Jesus and the Humble
When I was a young teenager, my single mom didn’t have a car, so we would walk to church. It was a long walk in our Sunday clothes, through neighborhoods without sidewalks, where we had to be prepared to throw pinecones at dogs that ran towards us, barking and snarling and trying to bite our legs. It was not a neighborhood in which people walked, and it was embarrassing. When some acquaintance from church would inevitably pass by, then pull over to offer us a ride, I was both relieved and shamed. That was me, getting a taste of humility.
The third of the Beatitudes in Matthew 5 is: “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” Meek here means gentle, lowly, teachable, or humble. When Jesus spoke this sentence, he was quoting Psalm 37:11: “But the meek will inherit the land.” Psalm 37 is a therapeutic psalm for those who suffer injustice. The psalm repeatedly exhorts us not to be envious of the rich and mighty, who take advantage of the poor and who blatantly lie, cheat, intimidate, bribe, and insult to achieve and maintain their power. Because, it promises, their day is coming, when they will be cut down and destroyed, and the humble righteous will come into their own. The proud and powerful may own the land now, but one day the narrative will be turned on its head; they will come tumbling down, and the meek will inherit the land.
In this context, meekness or humility are not simply personal virtues, but they are often the natural byproducts of having been disinherited. Being poor is humbling, and walking to church is a tiny blip on the radar compared to the indignities suffered daily by the underprivileged. Being uneducated, jobless, or working in menial jobs, being invisible or an object of disgust — all of these conditions will tend to make one feel less-than rather than more-than. Howard Thurman, the spiritual mentor of Martin Luther King, Jr., spoke in his excellent book, Jesus and the Disinherited, about how Christianity, which Jesus intended to be for the uplift of the oppressed, became a religion of the powerful and dominant, and has even been used as an instrument of oppression.
As much as American evangelicals have promoted an image of Jesus like “us” — a White colonizer of more “primitive” people and religions — he was not. He was a brown Middle Easterner with dark eyes and short, dark, curly hair, living as a member of a conquered people under the power of Rome. And as much as American evangelicals like to picture our country as the new Israel, God’s chosen nation, we’re actually more like ancient Rome, or even Babylon. We are the world power, the empire, the nation that imposes its will on much of the world, using up more than our share of the earth’s resources, as we produce more than our share of the toxic waste and buy cheap products from nations too poor to provide their workers a living wage.
Now that the evangelical church in America has become so entangled in political power, things are getting ugly. Christians can be so smug, lecturing, even legislating, what other people should do about situations that they themselves will never have to face. Reminds me of what Jesus said about the teachers of the law and the Pharisees of his day:
“They tie up heavy, cumbersome loadsMatthew 23:4 NIV
and put them on other people’s shoulders,
but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.”
Like the Pharisees, are we, the beneficiaries of privilege, smug and vain, secure in our prestige and unquestioned sense of superiority, sprawling and swaggering through life? And what about me? I am a member of a privileged group. I am increasingly aware of ways in which I move through the world taking certain things for granted, like my safety, like that people will stop and help me if my car breaks down, like that people in law enforcement will be respectful towards me. What is mine to do, given my privileges of birth?
The answer lies in the example of the Jesus. Rather than aligning himself with worldly power in order to impose his will on others by the force of law, the Jesus I love modeled humility. He said:
“Take my yoke upon you and learn from me,Matthew 11:29-30 NIV
for I am gentle and humble in heart,
and you will find rest for your souls.
For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
Rather than claiming our “right” to impose our will on others, can we become the kind of disciples that Jesus mentored when he knelt down and washed the feet of the Twelve, teaching them:
“The greatest among you will be your servant.Matthew 23:11-12 NIV
For those who exalt themselves will be humbled,
and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
In her classic book, Hinds’ Feet on High Places, Hannah Hurnard pictures the way of Christ as being like the water in a mountain waterfall, which sings, as it pours itself over the lip of the rock:
“From the heights we leap and flowHannah Hurnard, Hinds Feet on Hight Places
To the valleys down below,
Sweetest urge and sweetest will,
To go lower, lower still.”
The fact that we follow a Messiah who was born in a barn and whose first bed was a livestock feeding trough ought to shake us awake from the path of grasping at power, of trying to hang on to privilege, and of seeking to return to a past when “we” — White American Christians — were firmly in control.
Next post: Jesus and the Famished