The Power of Humility

Isaiah 50:4-9a

Philippians 2:5-11

Matthew 27:11-54

Palm Sunday is commonly represented as a triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, riding on a donkey, which was the ceremonial act of a king. The crowd hailed Jesus as the Son of David, saying “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” The familiar story is told in the 21st chapter of Matthew, verses 1-11. We know that the crowd was hoping for a messiah as David has been, a king with the military skill and power to deliver Israel from the Romans.

We have seen a great deal of triumphalist thinking in recent politics. America’s government has cast the country into the messianic role of saving the world for democracy. But America’s messianic self-understanding is not that of a teaching messiah like Jesus. It is more that of a fighting messiah like David who conquered a lot of territory in his time, or like Cyrus the Great of Persia who conquered a great deal more territory and was called messiah because he sent the Jews back to Jerusalem from their exile. The American messianic mission has led us to conquer Afghanistan and Iraq whose former governments opposed our democratizing plans for them. We’ve threatened Iran and North Korea, whom our President has linked with Iraq as the “Axis of Evil,” and seem surprised when they want to develop nuclear weapons to keep America at bay. Our government is convinced that it can triumph over any country that stands in its way.

Jesus’ triumph, of course, was very short-lived. He offered no armed resistance to the Romans, nor did he collect any army as David had. After his Palm Sunday entry into Jerusalem he spent the next four days teaching, mainly in the Temple, and going each night back to the suburb of Bethany, most likely to stay with Mary, Martha, and Lazarus.

What Jesus taught in those days, according to Matthew, had little or nothing to do with politics, the Roman occupation, or insurrection. In fact, that was the time he said to render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s. Jesus teaching was occupied with God, though with a special twist. His teachings those days seemed to focus on hypocrisy in religion, on the sorry performance of those claiming to represent his religion, and on the blindness of the people to God in their midst. Remember the “Seven Woes” from Matthew 23? “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you lock people out of the kingdom of heaven. . . Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cross sea and land to make a single convert, and you make the new convert twice as much a child of hell as yourselves. . . Woe to you, blind guides, who say, ‘Whoever swears by the sanctuary is bound by nothing, but whoever swears by the gold of the sanctuary is bound by oath.’ … Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. . . . Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. . . Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth. . . . Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous, and you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets. . . Therefore I send you prophets, sages, and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will flog in your synagogues and pursue from town to town, so that upon you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth.” That’s all a quote, and it is not the kind of preaching calculated to win friends among the powerbrokers of Jerusalem: by the end of the fourth day Jesus was arrested and by the end of the fifth he was dead. So much for messianic triumphalism!

Jesus, I should hasten to add, was not ranting against Judaism. He was a Jew himself and was attacking some leaders of his own religion whom he thought were viciously hypocritical. Jesus never attacked any one else’s religion, only those whom he thought corrupted the religion of Israel. We need to take care that our own religious leaders are not hypocrites, that none of them attacks other religions without seeing God in them, that none whitewashes the tomb of American jingoism with the peacemaking words of the gospel, that none supports the pursuit of greed with the good and worthy name of Christian missions, that none speaks well of the corrupt leaders in the corporate world because they contribute heavily to churches, and that none mislead simple people with simplistic theologies. Can we guard against such hypocrisy among ourselves? We have not done well so far.

When Jesus was dragged before Pilate, he did not bluster like an aggrieved rebel. Nor did he posture like a king claiming a throne unjustly denied him by the Roman Empire. He was humble. He said hardly anything. He let the words and actions of his betrayers, accusers and judge speak for themselves. And they did. For two thousand years the name of Judas is associated with perfidy. The leaders of the Temple wanted Jesus dead because they believed he threatened the stability of their relation with the Roman occupation forces. and said it is better that one innocent man die than that the nation be destroyed. Ironically, this promoted, though it did not justify, two thousand years of anti-Semitism, one of the most grievous sins of Christianity. Pontius Pilate is still the epitome of corruption in government, knowing what is just but lacking the courage to carry it out when justice has a price. Even without the resurrection, Jesus the humble teacher won that confrontation on Passion Week. Judas, the Temple leaders, and the Romans failed to do the truth. Jesus spoke the truth, and lived the truth. For all he suffered—Jesus’ Passion means he suffered passively what others did to him—Jesus conquered.

Paul put the point starkly in his great hymn in Philippians. Jesus aboriginally has the form of God. That means, in the conceptions of his age, that he dwelt in the highest heaven with God and had the body and mind appropriate to that heaven. But Jesus then descended to earth and took on the form, not only of a human, but of a human slave. “And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

Why should we confess that Jesus Christ is Lord? Because he is a political lord, a king? No, he wasn’t. Because he beat the Romans? No, he didn’t. Because he established the perfect justice of Isaiah’s messianic expectation? No, the rabbis were right that things were no better in the next generation. Jesus is Lord because humility of his sort is the stuff of divinity. To speak the truth and accept the consequences is to be humble. To stay with the truth when it costs pain and life itself is to be humble. To be obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross—is to be humble. To hope that one’s judgments will win out in the world and yet see no divine intervention to make it so, forsaken on the cross at the point of death, crying, Why? Why?, and then saying to the absent Father, “Into your hands I commend my spirit,” that is the humility of God.

As we enter into Passio
n Week, let us have the humble humor to see that our best vehicle is a donkey, not a Humvee. We will not convert the world to democracy by destroying non-democratic governments and installing our own. That only leads to resistance. We can try humbly to convert the world by speaking the truth about the culture-shaking responsibilities of democracies, and inviting others to those responsibilities. Democracy destroys cultures based on tribal or other community allegiances by insisting on the individualism of one person, one vote; democracy destroys cultures that separate gender roles and class distinctions. Many cultures have much to lose by adopting democracy, and will always lose if it is imposed upon them rather than chosen by them. We need the humility of truth in advertising, even if we ourselves are convinced that democracy is worth the cost. We can not force a messianic Christian culture on America by saying that God blesses America more than any other nation, by saying that corporate greed is really an expression of freedom, by saying that religious bigotry is upholding standards of humanity, by saying that racial and gender prejudice are justified by the Bible, by saying that exploitation of the environment is proper stewardship, or by saying that neglect of the poor is what they deserve. Yet people have said in recent months that jingoism, corporate greed, bigotry, prejudice, and environmental exploitation are just what the gospel ordered if we can disguise how they are named. We can try humbly to expose and correct those evils by learning and speaking the truth.

You all know that Passion Week is not like opening Christmas presents. Beginning with that cheap and shallow patriotism of the people who threw palms in Jesus’ path, to his angry attack on the money-changers in the temple, to his parables and woes about hypocrisy, to his betrayal, arrest, and crucifixion, it was a downhill week. By the Sabbath of Holy Saturday, God was off resting, the disciples were hopeless, and Jesus was just dead. There is no guarantee for us that our humble efforts to be peacemakers will succeed, that our invitation to choose democracy will be heeded, that our exposures of hypocrisy in our own religion and culture will go unpunished. The power of evil forces is very great, no less strong now than in Jesus’ time. We should expect humility to be crucified. But the more it suffers, the stronger it gets. The more the arrogance of might and hypocrisy strike at the humble, the more their evil is exposed. The humbler we are, like Jesus, the more God is incarnate in our efforts and we are worthy of the glory peculiar to the Lord of Humility. Humility has a power passing the intrigue of Judas, the political compromises of the Temple leaders, and the mighty imperial weakness of Pilate. There is power in humility, the power of God. If you want to know what humility is worth, not its power but its worth, come back next week. Amen.

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Cummings Neville

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