Special photo: Susan Bennett
In Luke 14, Jesus goes to the home of a Pharisee for a Sabbath meal, and verse 1 says: “They were watching him closely.” When Jesus arrives, he notices how people scramble for the seats of honor, and he begins to teach the guests about humility. “When you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place …”
This is the polar opposite of what the world teaches us. The world teaches us to be aggressive and ambitious and get to the top however we can, whatever it takes, whoever it hurts. And there are many folks who’ve captured status, that sense of superiority, and also lots of money, by following that worldly teaching exactly.
But Jesus isn’t trying to teach us how to advance the kingdom of the world. He’s telling us how things work in the Kingdom of God. It turns out that in the Kingdom of God, it’s humility we’re after, not superiority. And humility is something we have trouble with.
When President Franklin Delano Roosevelt died unexpectedly, Harry Truman was the vice president, and there he was, suddenly thrust into the presidency. A powerful congressman named Sam Rayburn took him aside and told him, “Harry, from here on out, you’re going to have a lot of people around you. They’ll try to put a wall around you, and cut you off from any ideas but theirs. They’ll tell you what a great man you are. But Harry … you know and I know … you ain’t.”
You know, one of my uncles was named Robert Truman McKeag. In our family, Harry Truman was revered! And I think one of the reasons people are still talking about him is that he was honestly, genuinely, humble.
Every single one of us needs a few Sam Rayburns in our lives! I heard a story about a pretty famous Presbyterian preacher who preached his first sermon at his new church in Buckhead on the bodily resurrection of Christ. Well, this is a big subject, and the young preacher decided it was way too much for just one sermon. So he wrote a 28-page paper on the subject and distributed it to his new parishioners as they left the church that morning.
Talk about good intentions …
Next day, bright and early, a congregation member took this young preacher to breakfast. He told the preacher, “You are the smartest preacher we’ve ever had.” And the preacher thought, “This is a great man! He recognizes quality when he sees it.”
The man went on. “You are also the hardest-working preacher we’ve ever had.” And the preacher thought, “Ahh … this guy GETS it! He’s seeing things the way they are!” But then the man said, “But son, we don’t really need all that detail in your sermons.”
Well, the preacher was no longer smiling. He thought awhile, and then he got defensive. “Sir, as long as I’m your pastor, I’m going to make you people think! I have the courage of my convictions!”
The congregation member put down his fork. And he said, “Son … YOU’RE BORING US TO DEATH!” Then he said, “When you’re up there preaching, ask yourself: will what I am about to say for God help these people in their daily lives? Will it draw them closer to the Lord? Because that’s all that matters.”
Fortunately for the world, the young preacher heard that –– really heard it ––– and learned an eternal lesson. Such is the power and the goodness of humility.
It’s not really how much you know. It’s not how smart you are or how “important” you are. What matters is WHO you are. When we have a firm belief in ourselves as children of God, who are loved and accepted just as we are, we won’t have that need to push others out of the way so we can get where we want to be.
It actually won’t matter if the bride and groom are miles away at the wedding reception, or if some stranger is sitting in our usual pew at church. We’re interested in building the Kingdom of God –– not our own kingdom, or the kingdom of the world.
Humility is part and parcel of our life with Jesus. Humility is foundational to our whole relationship with Jesus and the folks in our lives, and to the building up of the Kingdom of God. A great preacher once put it this way:
Humility springs from reverence.
Humility springs from knowledge of sins forgiven.
Such humility … God honors.
Rev. Susan Bennett is pastor of Stockbridge Presbyterian Church. She and her husband live in Stockbridge with two giant Rottweilers and a 15-pound rescue dog who is the boss of everybody.