‘Keep humble’

Few sayings of Jesus are harder to understand than those about humility, says Jeremy Begbie.

Editor’s note: Faith & Leadership offers sermons that shed light on issues of Christian leadership. This sermon was preached Feb. 12, 2009, in Duke University’s Goodson Chapel.

Proverbs 25:1-10 | Luke 14:7-11

“God and Father, through these words, by your Spirit draw us more closely to your Son, that we may hear his voice, and in hearing, may find in him our joy. Amen.”

“Keep humble.” About a year ago I got a note with those words on it. It was 10 minutes after I’d preached a sermon. And it came from the resident minister. “Great sermon,” he scribbled. “Keep humble.”

The words puzzled me. Did he mean I needed to preserve the humility I already had, or did he mean my humility was wearing a bit thin? Besides, what was I meant to do about it? Perplexing words. “Keep humble.” They turned over in my mind as I strolled away from the church, trying to adopt a suitably humble appearance. My head tilted gently with a kind of lop-sided modesty. A moderate smile -- nothing self-satisfied. A steady walking pace -- gentle: nothing aggressive or driving. But somehow, all this didn’t help much. “Keep humble.” What did he mean? What was I missing?

Humility is, of course, notoriously elusive. That’s why, of all the hard sayings of Jesus, few are harder than those about humility. Think about what we’ve just heard from Luke 14. Jesus gets to eat dinner at a Pharisee’s house. And he watches how some guests make a beeline for what in Cambridge they call “High Table” (something conspicuously absent at Duke, where democracy rules; even in the Great Hall across the way, I notice how what was once a High Table on a platform has become three little plastic tables occupied by students). Anyhow, “When you get asked to a wedding banquet,” says Jesus, “don’t rush to the places of honor. The chances are you’ll be asked to shift down for somebody else: Go and sit at the edge of the bench at the bottom, and when the host comes, he’ll bump you up so you sit next to him.”

“All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

So what is humility here?

Well, I suppose on the face of it, it could just be plain courtesy.

Here’s a bit of worldly advice on etiquette, handy hints on the do’s and don’ts of table decorum at a wedding reception, where there’s a pecking order and tact matters. And the message turns out to be pretty straightforward: Decent manners get you places in the end.

And, of course, that’s true up to a point. And that’s why, for many people, humility has come to mean little more. It’s about courtesy, civility, (dare I say it?) Southern charm. Always ready with a self-deferring gesture: “No, ma’am”; “Yes, sir” (I’ve been called “sir” so often since arriving, I have to keep reminding myself I haven’t actually been knighted by the queen). “Yes, sir”; “No, ma’am”; “After you”; “Ladies first”; “Oh please start, don’t wait for me”; “No, do go ahead”; “Pardon me, did I butt in?”; “You were going to say?”

The reduction of humility to well-bred niceness. It’s rampant in the Christian church. Why? Because, frankly, it gets you places. After all, who wants a rude pastor? Which of you wants to be like John the Baptist? (Look what happened to him.) There’s no doubt about it: this kind of humility can reap rich rewards. You’ll be well treated. You’ll be “honored,” to use the word of the parable.

Plain courtesy? Is that all there is to humility? Obviously not.

So what are we missing?

A second try. Maybe humility here means political modesty. Holding back, learning to stay in the background -- that way, you’ll avoid shame. And eventually, when you do get asked to the front, you’ll be noticed all the more. You’ll be honored.

That’s one reading of this kind of parable: A nugget of worldly wisdom about how to get places. And there are plenty of precedents in Jewish writing. We heard one earlier, Proverbs 25:6-7: “Do not put yourself forward in the king’s presence or stand in the place of the great; for it is better to be told ‘Come up here’ than to be put lower in the presence of the prince.”

Don’t let yourself get put down; it’s embarrassing in the extreme when you’ve got to shift down to make room for someone more distinguished. Better to be shoved up than shunted down. Better to be upwardly mobile than downwardly demoted.

And there’s truth here, isn’t there? Surely. It can serve you well to hold back, to curb those self-promoting urges we all get from time to time. In the end, you will be noticed…and then listened to all the more.

Are you having trouble making an impact on those around you? Do people start yawning the minute you open your mouth in a seminar? Well, why not try keeping your mouth shut for a change? Next time you’re in one of the small classes here (enclosed by the wraparound white and cream), when the professor tries to get the discussion rolling, hold back, keep quiet.

