“Humble Pie”


Mt. 23


In the Name of God: Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier. Amen.

Seminary graduates, when they are ordained to the priesthood, always need to make a decision. They have to decide what they want to be called.

In the Episcopal Church, there is no universal form of address. Clergy who are in the “high church” tradition of Anglicanism generally prefer “Father” or “Mother.” Those who are “low church” prefer “Mr.” or “Ms.” or “Mrs.” You also hear “Pastor”—or even “Reverend,” though Episcopal clergy have generally not used those titles.

Some soften the formality of “Father” or “Mother” by using it in front of the first name rather than the last. Thus our former Associate Rector, Amanda Kucik, who has just moved to North Carolina will be known to her new parishioners as “Mother Amanda.”

At Incarnation, we clergy try to avoid the whole issue by encouraging people to use our first names instead of titles.

Now, clergy are perfectly well-aware that this is a trivial issue compared with our vocation to serve God. We tend to be a bit uneasy with the whole business of titles, since it seems to set us above the people we are supposed to be serving.

And as we think about this matter, we will certainly recall the passage in today’s Gospel where Jesus discusses humility. Christ advises his followers not to pay attention to some religious teachers because, he says, “they do not practice what they teach.”

In fact, these leaders are hard on their flocks. They “tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them.”

And these leaders are hypocritical in demanding humble service to God when they themselves are anything but modest! According to Jesus, “They do all their deeds to be seen by others… They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have people call them rabbi.”

The term, “rabbi,” which means “teacher,” was the customary title for a synagogue leader. But Jesus tells his disciples not to use that word because they “have one teacher.” Presumably this “teacher” is God, because Jesus goes on to say, “Call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father—the one in heaven.”

The passage then concludes with a general exhortation to serve others instead of seeking honor for oneself: “The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Yet, of course, there are problems with putting this advice into practice. Do something humble, and you start to feel holy—quite the opposite of humble!

I remember in my own seminary days, how our humility often seemed to be tested. For example, whenever a group of us was entering through the main door of the seminary at the same time, the process would take forever. Each of us would wait for the other to go first. Each of us wanted to hold the door for our fellow students!

In a recent book devoted to humility, the British theologian, Stephen Cherry, acknowledges that he has chosen a hard subject.

He writes about often listening to preaching about this topic: “Should a sermon touch on the virtue of humility, you can quickly begin to feel the discomfort. Is the preacher advertising himself as a humble person? How arrogant! Is the preacher advocating that others should be more humble? How oppressive!” The preacher can’t win!

Later in Cherry’s book, however, he points out the spiritual value of humility. Cherry observes that, “Humility, aided by sympathetic imagination, frees us from self-obsessed anxiety.” In other words, it’s a way of getting out of ourselves. Cherry goes on to point out that humility “enables us to turn our attention outwards so that we become more other-aware and less self-aware.”

“More other-aware and less self-aware.” Indeed: don’t the best lessons in humility come not when we try to be humble but when we are forced into it? When, as the old expression has it, we have to “eat humble pie?”

It isn’t fun to realize that a casual sarcastic remark has wounded someone we admire. But when we come to recognize the harmful consequences of our mistakes, we learn lessons about ourselves that we don’t soon forget.

In these cases, there’s no temptation to feel holier than thou. We haven’t chosen humility and so we can hardly take credit for that attitude. Rather, humiliation has chosen us.

And however painful such experiences are, they can be occasions for spiritual growth. In fact, we shouldn’t let these crises of pride go to waste! Every experience where we are compelled to recognize our faults is a chance to learn about ourselves. And, as Cherry suggests, this process can lead us away from self-anxiety toward the value of other people.

I think that this is the point Jesus is getting at. He isn’t endorsing what Nietzsche and other critics of religion call a “slave mentality,” where we are always beating ourselves up. Being humble doesn’t mean being a wimp.

Rather we actually rebuild our self-esteem as we realize the effect of our actions on others. And while we may not enjoy thinking of ourselves as modest or self-effacing, we do gain pleasure from making others feel good.

On this day, we might take an analogy from Halloween. Many people wear masks and costumes on this day in order to amuse those who see them—friends and strangers alike. The revelers take pleasure in their own creativity. But the greater enjoyment comes from the reactions of others: when others laugh at their appearance.

Humility also can be a mask. You can adopt this attitude–even when you don’t feel particularly meek—in order to give others pleasure. You let a colleague at the office take credit for work that is mostly yours. You listen to a friend tell a long story you have already heard before. You even—though in New York this is an extreme case—let someone cut in front of you in line!

Jesus says that those who humble themselves will be exalted. In these cases, the exaltation is invisible. But it’s there-not the pride of feeling grander than others-but the delight from giving someone else a lift. A pleasure that lifts us, too!





Leave a Reply