Matthew 20 : 26
‘Not so with you. Instead whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant.’
How do you understand and rate the quality of ‘humility?’
There is an ancient text written six hundred years before Jesus was born listing positive life-guidelines for living well. There are almost one hundred and fifty short statements in that list. But the idea of ‘humility’ does not even rate a mention on this list! Does that surprise you?
Now contrast that with the book called: ‘The Ideal Team Player’.
It was released in 2016 and is written by Patrick Lencioni. He is not a Christian author, he is a world best-selling writer. His books are even used by corporate leaders around the world. In his book: ‘The Ideal Team Player’, he lists three main attributes of the best team members. Would you believe it, one of the three happens to be: ‘humility!’
This is an enormous change, but our community gives little thought to it!
An ancient document lists nearly one hundred and fifty guidelines for living well, and humility is not even mentioned! But ‘The Ideal Team Player’ lists only three qualities and ‘humility’ is one of them!
The point is this: humility was not a virtue when Jesus came into our world!
In fact, humility was even seen to be a weakness, a character flaw. People would not lower themselves beneath those they believed to be less than them. They would only humble themselves before those who were much greater than them. So Jesus spoke to his disciples about the attitude of leaders at that time, the Gentile leaders. ‘You know the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them’, he said, ‘and their high authorities exercise authority over them.’ (Matthew 20:25) He was describing their leadership style. So, if followers of the Greco-Roman culture were to hear these words, they would say: ‘Yeah, that’s exactly what we do!’ It’s a bit like someone scoring a goal, and raising his arms, as if to say: ‘look how good I am!’
So how did Jesus respond to this pride and arrogance?
He says: ‘No, that’s not how it is to be. Actually greatness is servanthood. Greatness is to be a slave.
It is to humble yourself, and joyfully and lovingly be willing to be the servant of others. Jesus does not only teach humility, he models humility in his life. There are so many examples, but two stand out above and beyond all the others …
- Firstly, when Jesus was at the last supper with his disciples.
This story has come to greatly influence both the church and our world.
Foot washing was a necessary social task at that time. Palestine was a very hot place. Roads were dusty. People wore open sandals. They shared meals together at the end of the day. You may imagine that to do so without having your feet washed would be very unpleasant. That task was obviously left to the lowliest of servants. No one wants to wash the feet of others, do they? The meal is ready, but there is nobody to wash feet. No servant has been assigned. Jesus notices this, so without a word, he takes on the role of washing the feet! He knows the time has come for him to leave the world and return to His Father. (John 13:1) He knew his relationship and position with God.
In the culture at that time, Jesus would have been … and should have been the last person in the room to wash anyone’s feet. But he humbles himself, takes on the role of a servant, and washes their feet.
Now, the unusual nature of what Jesus did is made clear by Peter’s reaction.
This is not right, he thinks! So Peter refuses to allow Jesus to wash his feet. He is simply representing the culture of his time. In Peter’s eyes, what Jesus does is not right! So Jesus must explain his actions. For what he has done is not just a moment in time!
It’s the picture of the future for all who would be the leaders of the early church.
They will set the tone and pattern for leadership in the future. Yes, even for us in the world today!
“Do you understand what I have done …?” he asked them. “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. Truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.” (John 13:12-17)
- Secondly, and most powerfully, we see humility in Jesus death on the cross!
No act has influenced the world view on humility more than the death of Jesus on a Roman cross. All four gospels outline the story of Jesus’ crucifixion, but the apostle Paul gives us another perspective. Paul is writing to the church at Philippi, encouraging the attitude of humility. He invites them to serve others, to look for the good of others, and not their own desires. He uses the example of Jesus’ death on the cross to reinforce his point. Jesus gives up his life for others. Scholars suggest this section which was our first reading today, did not originate with Paul. They believe he is quoting a poem or hymn that was passed on between Christians. The clear teaching is that Jesus gave up what was his.
For although: ‘being in very nature God, he did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage.’ (Philippians 2:6)
He set His being God aside in an act of humility and service for all humanity!
This became the example, the template, the pattern for behaviour of the early church, in leadership. How gloriously and wonderfully refreshing! If this were the same attitude and approach of church leadership today, maybe the church would not be the foul odour in society that it currently is.
The apostle Paul embraces the same model of humility. He was dealing with issues among God’s people at Corinth. As a church leader, missionary and church planter, he had a right to expect support from the church. Financial help would allow him to continue his role in ministry. It was the practice that speakers who travelled to speak and lecture were paid. Paul insisted that he would not use this right, for he was there to serve people with the gospel.
‘If others have this right of support from you, shouldn’t we have it all the more?’ he says. ‘But we did not use this right. On the contrary, we put up with anything rather than hinder the gospel.’ (1 Corinthians 9:12) The attitude of Paul was to follow Jesus. ‘Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible.’ (1 Cor. 9:19)
What a blessing to have this God inspired change of attitude!
It is only in the first century, after the death and resurrection of Jesus; that history speaks of humility in a positive way. This is not a religious reflection. It is the simple truth of history. The example of Jesus has transformed leadership styles in the church, in communities and around the world.
I thank God for the humble, servant leaders we have here in our congregation.
At the Holy Trinity Lutheran College and the Sunnyside Lutheran Retirement Village. At the Jacob’s Well Christian Bookstore and the Christian Emergency Food Centre. I thank God for the men and women of God who have modelled serving with humility in leadership roles in our community over the years. I praise him for the men and women who follow Jesus as they embrace the privilege and responsibility of parenting their children and of being a shining light for all people.
When Jesus went to the cross, he gave up his life for all people.
What amazing love! For in Jesus he gave all people the opportunity to come into a relationship with God. It is only through Jesus that we can call God our dear Father. Thanks be to God for Jesus!
Lord Jesus, please continue to bless us with your humility, as we lead your people!
Pastor Gus Schutz