“The man who humbles himself will be exalted.” We’ve heard that one before, many times, perhaps but how do we respond? What is Jesus talking about? Another Sunday dose of hopeless idealism? Another example of what we have come to expect when we come to Church? One gets the uneasy feeling that nobody expects anybody to take this kind of talk seriously. One senses a response, as though on cue, in the form of an impatient, irreverent, congregational wink.
At rock bottom, to humble oneself means to put others first; to be at the service of others; to give oneself unselfishly to others. That is as good a description as any, of the high cost of Christian discipleship. But, in our self-centeredness, we are reluctant to pay the price. We grow fond of listening to the voice of exaltation saying from within, “Don’t give! Take! Get all you can for as little as you can!” And then we use and exploit other people.
Thomas Edison, one of the greatest inventors in history, lived in a large house with a massive fence around it. Visitors had to push open an enormous iron gate to enter the compound and then push it back again until it clanked shut. One of Edison’s friends complained to him about the tremendous amount of energy required to open and close that gate. With a twinkle in his eye, Mr. Edison escorted his friend up onto the roof of the house and showed him an elaborate mechanical device made up of levers and pulleys and pumps. “What you don’t know,” said Edison, “is that everyone who opens and closes that gate automatically pumps a gallon of water into my tank up here on the roof.”
To be honest about this, we all do it. People come walking into our lives, and we say, “How do you do,” meaning, “What can you do for me? How much water can you pump into my tank? Can you amuse me? Can you fatten my wallet? Will you praise me, adore me, exalt me?” But when Jesus Christ becomes real to us, a subtle but very profound change takes place, making it possible for us to become What can I do for you? Kind of persons.
“Let the greater among you be as the servant.” These are Jesus’ words, not mine. And He intended them to hit His listeners right where they were living. He talked to real women and men about the real problems they were having. His words got under their skin, churned around in their hearts, shook up their souls, demanded a response, either affirmative or negative. Jesus had a manner of speaking that made people listen, made them take His words seriously — so much so that those who responded negatively, responded violently, and they crucified Him.
How easily words can be used to twist reality, to cover up! It has become standard practice. Not only have we been conditioned to expect it, but also, we have learned to accept it and to participate in it. In the stereotypic rhetoric of politics, the candidate promises to be the servant of all the people, knowing that nobody takes this kind of talk seriously anymore. On TV and radio, advertisers stretch words to their outer-limits to promote sales.
Our children are learning at a very tender age that twisting reality with words is to be expected and accepted in the game of everyday living. And when they begin coming to Church, do they have any real reason to believe that we are not still participating in the ordinary game of saying-one-thing-and-meaning-another?
“Let the greater among you be as … the servant …The man who humbles himself will be exalted.” Jesus is speaking to us as real persons with a real problem in dealing with the question: “Who should be regarded as the greatest?” There is no mincing of words, no twisting of reality: the person who serves is greatest. “I am in your midst as one who serves you,” Jesus said. Jesus, remember, repeatedly described God’s judgment in terms of how we feed and clothe and otherwise minister to the least of His brothers and sisters. It is not our position in life that counts, but what we do with it. It is not the mere exercise of power and authority that counts. What matters is how we exercise that power and authority (as parents, for example).
Jesus is telling us that Christian Faith is not a status symbol, but the very foundation of human living. Jesus is telling us that Christian Faith is not merely something to be acquired now so that after our 50 or 80 years on earth, we will be able to enjoy the luxury of happiness in the afterlife. Jesus is telling us that Christian Faith is not luxury; it is a necessity. It is necessary now because now is when we need to know who we are and how God wants us to live.
During Jesus’ Passion, on the very night, before He is to die, His closest friends ask Him to settle a dispute concerning which of them “should be regarded as the greatest.” He replies: “Let the greater among you be the junior, and the leader among you the servant … I am in your midst as one who serves you.”
We are free to choose. Do we enter Christian Communion with others? Do we begin to live for others? Or do we oppose the solidarity and brotherhood which Christian Faith inspires?
Don’t wink in disbelief as Jesus speaks of living for others as our rule of life. No, let us instead close both eyes and repeat the words of our anguished Jesus on the Mount of Olives: “Father … not My will but Yours.”