Sometime during the presidency of Lyndon Johnson, I had a career as a Boy Scout. It lasted all of about one month. The brevity of my own time in scouting, however, is no reflection of my opinion of the organization. I have particular respect for Boy Scouts who make it to the rank of Eagle. Having served on an Eagle Scout board of review, I am very impressed with the strength of the requirements, and the strength of character needed in any young man who would attempt to meet them. It’s a demanding process that many begin and few finish. It’s not easy, but it is doable. It can’t be done absent-mindedly or half-heartedly, but it can be done. The required steps are clearly laid out in the Boy Scout manual. Boys who attain the rank of Eagle Scout do so as a direct result of their own initiative and dedication.
Many times, Christians think and act as though our standing before God, the process by which we achieve a right relationship with God, is the same sort of process as that by which a boy becomes an Eagle Scout. If a person can muster enough initiative and dedication, and follow the path of moral virtue that is clearly defined in places like the Ten Commandments, then he or she can earn God’s favor, can deserve, by right, to be accepted and approved by God. The problem is, the more “successful” we become at cultivating such moral virtues, at deserving such favor and approval, the more prideful we become. After all, look how much we’ve sacrificed and how much we’ve accomplished, to have reached such a point. And the more prideful we become, by definition, the more we are alienated from God. It’s an ironically treacherous cycle that feeds on itself and grows until it catches us in its trap. The more we “improve”, the more we appear to deserve God’s approval, and the less we think we need it! Here we are—just and charitable and prudent and wise, all as a result of our initiative and dedication. So who needs God now? What started out as growth toward God ends up in separation from God. We become like many religious people in Jesus’ time who were punctilious about observing every last detail of the law in an excruciatingly correct manner. Time and again he warns them of the danger of pride and arrogance and that their very ability to keep the law is itself a gift from God.
Perhaps Jesus was familiar with the story of a certain Rabbi Simeon, who had lived about a hundred years earlier. Rabbi Simeon was invited to a royal dinner party, and took the liberty of seating himself directly between the king and the queen, remarking that someone who had cultivated wisdom as much as he had deserved nothing less than to be seated among royalty! Wisdom may have been among Rabbi Simeon’s virtues, but humility was apparently not.
This may even be the background for the advice Jesus gives to his own disciples when they were invited to a dinner party given by a local dignitary. When you enter the dining room, take the least desirable position. Perhaps the host will then invite you to come at sit at the head table. But if you seat yourself at the head table, you run the risk of being embarrassed when you’re asked to make way for someone the host would rather have there. Now this advice that Jesus gives is neither particularly original—very similar versions are found in other literature of the time—nor is it particularly profound—its merit is rather obvious. But generation upon generation of men and women have found it extremely difficult to put into practice!
Humility does not come naturally or easily to most of us. It’s a virtue that is scorned by our peers as often as it is admired. We Americas in particular, with our heritage of self-reliant frontier individualism, are apt to get a lump in our throat when we hear Frank Sinatra sing I Did It My Way. This is the opposite of humility: arrogant pride, the rebellious assertion of one’s independence from God. Such pride is the root, the wellspring, of all other sin, because it cuts us off from God. Real virtue, however, is grounded not in pride, but in humility, the kind of humility that is the only possible result of walking closely with God.
If you drive by just about any school playground in America on a Saturday afternoon when the weather is mild, there’s a good chance that you’ll find young people there playing basketball. And at each of these informal games, there will be one or two players who stand out among their peers for their ability, who set the standard of play to which everyone else aspires. But if LeBron James and Kobe Bryant were to show up and offer to go two-on-two against whoever the local hotdog basketball players in that place are, what do you think is going to happen? In the presence of real basketball ability, any local schoolyard hotdog is going to be humbled.
Your Rector takes a certain amount of satisfaction in his accomplishments as a cook. I’ve dabbled with Chinese food for 25 years, and picked up some Louisiana cuisine about 20 years ago when we lived there. More recently I’ve been trying to learn Mexican cooking, and even venture a bit into barbecue. But if, say, Emeril Lagasse or Bobby Flay were to step out of the television set into my kitchen, I assure I would not be talking about my cooking ability. I would be humbled. In fact, the hotdog basketball player, and the amateur chef would all be the first to acknowledge their own insignificance in the presence of authentic excellence and greatness. They would attempt to focus attention away from themselves and onto the source of such greatness.
I would like to think that, having had chef Paul Prudhomme in my kitchen, I would want to have him back again and again, just to delight in the beauty of what he does with food. Having once witnessed and experienced cooking excellence, I would want to participate in it again and again. And while my attention is focused on the master chef, not thinking of myself at all, I would probably, in the process, become a pretty terrific cook!
When we walk closely with God we experience such authentic holiness that we can see clearly that we have none of our own. We’re humbled to the point where we can see how un-humble we are, how inadequate our humility is. But humility is a virtue that we can’t aim for directly. In fact, a humble person is never aware of his or her own humility, because to be aware of it is to lose it. Humility is the habit of looking to God alone as the source of our self-esteem.
So growth in humility cannot occur if we focus on growth in humility. We cannot aim for it and work toward it the way a Boy Scout aims at the rank of Eagle. Growth in humility is a side-effect, an indirect result, of our walking closely with God, of making him our focus, our delight, and our joy. If I want to become a good cook, my chances are much improved if I hang around a good cook, and simply take delight in that person’s mastery of the art. If I want to become humble, my chances are much improved if I stop thinking about becoming humble, and concentrate instead on enjoying and adoring and serving Christ, the model of humility. This is the way we derive our self-esteem from God, by hanging around him, in prayer, in the sacraments, and in the communal life of the church.
When a soldier displays heroism on the battlefield, the only thing going through his mind is the task at hand: accomplishing the military objective, and saving the lives of his comrades. The one thing he is not thinking about is receiving a medal for his valor.
If we follow this path of humility, if we reach the point where taking the least honorable seat at the dinner party becomes second nature to us, then we will eventually, in the ironic economy of the kingdom of God, be granted that which our arrogant pride would have sought but not found. We will be granted the respect and admiration of our peers. We will hear the voice of the host of the banquet saying to us, “Friend, come up higher.” And in the act of walking to the head table to accept the honor, we will, once again, be humbled. Amen.