THE HUMILITY OF JESUS
"I am meek and lowly in heart."
- Matthew xi:29
LET us begin with that wonderful verse in the eleventh chapter of the Gospel according to St. Matthew: "Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden; and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls." That sentence is unique in the Gospel. There is nothing else at all like it. It is a bit of autobiography that is immeasurably precious. Nowhere is Jesus recorded as having said, "Come unto me, for I am patient - for I am courageous for I am self-sacrificing;" but here for the first time he calls attention to one of his characteristics. He has allowed other men to call attention to this virtue or that grace, but he himself will bring out the fact that he is humble. At this point he takes the brush in his own hand, saying, "I will put this color on myself." So unusual is the sentence that some men have been scandalized by it. They have declared he never said it, that it is not like him, that he could not say it, that if he did say it, it reveals a defect in his character. These men tell us that a man cannot eulogize himself, that it is always improper for a man to sing his own praises. All of which may be true, but this is a fair question: Is it right for a man ever to describe himself? Is it proper for a man to give a reason why men should come to him and take lessons of him? I think it is. That is all Jesus does in this instance. He says, "Come unto me, I have something to teach you, I should like to teach you humility."
Possibly no other virtue in the catalogue of Christian virtues is so misunderstood as this one. No other one has been so often erroneously defined, no other grace has been so persistently counterfeited and caricatured. What do we mean by humility? If you should have asked that question in the streets of ancient Athens, men would have told you that humility is something mean, it is cowardly, cringing, groveling; humility is meanness of spirit, it is something low and selfish, it is a characteristic of slaves. If a Greek had called another Greek humble, the Greek would have been insulted by the epithet. In all the Pagan world there was no virtue known as humility. Humility was always and everywhere a defect, a blemish, a vice.
But what do we mean by humility? The question is not so easily answered as it might appear. Humility is a Christian virtue - everybody says it is. We know that Jesus was humble, we know also that he demands humility of us, we know that he took the ancient word and cleansed it and made it a lovely word, and yet when asked to define the meaning of it, how difficult it is to do. What a variety of answers we have in answer to the question what humility is! One person says it is taking a low estimate of one's deserts; another says it is making one's self small. Another says it is a sense of inferiority in the presence of others. Another says it is a sense of imperfection, or of ill desert. Another says that it is softness, passivity, a willingness to submit. Now all of these definitions are proved to be erroneous the moment we carry them into the atmosphere of the New Testament. The humility that Jesus requires of those who follow him is the humility which he had himself, and certainly his humility was not meanness of spirit. There was nothing cringing or crawling in him. When has there walked the earth a man who held his head higher than did he? When has the world known a man of such lofty, regnant spirit? Nor did he take a low estimate of himself. On the other hand, no man ever estimated himself so highly. Hear him saying to the astounded crowd: "It was said to you by them of old time - but I say unto you," thus putting himself higher than Moses. Listen to him as he says: "A greater than Solomon is here," "I am the good shepherd," "1 am the light of the world," "I am the way, the truth, and the life," "I am from above," "No man knows the Father but the Son," "No man comes to the Father save through me," "I, if I be lifted up, will draw all men unto me." Certainly humility on the lips of Jesus does not mean a low estimate of one's powers. Let us then come close to him in order to understand just what he means when he says, "I am meek and lowly in heart."
Jesus gave his disciples three great lessons on the subject of humility, and to these I invite your attention. You will find the first of them recorded in the eighteenth of Matthew, the first five verses. On a certain occasion Jesus takes a little child, and putting him in the midst, says: "Whoever shall humble himself as a little child the same shall be great in the kingdom of heaven. Except ye become as a little child, ye shall in no wise enter into the kingdom of heaven." The words have been repeated to us so frequently that they fail to surprise the heart. This is one of the great scenes in the history of the world, one of the original scenes. Nothing like it was ever known in the history of Assyria, or of Babylonia, or of Egypt, or of Persia or of Greece or Rome. It is unique, absolutely original. "Whosoever shall humble himself as a little child" - and what is the crowning characteristic of a little child? It is his teachableness, docility, willingness to learn. A child is eager for knowledge, he is everlastingly asking questions, he is always bent on investigation, he pries into everything. He wants to go to the roots of everything. He always wants you to tell him one more story, he will wear a half dozen grown people out simply by the questions which he asks -so hungry is he for knowledge. This teachableness is humility.
Not only is he free from self-sufficiency, but he is free from vanity. A little child is not vain of the belongings of its parents. It cares nothing for diamonds or silks, brown stone, or carriages. It plays with perfect contentment with a child in the street whose parents have no carriages and who are too poor to own diamonds. Free from vanity it also knows nothing of ambition; it knows nothing of social aspirations. Place before it the queen of England and its own mother, and it will choose its mother every time, though she be nothing but a washerwoman - so simple, so human, so beautiful is the heart of a child. It is this characteristic of the child heart that Jesus loves. It was because the Pharisees did not have it that he criticized them and condemned them. They were not teachable -- they knew everything. Nobody could tell them anything. They were vain; they blew trumpets and called attention to their decorations. They loved salutations. They were ambitious; they were always pushing themselves forward, taking the chief places at the feasts. He could do nothing with them because they were not humble. He, on the other hand, had the heart of a child. The evangelists do not tell us about the first twelve years of his life, but in imagination we can see him sitting at the feet of his mother drinking in knowledge from her lips. We can see him in the little school in Nazareth, studying, hungry for knowledge. We get just a glimpse of him at the age of twelve, so hungry for knowledge that he will not go home, but lingers behind to ask the big teachers in the Temple just one more question. Always was he teachable. There is no trace of arrogance in him, no spirit of assumption. He is constantly talking to God, asking him questions, praying for new light. He cannot live without prayer. Prayer is the language of humility. Only the docile in heart ever pray. When we say that Jesus was a man of prayer, we say he was meek and lowly in heart.
