatever it teaches comes through as a conduit from the One Instructor—our Messiah—Jesus, the Son of God.
  • Humility understands greatness as service not as position.
  • Humility does not exalt itself; it is grounded, connected to the earthiness of the soil.

It is not my intent to make a list of humility that would be just another burden. It is my intent, rather, to point you to Jesus’ own character and invite you to join us as Disciples in the journey of becoming like Jesus.

 

Let me ask just three questions:

  1. Which characteristic of humility most resonates with how God has led you so far? In other words, if you’ve been following Jesus He has already been working humility in you. Do you see it? Have you noticed how Jesus has been shaping your character?
  2. Which characteristic of humility do you find most challenging? I wonder how the Holy Spirit has been moving on you as we’ve looked at this passage—beckoning to go further, to be more like Jesus. Keeping in mind that this is not the burden of performance, it is the work of His Holy Spirit living in you.
  3. Do you know anyone who demonstrates humility? Befriend that person, get to know that person, get inquisitive about that person’s spirituality. This is partially what discipleship is about. As the Apostle Paul says, “Imitate me as I imitate Jesus.” (I Corinthians 11:1). We follow those who follow Jesus.

 

I want to leave you today with a prayer for humility written by Thomas Merton:

Lord, You have taught us to love humility, but we have not learned. We have learned only to love the outward surface of it, the humility that makes a person charming and attractive. We sometimes pause to think about these qualities, and we often pretend that we possess them, and that we have gained them by “practicing humility.”

If we were really humble, we would know to what an extent we are liars!

Teach us to bear a humility which shows me, without ceasing, that I am a liar and a fraud and that, even though this is so, I have an obligation to strive after truth, to be as true as I can, even though I will inevitably find all my truth half poisoned with deceit.

This is the terrible thing about humility: that it is never fully successful. If it were only possible to be completely humble on this earth. But no, that is the trouble: You, Lord, are humble. But our humility consists in being proud and knowing all about it, and being crushed by the unbearable weight of it, and to do so little about it.

For true humility is, in a way, a very real despair: despair of myself, in order that I may hope entirely in You.

Thoughts in Solitude, p. 65, Thomas Merton (1956)

Let these words resonate with you, that whatever despair we may feel may lead us to hope entirely in Jesus.


1 Comment on ‘Disciple: A Call to Humility’

  1. […] Last week Rusty shared that humility is a characteristic of a disciple of Jesus. Today we will look at how eternity affects His disciples. […]

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