The story is told of a fellow who boarded a crowded subway and as he was standing in the aisle he was bumped and fell to the floor. Angrily he said as he turned around, “Don’t mess with me, I know karate and” and then he saw the fellow who had bumped into him. He was huge! So he said, “I know karate and a lot of other Japanese words.” Muhammad Ali once said, “When you are as great as I am, it’s hard to be humble.” Ted Turner said, “If I only had a little humility, I would be perfect.” Most people agree that humility is an admirable trait and virtue but humility is difficult to develop. Today’s gospel lesson deals with how one develops this virtue.
Last week the Lord told his disciples that he was must suffer and die. This week he is still talking about his coming betrayal, death, and subsequent resurrection. We are told that the disciples did not really get it, but they were afraid to ask him. So what did they do? They began to consider the question ‘Which one of us is the greatest the most important?’ And they began to argue about it.
So what does Jesus do? First he sits down. Why does the Bible mention that? This is Jesus going into “Rabbi” mode. This is Jesus going into “I am going say something really important.” And then he says something so radical, so extraordinary, so outrageous that we still do not really believe it. He tells them that the one who desires to be in first place; the one who desires to be the most important; the one who has the ambition the greatest; that person must choose to go last; this person must be a servant to everyone else. The disciples were arguing about who was the most important and Jesus tells them that to be really important in God’s kingdom one needs to look out for everyone else. Rather than worry about being served and rather than worrying about who thinks highly of you, you need to be concerned about how others are doing.
And then to make push the parameters of this point he calls a little child to come to him. In our society children are important. We have stores devoted entirely to children. We have laws to protect them. But in first century Palestine it was not that way. In that society in which Jesus and his disciples lived children were the most insignificant. They were the least important. Still even in the medieval times the Mediterranean cultures put a low value on children: “Thomas Aquinas, a very famous theologian, taught that if one’s house was on fire a husband was obliged to save his father first, then his mother, next his wife, and last of all his young child.” Don’t’ get me wrong, their parents still loved their children but socially the children were beneath notice. So when Jesus takes and holds a little child, he is taking and holding a non-person; he is taking someone who doesn’t matter in anyone’s eyes in that society. And what was the point Jesus was trying to make for his disciples? His disciples needed to be concerned about others. We get that. But Jesus points we are not just to care for others but even for those others who don’t matter socially.
D.L. Moody was the most famous evangelist in the United States in the late 1800s. People came from around the world to attend his Bible Conferences in Northfield, Massachusetts. One year a large group of pastors from Europe were among the attendees. They were given rooms in the dormitory of the Bible school. As was the custom in Europe, the men put their shoes outside the door of their room, expecting them to be cleaned and polished by servants during the night.
Of course there were no servants in the American dorm, but as Moody was walking through the halls and praying for his guests, he saw the shoes and realized what had happened. He mentioned the problem to a few of his students, but none of them offered to help. Without another word, this world famous evangelist gathered up the dirty and muddy shoes and took them back to his own room where he began to clean and polish each pair. Moody told no one what he had done, but a friend who happened to stop by in the night found him in the middle of shining the shoes and helped him finish. Years later he told the story of what had happened. The point here is that even though D.L. Moody was a world famous preacher he remained a man willing to serve others and to serve them anonymously. And that was the key to Moody’s greatness in the kingdom of God. C.S. Lewis once said, “Humility is not thinking less of yourself, it is thinking of yourself less.” In other words it is being more concerned about other people’s problems than your own. When we look around us there are always people worse off than we are, aren’t there?
Jesus said that if we want to be first in the kingdom of God, we must learn to be last; if we want to be great we must learn to serve. We must learn to serve even when God is the only one who knows what we are doing and who we are serving.
So I suppose that is the question, isn’t it? Do we really want to be great in the kingdom of heaven? Or is it OK to be not so important? I mean, if I don’t work really hard at being a servant to others, but I believe in Jesus does that still work? How ambitious are we in the kingdom of God? How ambitious must we be? Like someone asked me a couple of weeks ago, “How much can I get away with and still get into heaven? It is a good question isn’t it? How hard do I need to work at this Christianity business?
As in everything about Christianity, it is a matter of our hearts. Do we really love God and want to serve Him? Have our hearts been changed by His love for us? Have our hearts been changed by realizing he died for us? It is hard isn’t it? And it is hard because we know we ought to love God we do not always feel like it. We do not always feel like serving God. How important is it to be humble anyway?
I am sorry to have to tell you that God thinks it is pretty important and in fact, humility is one of the primary virtues of a Christian. We cannot even receive God’s mercy and grace without having humility because we need to be able to admit we need God and His help. Humility is a means of grace, that is, humility is one of the ways we receive favor and blessing and strength from God. We are told that God opposes the proud but gives grace to humble. In the New International Version our reading from James says, “Who is wise and understanding among you? Let them show it by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom.” If we are wise, we develop humility. Pride comes from foolishness.
Jesus does call us to be ambitious. He calls us to be great and important in God’s kingdom. But the way to be great and important in the kingdom of heaven is to think of others before self. To be great in the kingdom of heaven one needs to be willing to accept and serve others no matter who they are. So indeed let us be great for Jesus; let us learn to serve him and others with our whole hearts. Amen