Oct. 23, 2016 Sermon
Luke 18: 9-14
Kingdom of Humility
Let’s talk about the challenge of being humble. I remember some teenage girl movies I watched with pretty and popular girls either bullying other girls or using their privilege to help other girls. The thing about these pretty and popular girls is that they are pretty and they know it. The prettiest and the most popular of them all is called queen bee. In one movie when one girl says to the queen bee, “You’re really pretty”, the queen bee replies, “I know, right?” In another movie, when the queen bee says to a new girl, “You’re really pretty” and the new girls says, “Thank you”, the queen bee says, “So you agree; you think you’re pretty”.
But in some other situations such as job interview, the issue of being humble can be complicated because you have to sell yourself to be selected. Since in my culture we are taught to be humble and modest, bragging about our abilities in job interviews can feel awkward to many people. Then there is this guy running in a presidential election who was trying to brag about his intelligence by saying, “I’m, like, a really smart person”. I find it ironic that someone as arrogant as he is, when trying to brag about his intelligence, would talk like a 3rd grader and can’t use a more sophisticated, pedantic, snobbish, and supercilious language!
I think we all know that being humble can be challenging. When we read about Jesus rebuking religious leaders of his time for not being humble or for being hypocrites, it is easy for us to snort at them and judge them too; we might not realize that what we are judging in them is sometimes us. The parable that we read today is a bridge between the stories that come before and after, and they all carry the common theme. The story of a persistent widow that comes before deals with prayer; so does today’s story. What follows is Jesus teaching about children entering the kingdom, and the story of a rich man asking Jesus how to receive eternal life. As in today’s story, pride and self-importance are shown as an obstacle in the way of the kingdom. In the story of the widow, the widow receives justice for her unjust situation whatever it may be. Widows in the ancient world had no social status or material possession unless they relied on charity or on their sons who are capable of supporting them. So the widow’s story is about an oppressed and marginalized person receiving justice. In today’s story, the Pharisee is rebuked for being arrogant and is denied justification from God. Jesus ends this lesson by saying, “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted. In the following story, Jesus claims that the kingdom of God belongs to the children, or those who are vulnerable like the children, such as the oppressed widow or the well-hated tax collector who prayed humbly. In the next story, Jesus teaches the rich man and his disciples that clinging onto the worldly possession or privilege will prevent them from entering the kingdom of God.
All these stories tell us what the kingdom of God is about; what it values. These stories, as is the general theme of the Gospel of Luke, teach us the following two things; one, the values of our world is greatly reversed in God’s reign, and two, humility is a crucial virtue in God’s reign. People who think they are important in our world are not considered important in God’s reign; people who are considered unimportant in our world are the important ones in God’s reign. This is what makes humility one of the most important values in God’s kingdom. God’s kingdom is a realm that exalts the humble and marginalized in our society. God’s kingdom exalts those who don’t think themselves great and important. God’s reign is a reign of humility and justice.
It is easy to be arrogant and judgmental; we become judgmental or condescending often without realizing it. One thing I learned from psychology is that arrogance comes from low self-esteem. In other words, we judge others harshly and look down on them because we never feel like we’re good enough. We try to feel good about ourselves by putting others down, which is of course not a healthy thing. In Kenya, when I was appointed half time to a parish and half time coordinating Sunday school education, there was a woman in my parish who was leading the Sunday school. She was good with children and prepared lessons herself. She had a lot of talents. But she didn’t listen to anyone, not her minister or church leaders, and constantly treated Sunday school teachers she was leading like they were stupid. I learned later on that her parents never affirmed her talents and didn’t let her pursue her dreams. Having been oppressed all her life (first by her parents, and then later on by her abusive husband), she became an oppressive and arrogant person.
Ok, I’m not an expert on psychology and I’m guessing that there would be different reasons why people become judgmental and condescending (and oppressive), and that low self-esteem is not the only factor. But ideally, Christians should not have low self-esteem and feel threatened by other people. Jesus taught us that we are loved by God, and that God loves us in spite of our flaws and sins. We are taught to love one another in harmony. Jesus didn’t teach us anything about who’s better than whom. The community of disciples, God’s kingdom that Jesus taught is an egalitarian community where everybody loves and serves one another. People who feel loved and valued would not have low self-esteem. Humility is an essential value of God’s kingdom because in God’s reign, nobody would feel insecure enough to feel bad about oneself or feel the need to put others down in order to feel worthy. In an egalitarian community, we don’t have to compete with each other and compare ourselves to others. Nobody has to be arrogant.
Yes, I know that I’m describing some kind of utopia. That’s why I said “ideally”. As the followers of Jesus, as the members of God’s kingdom, let us remember today that in God’s kingdom, no one is better than others. We should be driven by the spirit of love and compassion in interacting with each other. Joel spoke of the happy idealistic future and of the spirit of God that will be poured out. This spirit that will make our sons and daughters prophesy, our old men dream dreams, and our young men see visions is the spirit of God of love that will make us love ourselves as God loves us, and love others with generosity and compassion. In the gospel, especially in the first three gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), Jesus keeps teaching humility to his disciples. Discipleship comes with humility and the spirit of love and compassion.
When I was a student minister, one of my first tasks was to refill oil in the fake candle we used at our Sunday worship service. I would go to work dressed nicely, and then get dirty dealing with fake candle oil. It was good for my soul; it taught me that ministry is about serving, sometimes doing dirty jobs. It is also good for my soul to work as an apple peeler at our pie making event. Such activities remind us to be humble and value even the simplest and the lowliest of labors. Let us go out into the world with the spirit of love and humility, and with that humility, let us love and serve one another; since God’s reign to which we belong is a community of love and humility.
Rev. Sunny Kim