Let us now turn to the twentieth of Matthew, verses twenty-five to twenty-eight. His disciples, in spite of all his admonitions and teachings, are filled with the ambitious spirit. They all want to be first. They want to be high up. Two of them ask for chief places in his kingdom. He tells them that he cannot grant their request. When the ten other apostles heard of the request that the two had made, the ten were indignant. This was because they themselves were ambitious - they wanted the places themselves. Jesus calls the twelve around him and says: "You know that the princes of the Gentiles exercise dominion over them, and they that are great exercise authority upon them. But it shall not be so among you: but whosoever will be great among you, let him be your minister; and whosoever will be chief among you let him be your servant. Here we get another note in the grace of humility. It is not only teachableness, freedom from vanity and ambition, but it is also a willingness to serve. A humble man is a man who is ready to make himself useful. A man of lowly spirit is a man who will help his brethren, and here again Jesus in substance says: "Come unto me, for I am meek and lowly in heart. Whosoever will be chief among you let him be your servant, even as the Son of Man came not to be ministered unto but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many." Does this not paint the picture of his life? As an inspired apostle puts it, "He went about doing good." He never patronized, nor looked down. He made himself of no reputation if only he could help those that needed help. He did not underestimate his powers, or make himself small, or feel himself to be unworthy; he simply came down to where men were in order to do them good. That is Christian humility.
The third lesson in humility was given his disciples on the very night of his betrayal, in the upper chamber. You will find the incident recorded in the thirteenth chapter of the Gospel according to St. John. The disciples are still filled with the ambitious spirit. They have not yet learned the joy of serving, for all have nettled hearts because they have not gotten the places which they wanted, and Jesus, unwilling to allow the feast to go forward arises from the table, and taking a basin and girding himself with a towel proceeds to rinse the dust from the disciples' feet. Knowing their dullness of understanding he goes on to explain the meaning of his action, telling them, just as he has been willing to do the work of a slave in order to serve them, so they also must be willing to serve one another. Here, again, we see what humility really is. It is laying aside one's dignity, it is making one's self of no reputation, it is a willingness to come down, it is a delight in rendering service. And why was it that Jesus was able to do this? St. John gives the explanation in the wonderful words, "Knowing that he came from God, and was going back to God." It was not because he had mean ideas of himself, nor because he desired to make himself small; it was because he knew his divine origin and his divine destiny, and was conscious of his lofty position that he was willing to take the basin and the towel and do the work of a slave. This is the secret of humility everywhere and always. A man is never humble except by coming close to God. It is by thinking of the Eternal that man becomes willing to do the things which otherwise would be difficult or impossible. It is because we do not know that we have come from God, and forget that we are going back to Him that we make such an ado about our dignity, and prize so highly our reputation, and are so lordly and so lofty minded, and take such delight in putting on airs. Only he who is sure of God possesses the secret of humility.
How far Christian humility is removed from the miserable caricature of humility of which we have seen more than enough. Much of the so-called humility of the world is not humility at all. It is a slimy, crawling, despicable, snaky thing, a compound of vanity and falsehood. People who say they do not amount to anything, they cannot do anything, they have no talent, they do not know anything - never speak the truth. They do not try to speak the truth, they know they are not speaking the truth. It is their egotism that is masquerading under the form of humility. There is no vainer form of vanity than just that vanity which apes humility. The humility which Jesus wants, and which he exemplified in his life, is a form of strength. Only the strong man can be really humble. It is willingness to lay aside one's rights, it is a refusal to use one's power, it is a readiness to come down and to make one's self of no reputation. Jesus was always giving up his rights; he was always refusing to use his power. Repeatedly he had the opportunity to wreak vengeance on his enemies, but he would not do it because he was so humble. Hanging on the cross his enemies taunted him, saying, "Let him save himself." Even when they saw he would not save himself they supposed of course he did not because he could not, and they broke out in hateful jeers, "He saved others, himself he cannot save." But they were mistaken. He had the power to save himself, but he would not use it. He could have called twelve legions of angels, but he would not call them. He was meek and lowly of heart, and was willing to give his life a ransom for many. St. Paul when he thinks of that which is most divine in Jesus thinks of his grace of humility. Notwithstanding his exalted position, Paul reminds his Philippian converts that Jesus "made himself of no reputation and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross. And therefore hath God highly exalted him and given him a name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee shall bow, and every tongue confess that he is Lord indeed."