Humble Pie(ty) Matthew 23:1-12 11/5/2017
“How many of you consider yourself humble? Would you please raise your hand.”
“How many of you consider yourself humble and would have raised your hand, but you don’t think a humble person should be raising their hand; please raise your hand.”
Have you ever had to “eat humble pie”? Most of us have probably heard this expression. It’s a phrase meaning “to face humiliation for an error or wrongdoing, something for which a person must apologize, often in some public way.” Far fewer of us, however, know the origin of this odd phrase.
According to etymologists, the people who study the origin & historical development of words, the phrase derives from umble pie, which was a pie filled with nasty stuff like liver, heart and other animal waste parts, especially of cow but often of deer or boar. Umbles were considered inferior food. No kidding.
In medieval times, the pie was often the only meat dish available to people of the lower economic class. For someone of noble rank or superior station in the Middle Ages to be publicly humiliated would be akin to them having to sit down with a commoner and have a bowl of umble pie. Umble and the word “humble” appeared with and without the initial “h” until the 19th century. Thus, while umble is now gone from English, the “humble pie” phrase remains, and it is still linked to a meal comprised of the less desirable animal parts.
The root of “humble” is very different. It’s related to the Latin humus, which means earth or soil. In other words a truly humble person is said to be solidly grounded.
In our gospel reading for today, Jesus says that those who exalt themselves will eat humble pie, while those who eat humble pie will be exalted. Actually, that’s not what Jesus said, but that may be how we hear it.
What Jesus said was, “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted,” and his meaning was that the truly great among us are those who choose to serve others and not go in for self-promotion. In fact, in our reading, Jesus said: “The greatest among you will be your servant.”
Using modern day politics as an example, in that sense any person of leadership, power and/or influence while demonstrating humility in seeking their position, once attained doesn’t necessarily illustrate what Jesus was saying. The erstwhile leader or person of influence may not, as we have seen too often, be a faithful servant of the people. However, any person in a major position or office can demonstrate true humility.
While any political office is, in a sense, an exalted position, when properly executed, it is to be a place of service to the people whether locally or nationally. And just because a person seeks that office doesn’t mean he or she is doing so for reasons of self-exaltation. Done right, fulfilling the duties of any elected official can illustrate service and the humbling of oneself.
In other words, Jesus was talking about the intent of our actions and attitudes, not the status assigned to our positions. Jesus was not talking per se about people in high places getting knocked off their perches. He was not pointing a finger at a specific person or group.
The kind of reversal or different thinking Jesus had in mind was to move service from its maligned position at the bottom of public perception, to the top, and to, on the other hand, devalue self-promotion. The bottom dog, Jesus is saying, is really the top dog.
But humility, even though Jesus thought it was really important, often seems in short supply these days, even among Christians! We can change that, at least as far as our own lives go, but we need to make an effort to do so.
One place we could use some humility is in our assessment of others.
Yes, we have the biblical standards as expressed in places like the Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount, but those were given not to make us judges of others, but as guides for ourselves. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, “Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?” (Matthew 7:3).
Historically, the church has never hesitated to label certain behaviors as wrong, but Christianity as a whole has always considered verbal stone-throwing to be risky business. We have the story of the woman caught in the act of adultery who was dragged by the Pharisees before Jesus for judgment (John 8:1-11).
The Pharisees asked Jesus if the woman should be stoned to death, which was lawful to do at that time. But when Jesus said that if anyone present considers themselves to be without sin they should cast the first stone, the woman’s accusers slunk away.
Some pastors, and even other professionals like teachers, psychologists, doctors and business people, keep a stone on their desks. Most of the stones are smooth and polished. On the stone is an inscription: “The First Stone.” The stone is a continual reminder that only the one who is without sin can safely throw stones of judgment at others.
In other words, it is a stone which is never thrown! The moral? It is best to hesitate before pointing the finger in judgment at others.
Another place we need humility is in our opinions, recognizing that simply because we hold or have our opinions doesn’t make them correct or true. This is especially important in the current polarized political climate, where the temptation is often to assign low-character motives to those who don’t agree with us.
A number of years ago syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer wrote about this when he stated what he called the fundamental law of American politics: “Conservatives think liberals are stupid. Liberals think conservatives are evil.” Or, as he also stated it in the same column, “Liberals, who have no head …, believe that conservatives have no heart.”
We’re not here to argue the point one way or another, but simply to say that both claims are exaggerations that ought to instill some humility in us who might advertise our political views as if they were on par with gospel truth.
The late Rev. Dr. Steve Hayner, who was the president of Columbia Theological Seminary, once said, “I believe in objective truth, but I hold lightly to our ability to perceive truth.”
Yet another place we need humility is in our assessment of our own character. We need to be aware of our own capacity for self-deception and realize that even our good deeds can have elements of self-interest. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do them, but we need to be aware that we are not above having mixed motives.
Several years ago, Eberhard Arnold, a Christian pastor & writer wrote about church discipline.
This is the process by which a congregation calls for a person who has been seriously misbehaving to repent.
Arnold said that “church discipline can be practiced rightly only if each church member feels he or she is also prone to the sin being treated” so that each person’s decision about the offender is tempered by honest self-assessment.
Now here’s the catch-22 about intentionally adopting humility: The minute we start focusing on humility & thinking we have achieved it, we exalt ourselves because of our achievement.
In his book The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis pointed out that “any of the virtues we possess become something of a spiritual problem once we become aware of them.” As an example, Lewis said that if we truly are humble, the depth of our humility may suddenly occur to us, so that we say, “By jove! I’m being humble!”
Almost immediately, Lewis says, pride — pride at our own humility — will appear. And Lewis called pride “the great sin.”
If this sounds like exaggeration, it will help us to know that Lewis is not simply giving us his private opinion but summarizing the thinking of great theologians & writers through the ages.
St. Augustine & Thomas Aquinas both taught that pride was the root of sin. Likewise Hildegard of Bingen, Teresa of Avila, John Calvin, Martin Luther & many many others.
Make no mistake about it: pride is the great sin. It is the most effective and destructive tool that can cause personal & group destruction. And why do the great spiritual leaders, Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant alike, unite around this conviction?
Because it is so clearly & solidly taught in Scripture. And if we awake to the danger of pride and try to smother this new form of pride, we can become proud of our attempt to do so!
What’s more, scientific research now shows that humility is an asset. A headline in The Washington Post last year read, “Leaders are more powerful when they’re humble, new research shows.”
While at its best, this finding can allude to the sort of personality power the humble Jesus Christ displayed. We can also imagine business seminars now offering sessions on how to get humble so as to grow your corporation; and yet somehow this seems to miss the point Jesus was making.
Still, here is a paragraph from the Washington Post article, which seems on target: “True humility, scientists have learned, is when people have an accurate assessment of both their strengths and weaknesses, and they see all this in the context of the larger whole. They’re a part of something far greater than themselves. They know they aren’t the center of the universe. And they’re both grounded and liberated by this knowledge. Recognizing their abilities, they ask how they can contribute. Recognizing their flaws, they ask how they can grow.”
Couple all of that with commitment to Jesus Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit in a person’s life, and you’ve got … not humble pie, but humble piety, which is good for us and for those around us.
For true humility elevates serving others over serving primarily oneself. Amen
@Rev. Tim Wolbrecht, 11/2017
Here’s the audio recording of the sermon. TO LISTEN, in the SoundCloud window below, CLICK (or double-Click) the red button with the white arrow pointing to the right. If that does not work, then click on the “Sermon 11-5-17” name of the sermon.