It’s risky very risky, of course. Because you’ve been told (I quote): “Students are expected to attend every meeting of the class and participate fully in the discussion” (words from a Duke syllabus -- my own, actually). I know, it’s risky because your grade depends on pitching the treasures of your intelligence into the group pot. But just for once, hold back, try not barging in with your own ideas, scrambling over everyone with your instant answers. Sit back. Let the discussion ramble on…and on. Stroke your chin in a way that suggests neither approval nor disapproval, just years of fathomless wisdom that would take ages to share with the group. Like the character in the parable, at least you won’t be disgraced. If you don’t stick your neck out, you can’t get your head chopped off, can you? And in the long run, when you do speak, everyone will listen to you so much more attentively. They will respect you, “honor” you.

There’s a lot of this around in circles where promotion is a priority. Calculated unassumingness. The English are especially good at it, because it comes with the genes. So you find young academics attending conferences in the U.K. and slipping into seminars with rehearsed restraint. You find the same types in the church as well; ambitious clerics quietly seeking preferment, as they call it there. You might find yourself doing it some day. Lingering in the corridors of power, hanging around the ecclesiastical movers and shakers, waiting to be spotted, just longing to bowl someone over with nothing else than your sheer, overwhelming self-effacement.

Political modesty? Surely not. What, then, are we missing?

A third try. Maybe humility here means self-hatred. And this will secure God’s honor. Again it seems our Proverbs text could be read like that by some: to be assured of favor from the Lord, then you’ll need to cultivate a vivid sense of your own inferiority, you’ll need to know your place. You’ll need to remember that no matter how good anyone says you are, how remarkable others may think you are, you are in fact at the bottom of the moral food chain, and you’d better not forget it.

Of course it’s not hard to find this outlook streaking across church history, and still very much around, not least in congregations who don’t feel they’ve got their money’s worth unless the minister has persuaded them to flagellate themselves for at least 30 of their sins in the first part of any sermon. (It usually comes in the early part of the sermon.) This is not to deny shame has its crucial place.

But the skeptical psychologist would be giving us a wry smile here. She’d be reminding us how easily this slips into the pathological. After all, when someone else attacks you, at least you have the chance to fight back by mobilizing your defenses. But turn inwards and attack yourself, there is no outcome but defeat. You’re always going to lose. Worst of all, when we use this as a lever on God, the pathology becomes deadly, because in the presence of God there will always be more to hate ourselves for.

Is this humility? Can this really be the way to High Table? Of course not.

What, then, are we missing?

Perhaps it’s just best to give up the quest for humility. For, of course, no deliberate act of the will can make it happen. Humility’s notorious paradox: It’s impossible to generate without killing it in the process. No wonder Nietzsche saw humility as a false virtue that merely conceals the crookedness of its holder. No wonder the present-day masters of suspicion are all too keen to unmask the phony humilities of our age -- not least in theology (think of John Milbank’s “false humility” of modern theology). Maybe all humility is false humility. Maybe there just isn’t a true version.

Or are we missing something, something blushingly simple?

Back to the parable. And notice a movement, a momentum that runs right through Luke 14. And it comes to the surface in the word invite. Jesus gets invited to the Pharisee’s house; here in our parable the word invite comes four times. Later Jesus tells us about who and how to invite to dinner parties; then the parable of the giant banquet, another story of invitation. The momentum of invitation. Humility now looks very different.

Exaltation comes by invitation only, and the humble are those who never forget it.

Isn’t this what exposes all those ploys that parade as humility, exposes them as just that, mere ploys, devices, manipulative maneuvers to slide our way to the top. The person at the lowest place hears the call of the host; he’s swept up by an out-of-the-blue invitation, swept to the top by outrageous grace.Humility is indeed about knowing our place -- knowing our place in the stream of grace. And exaltation is thrown in, free of charge.

Exaltation comes by invitation only, and the humble are those who never forget it.

What does this mean?

At least two things. First, it means that the humble don’t get captivated by their reputation. Why do the VIPs in the parable aim for the places of honor? Because, of course, they’ve got a religious reputation to think about, a position to maintain, a rank to live up to. They have to be seen. There’s a persona to cultivate, a status to preserve in the face of those who matter, a reputation to cling to at all costs.

