Matthew 23:1-12 – Humility

Matthew 23:1-12 – Humility November 9, 2016

Crucifixion - GrunewaldWhy does Jesus use such scalding words towards the scribes and Pharisees?  His words are so caustic that I feel the sting of them 2000 years later – and they weren’t even aimed towards me!

I think it’s because Jesus’ kingdom is a kingdom of love and humility (which are so closely related it’s difficult if not impossible to separate them).  But the scribes and Pharisees, as leaders who lead with pride and not humility, are opposed to His kingdom.  I think this may also be the reason Jesus is so harsh towards hypocrites.  All men are hypocrites in that we don’t live up to what we say is right and good.  So why such harshness towards hypocrites?  It’s not all hypocrites that Jesus thrashes but the religious leaders who are hypocrites, those who should be leaders and teachers in love and humility but instead teach pride by their actions.

It’s a good thing I like humility.  Jesus teaches about humility so much that one is faced with three choices:

  1. reject the teaching of Jesus, and therefore Jesus, and do things your way
  2. say what Jesus says about humility, but don’t do what He does
  3. accept the teaching of Jesus and make it your ambition to be humble

Sometimes Jesus teaches with such crystalline clarity and tornadic force that one is reduced to the most elemental things in life.  Nothing that Jesus teaches is clearer than His teaching on humility and self-exaltation, and nothing is more fundamental.

In Matthew’s Gospel alone, here is what Jesus teaches about humility:

“Then Jesus said to His disciples, ‘If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me’” (16:24).

“Assuredly, I say to you, unless you are converted and become as little children, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.  Therefore, whoever humbles himself as this little child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (18:3-4).

“Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you, let him be your servant.  And whoever desires to be first among you, let him be your slave –  just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:26-28).

“But he who is greatest among you shall be your servant.  And whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted” (23:11-12).

This is an amazingly consistent and persistent constellation of teachings on humility and how humility is at the center of Jesus’ Kingdom.  In fact, once you see that Jesus’ Kingdom is the Kingdom of Humility, you see exactly what the problem is and has been for thousands of years.  For most of humanity, a Kingdom of Humility is an oxymoron, a logical impossibility.  It’s almost like saying the Pleasure of Pain or the Darkness of Light.

And yet, in spite of what the rest of the world teaches, Jesus insists that His Kingdom is a kingdom of humility.  Actually, Jesus’ life began, continued, and ended with humility: Jesus is no hypocrite.  What He taught was what He lived.  Jesus says and Jesus does: we should do both what He says and what He did.  And so He was born in a manger in a stable, of two ordinary people.  He who was God was born a human baby.

He began His teaching ministry by teaching about humility.  Isn’t that what the Beatitudes are ultimately about?  “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”  Isn’t “poor in spirit” simply another way of saying “humble”?  Notice what the blessing of the humble is: the kingdom of heaven, Jesus’ kingdom.  All of the other blessed conditions that Jesus mentions in the Beatitudes are related in some way to humility.

So Jesus begins His teaching by talking about humility, and then, in chapter 16, when He takes His disciples to a new level of understanding, after Peter’s confession, He begins to teach them about the way of the Cross and the need to deny oneself in order to be His disciple.

And there is our definition of humility: to deny oneself.  Again, Jesus is no hypocrite but a man of perfect integrity, for what He teaches about crosses is what He chose to do.  No sooner does He begin to teach His disciples about their finite crosses than He Himself begins His march to His own infinite Cross.

Jesus taught humility throughout His entire public ministry, but He taught humility most intensely by the events beginning with Maundy Thursday and extending until Easter morning.

“But he who is greatest among you shall be your servant.  And whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

That’s your lesson for today.  We all have many competing images of ourselves, and we’ve become fairly adept at employing them to suit our different tastes and needs.  We think of ourselves as our jobs or our roles in families or our roles in social networks.  We pick from some of our more salient characteristics and say that this is who we are.  I was listening in my car recently to a Confidence Course on tape that I bought at Half Price Records.  The author was saying that people who are shy often see their shyness as being who they are and as being a much larger part of who they are than do the people around them.

Who do you see yourself to be?  What characteristics define you?

Among the images you have for yourself, Jesus is telling you to take on one special image and role, and that is the role of humble servant: this is the image of Christ Himself.  If you see yourself as a teacher, then you might set out as I once did to become a better teacher.  You practice teaching and communicating ideas and motivating people.  If you see yourself as a mother, then you dedicate yourself to mothering your children and training and shaping and loving and encouraging them.  And if you see yourself as a humble servant, then you will set out today to learn how to be more humble and to serve more faithfully.

There are so many ways that our Father and our Teacher teach us to be humble, and often they use different means on different people.  You could choose to learn humility today by seeking to love those around you or to serve them.  You could choose to learn humility by praying or by praying and fasting, or by doing many other things.

But I’ve got another suggestion today, at least partially because it’s what I think I need today.  What if you practiced humility today by accepting whatever the Lord decides to give you today?  Instead of seeing life as being out to get you, instead of becoming angry or upset every time something doesn’t go your way, and instead of resenting the difficult things in your life that you can’t change, what if you accepted each of them as instruction from the Lord in humility?

What if each disappointment, burden, or undesired event were seen as a means to God and His grace, instead of as a threat to your sovereign desires?  I believe that every day is densely packed with opportunities to humble oneself before the Lord.

And therefore, every day is also densely packed with opportunities to be exalted by the Lord – if only you would humble yourself before the one who has taught us how to humble ourselves.

Prayer:  Almighty God, take from me all vainglorious minds, all appetites of mine own praise, all envy, coveting, gluttony, sloth, and lechery, all wrathful affections, all appetite of revenging, all desire or delight of other folks’ harm, all pleasure in provoking any person to wrath and anger, all delight of exprobation or insultation against any person in their affliction and calamity. 

And give me, good Lord, an humble, lowly, quiet, peaceable, patient, charitable, kind, tender, and pitiful mind, with all my works, and all my words, and all my thoughts, to have a taste of thy holy, blessed Spirit.  Amen.  (Sir Thomas More)

Points for Meditation: 

  1. In what ways are you still proud, exerting your self over God and others?
  2. What are some humbling things the Lord has brought your way recently that you might have seen as annoyances or occasions for anger or worry, rather than opportunities to learn humility?

Resolution:  I resolve to accept the things Jesus gives me today as my daily bread, that I might learn humility from Him. 


Crucifixion of Christ, Matthias Grunewald – in U.S. Public Domain

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