Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago
“All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Luke 14:11) Jesus often spoke in parables and paradoxes like this. Early Christians had no words to communicate their experience of Jesus and his teaching. They had to coin new ones like this word “humble” in our gospel today.
They often found these new words in the trashcan of Greek culture. Early Christians reclaimed and gave new meaning to unfavorable adjectives like lowly, empty, and foolish. Being humble was not a virtue among ancient Greeks. Its synonyms were other adjectives like “ignoble”, “slavish”, “cringing” or “cowering.”
Yet, for early Christians, humility wasn’t an affliction, but a blessing. Humility is chief among the values early Christians espoused for their newfound life-style as followers of Christ.
The strange little story about Jesus at a banquet from our gospel today is an opportunity to catch a glimpse of the life God intends—the humble life. Like always, it is a vision of life that is both strange and wonderful.
Humus comes from the same root. It turns out that humus, or what we commonly call dirt, is a wonder. If scientists find dirt on another planet, they will have proof positive of life beyond earth. In contrast to sand and rock, humus is the end product of living things now dead, that through death are now living and a rich source of life. Jesus said, “there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.” (Mark 7:15) Humble people are not afraid to get their hands dirty. Humility opens us to the beauty and wisdom of so-called trivial things all around us.
As understood by the first followers of Christ, being humble is to stand in constant awareness of our appreciation, curiosity and need for others. For them, the opposite of humility was not ‘self-esteem’, but violence. Therefore humility isn’t about being passive. It isn’t letting other people take advantage of you. It’s not the same thing as being shy. Humble people are not wallflowers.
Instead, humility is a strength that grows from the mercy God shown to us to make us whole and well in God’s sight. Humility comes from the recognition that our achievements are much less than the sum total of the grace we have received. Each of us is individual, unique, and one of a kind, yet no one is complete without the other.
Humility is an indelible, unchanging, and timeless characteristic of God. Humility opens fisted minds, hands, and hearts to one another. Humility cultivates connections between us. Humility encourages us to get our hands dirty. Humility makes us open to finding wisdom and beauty in places, neighborhoods, or among people everyone tells you to avoid.
‘My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior… [for] he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts…and lifted up the lowly (Luke 1: 46, 47, 51-53) Therefore “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.” (Hebrews 13:2) “Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; and those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured.” (Hebrews 13:3)
On Friday, I had the pleasure of listening to Bryan Stevenson, the humble and wise author of a book called Just Mercy. In it he shares many stories of his life’s work advocating for poor children, men and women in prison and on death row.
He told about Charlie. Charlie was just a little boy, age 14. He weighed less than 100 pounds and was just five feet tall. “He didn’t have any juvenile criminal history—no prior arrests, no misconduct in school, no delinquencies or prior court appearances. He was a good student who had earned several certificates for perfect attendance at his school. His mother described him as a “great kid” who always did what she asked. But Charlie had, by his own account, shot and killed a man named George.”
“George was Charlie’s mother’s boyfriend. George would often come home drunk and violent. One night, George hit Charlie’s mother and she collapsed on the floor. Charlie kneeled beside her. She was bleeding badly. She later revived and was okay. But that night, Charlie thought she was dead. He had to call an ambulance but the only phone in the house was next to the bed where George was now passed out, sleeping.
When he got there, instead of reaching for the phone, he reached into the dresser drawer where George kept a handgun hidden under some folded T-shirts. Nervous and shaking, Charlie pointed the gun at George’s head. At one point, Charlie became startled when he thought George might wake up. The gun went off. The man Charlie killed was a police officer, so Charlie to be tried as an adult and was taken to the county jail for adults.
Bryan first met Charlie in jail. Charlie wouldn’t make eye contact. He wouldn’t say anything despite repeated attempts. “Charlie, are you okay?” Brian asked. He didn’t say a word, but kept staring at a spot across the room. He tried again, “I can’t help you if you don’t talk to me.” Nothing.
Finally, Bryan moved around to the other side of the table and sat beside Charlie. He leaned in close, “I’m really sorry if you’re upset, but I can’t help you if you don’t talk to me.” When he put his arm around the boy he started to quietly shake and cry. It didn’t take long to realize that what had Charlie so traumatized wasn’t what happened to his mom or to George but what was happening at the jail.
Three men had hurt him the first night and again the second night. He didn’t know how many more came on the third night. Bryan tried to reassure Charlie it would be okay. He would get him out of there. Yet as he left the jail to begin the process to get Charlie moved, Bryan was filled with questions and rage. Who is responsible for this? Who would let something like this happen? He realized the answer was all of us. (Bryan Stevenson, Just Mercy, Chapter 6, “Surely Doomed”)
Collectively, we are responsible for a legal system that privileges the wealthy and guilty over the poor and innocent. We are responsible for a system that incarcerates more people than any country in the world. We are responsible for a system that regards people of color as dangerous and guilty before they are proven innocent.
Yet the gospel of Christ puts an end to the language of fear, anger and scarcity sowing death and tragedy in human lives all around us. Instead, we have new words to write a new story. God has begun a new way of being in us yielding justice and transformation from the fertile gifts of grace and mercy. We are not afraid to get our hands dirty and are opened to the wisdom and beauty God pours to overflowing in every heart and every place. Amen.