Like the new head teacher at the high school, fresh in the job with a glowing past record, on her first day at work; or like the senator, fearfully scouring the papers “the morning after”; like virtually anyone in the academic world, from top to bottom: from juniors all the way down to professors, all of us under the vigilant eyes of critical assessors of one sort or another, incessantly reviewed, viewed and re-viewed.

And so the anxious self-questioning is bound to start up: “Am I coming across in the right way? Am I respected? Am I highly regarded? Am I credible? Am I getting known in the circles that matter?” (The answer to all these questions, by the way, is usually “no.”) It’s as if we’re always trying to step outside ourselves to monitor our performance, check up on how we’re being received. Life can never be lived to the full because I’m always nervously looking over my shoulder, always on the defensive against the merest hint of a rumor, a misrepresentation or (God forbid) a criticism. People like this miss out on the banquet of the kingdom because they can’t stop worrying about wearing the right clothes, about whether this or that garment makes their behind look big.

The parable explodes this self-scrutiny. It’s a vision of the church as a community where reputation is constantly being thrown to the wind. The humble can sit loose to reputation, not because it never matters -- sometimes it does -- but because in the last resort they know they are known, known by the eternal God, infinitely better known than they know themselves, and yet, also invited to keep company with this same God, this same, strange God who invites us to sit next to his Son at the feast.

When I get caught up in my most self-defensive moods, I sometimes have a vision of an old man in some dusty attic on the outskirts of hell, counting obsessively all the meaningless little victories he won in his life, writing a sort of eternal memoir for no one but himself. In the murky darkness, he pours over all the times he kept his image intact and won the arguments and preserved his reputation and successfully defended his name. While outside, the humble dance in the sunshine, reveling in abundant life; exalted and exultant because they have heard the invitation of the host.

Exaltation comes by invitation only, and the humble never forget it.

What might we be missing?

Second, at the feast of the kingdom, the humble can’t get captivated by their reputation because they’ve been captivated by the host. The humble, we might say, are eccentric. Not so much weird (though most of them are) but ex-centric -- ex-centered, living out of a center beyond themselves. They seem to be sustained from beyond, energized from outside, captivated from without. They’ve developed what you might call ex-centered attention.

I think of my brother when he was about 10 years old, gazing for hours at a dripping tap, with unself-conscious fascination; or think of the 21-year-old at the party suddenly mesmerized by the blue eyes on the other side of the room -- he doesn’t even notice the glass dropping from his hand; think of the nurse in the makeshift hospital in Darfur, staring into the eyes of a newly orphaned 10-year-old -- she doesn’t even remember when she last had a full night’s sleep.

And think of the people you’ve known who have had the most impact on your faith: very likely they’re the type who could look you in the eye and treat you as if no one else were in the room. People like that have what William Blake called “single vision.” They see things the way they really are because they’re not always trying to suck everything into the vortex of their own agendas. They’ve got a kind of flexibility and suppleness that can reach you as you are. Because they’re people who’ve had their insides turned out; pulled from beyond; allured, enchanted, captivated by the host at the feast.

Think of the guest who takes the lowest place at the feast: for them, nothing matters more than hearing the invitation, hearing the voice of the host: “Friend, move up higher.”

And I suppose everything in this service is, in the last resort, designed to help us do just that, to hear that voice: just for an hour, not to tug everything around us into our own project-of-the-moment; just for a minute, not to magnetize everyone else into our pressing concerns; just for a second, to imagine that the universe was not created to revolve around my passions but around the passions of the One who made it. The God who is by nature ex-centric.

What else are we here for, if not to get caught up in the Spirit’s eccentricity: the ecstatic rush of the Spirit towards the Son?

What else are we here for, if not to get caught up in the Son’s eccentricity, as he is eternally spellbound by his Abba, his Father, and invites us to be likewise spellbound?

What else are we here for if not to be captured again by his voice, so captivating -- the voice of Jesus Christ, the host of the feast?

Perhaps it’s a voice we may not have heard very clearly for a while, amidst all our academic self-monitoring. I don’t know. But we be sure this voice speaks here at this feast, alluring, enticing us: “Friend, come up higher.” The voice of the one who was humbled and exalted; humbled and shamed in naked torture and death and exalted to the eternal feast of the Father.

What might we be missing?