”The greatest among you must be your servant. For whoever exalts himself will be humbled and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”1
If you knock around the Gospels for awhile, you begin to notice a pattern in the sayings of Jesus. He reverses ideas, turns them upside down, bends and breaks them, then shapes them into something new. These are sometimes hard to hear. They run outside the grooves we’re used to; their rhythms and inflections don’t follow common patterns, so that if you’re just tracking the rise and fall of a familiar verse—not really paying attention to the words—he tangles that all up and then you have to pay attention and really listen, not just hear.
So it is with his idea of exaltation and humbling.
By now, we may have read this text so many times that it is worn smooth, nothing there to snag a finger on a jagged edge. If you come to this looking for leadership principles, like those in Jesus, CEO (“How Jesus built a disorganized staff of twelve into a thriving enterprise! Principles of success that can translate into any corporate business!), you will be disappointed.
Humility is like one of those Chinese finger traps: forcing it tightens it down. If you exalt yourself, you will be humbled. If you humble yourself in order to be exalted, you’ve defeated the purpose and you will most likely end up humiliated. Humility or humbleness is almost impossible if you have to schedule it. If you try it on, it won’t fit. It will be too tight, too short, too big, dead false. In other words, humility raised to the level of consciousness becomes pride.
I’ve wondered if genuine humility instead comes from character built over time. How to still the insistent voice that pipes up, “Me! What about me?”
Thomas Merton links pride with despair, the end result of an unwillingness to accept anything from the hand of God because of one’s mountain of pride. “But a man who is truly humble cannot despair,” says Merton, “because in the humble man there is no longer any such thing as self-pity.”2
The greater the attention to oneself and the greater the position one holds, the more self-pity becomes the drug of choice when others will not bow to one’s will.
Whether one be the president of the country or the president of the church, the principle applies: the higher the office, the greater the responsibility to serve. When the office is greater than the man (or woman), when the officeholder is not equal to the responsibilities—when, in fact, the character and conduct of the officeholder demeans and corrupts the office, the honor of the office may only be restored by a servant who leads, one who is wise and humble.
I doubt this practice of humility would have been intuitive for many rulers in Jesus’ time. Most would not have seen any advantage in it for themselves, and as for principle—well, that’s just some people talking. Machiavelli said there are only two ways to become a ruler: either you inherit it or you take it. The Roman experiments with forms of democracy certainly didn’t extend to their outlying provinces, especially not for the Jews, who had a long history of volatility. Force applied liberally and strategically, would have been their best practices for leadership.
But force applied compresses the mass and conforms it to the shape of the instrument of force. Those in authority beneath the Romans had no other models of governing except the ones they were subjected to. The idea of servanthood in a leadership role would have seemed both insufficient and ludicrous. Where there were clear lines of class, wealth, and privilege, no one in a position of authority would deign to humble himself.
Jesus locates humility as a practice that begins in the family and continues through one’s education. He calls on religious leaders and teachers to be humble, since they are in a position to exploit their authority and their power.
But you must not be called “rabbi”; for you have one Rabbi, and you are all brothers. Do not call any man on earth “father;’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. Nor must you be called “teacher;’ you have one Teacher, the Messiah.3
This is one of those sayings of Jesus which we adhere to by the spirit, rather than by the law. If we read this literally, limiting it to titles alone, we miss entirely the deeper meaning that all of us—leaders and teachers also—are as dependent on God as children are on their parents.
You must not be called Rabbi, says Jesus. You have one Rabbi and besides, you are all brothers. And you must not be called teacher, he adds, for you have one Teacher, the Messiah. These sayings are in the passive voice, thus the responsibility is on us not to encourage the fawning and favoritism that often comes with degrees and titles.
When we talk about titles and honorifics, though, we are treading on ground that is sacred for a lot of people. Titles represent the hard work that was put in, the long nights of study and the exams taken and passed. They speak to the discipline and ambition that it takes to rise to the top of one’s profession, and they serve as a bright dividing line between the entitled and the poseurs.
When I taught at Stevenson University and at Trinity Washington University, the students called me Professor. I rather liked that because it meant that I professed something. What I professed was something that I sincerely believed, although I was not able to articulate it or even demonstrate it to my own satisfaction. But every time I entered a classroom or spoke with a student or graded her papers, it was uppermost in my mind. It was a dual question for the students: ‘What are you doing here?’ and ‘What does your life mean?’
Posed as much to myself as to my students, the questions were a constant reminder that my motives were not always aligned with my outcomes, and I am still, in part, an enigma to myself. The truest desire of my will, only sometimes realized, was that my students should see me as a window through which they could see a path forward to a country they could call their own.
The other warning Jesus gives us is in the active voice: “Do not call any man on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven.”
Are we to take Jesus literally on this point? In a male-dominated culture, in which the father was the undisputed head of the family, this must have surprised his disciples, if not grated on them. And while not everyone will be a religious leader or a teacher, everyone has a biological father, absent though he may be. The particular points to the universal: our fathers bow to Our Father.
Perhaps Jesus felt this more keenly than most of us. After the incident in which Jesus ditches his parents to discuss with the rabbis in the temple, we hear no more of Joseph. It’s no stretch of the imagination to think of Jesus, the eldest of several siblings, with a growing consciousness of God, his Abba, after Joseph passes away. Jesus was the eldest, the one set apart, special somehow, although he couldn’t say why, and Mary wouldn’t—not yet. All those years so alone; he must have stretched himself upward, opening to the sun and the cold moon and the distant, gentle presence he wished to call “Father.”
Thomas Merton, who struggled with humility all his life, saw it as the way to joy. “It is almost impossible to overestimate the value of true humility and its power in the spiritual life,” he wrote in New Seeds of Contemplation. “Humility contains in itself the answer to all the great problems of the life of the soul. It is the only key to faith, with which the spiritual life begins: for faith and humility are inseparable.”4
To call no one ‘Master’ is a liberating experience. It removes compulsion from our relationships and replaces it, where possible, with a freely given loyalty. Loyalty, when not the blind variety, is a much stronger bond than those cemented through fear and humiliation. When we are free in this way, with a quiet confidence that we are sons and daughters of God, we can be free from fear of anyone.