Imitating Jesus’ humility.
That’s the title for today. It’s the subheading for this passage in most Bibles, certainly most that I’ve seen.
But they can be tricky things, those subheadings.
Helpful, often, to be sure, but, like the chapter and verse divisions, not part of the text: added by editors to help us to find the passage we’re looking for.
But (of necessity) they boil the passage down to just a few words, and of course, that can oversimplify – especially as words have nuance that can change, subtly, over time.
So maybe just start by noticing that the summary “imitating Jesus’ humility” is drawing together two ideas in the passage: “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves”; and the poem of the self-emptying (the koinosis) of Jesus,
“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself…”
Does it matter? Actually, I think maybe it does. And the reason goes back to a game a squash I played with my brother Andy a little over thirty years ago.
Andy was always far better at sport than I was, but we both enjoyed squash, so one summer we took to playing fairly regularly. I never won. Ever. There wasn’t even a question as to who would win. The question was whether he would beat me 9-0 or not. It was about 50/50 on that one. Didn’t stop me enjoying the games at all – indeed, when your default expectation is a 9-0 defeat, you can never fail to make the grade, only meet it, or surpass it.
But on one occasion our mum suggested to him that he didn’t actually need to win as completely as he did. Wasn’t that just his pride, she wondered, and humility, not pride was the Christian virtue?
And he replied – “false humility is just a pain”.
Or perhaps you prefer a more literary example – the ‘ever so ‘umble’ Uriah Heep from Dicken’s David Copperfield, whose fawning declarations of the humility of his position hid his scheming plans to better his personal status by dishonest means.
Or perhaps we just want to take seriously the modern psychological research, especially in the area positive psychology, which casts considerable doubt on the benefits of ‘putting yourself down’.
Humility – for good reasons and bad – has a pretty poor reputation.
And actually, it doesn’t get much positive treatment in the Bible, either. The word used here is only found three times in the New Testament – and the other two are definitely negative: condemning a fawning form of religious observance as ‘having only the appearance only of wisdom’.
But here we have a definite call to humility. To the ‘humility of mind that regards others as better than yourself’. Interestingly, that word better is an unusual one, too: it really carries the old-fashioned sense of “your betters” – those who are higher in the social hierarchy than you are (again, not an idea that we have much truck for in modern Australia). Some English translations have “more important” here, which has its own problems, but gives a different sense of the vibe.
Perhaps we might make best sense of this humility from the context: it is set in direct contrast with “selfish ambition or conceit”, and immediately followed by “look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others”.
The humility that we are called to as followers of Jesus is not the humility of putting yourself down, or of pretending to be less than you are. In fact, it isn’t really about an attitude of mind at all: the humility that the followers of Jesus are called to is one motivation and, even more, of action.
It is a call to set aside the selfish; whether that be selfish ambition, self-importance, or self-interest.
It is a call to consider the needs of others, even if by so doing you do not attain the advancement you might, or the reputation you might, or even meet the needs you might have.
In that respect, what Paul is calling Jesus’ people to here is – and this shouldn’t really come as any surprise – is acts of love, and attitude of love.
For of course one of the defining features of love is that it considers the needs of the beloved alongside, perhaps even before, its own.
And that then leads into the description of Jesus’ self-emptying as the ultimate example of the sort of humility Paul is writing about.
But even here, I find it noteworthy that Paul didn’t say “empty yourself like Jesus did, set aside any honour you have, become the lowest”. He said: “have a mind like that of Jesus, who…”.
It seems to me that as used here the description of Jesus’ actions is not given as a pattern to follow, but an illustration of what the attitude of mind Paul is describing meant for Jesus.
For Jesus the mind of love; the mind that considered the needs of others, not just his own; the mind that set aside ambition for self in the interests of the advancement of others; that mind led him to the incarnation, to a life lived for others, a death died for others.
We can’t, in any literal sense, follow that example: we have no divinity to set aside. And if we were called to descend to death, even death on a cross, I’m not sure many of us would be up for it.
But read it as a demonstration, an outworking of the mind of Jesus. Understand why he was willing to do all that, and seek to have that same mind.
So the challenge, surely, is to ask: What does it mean for you, for me, to ‘do nothing from selfish ambition … but to regard others as of greater importance’? To say that the advancement of others, the empowerment of others, the fulfilment of others, is as important, more important, than to have those things for myself? To truly rejoice more in the success of another than you would in your own success?
And what does it mean, in practice, to look to the needs, the interests, of others, before your own? To be willing to set aside something you want, to do, to have, to feel – because you know that someone else also needs it?
That isn’t the false humility of losing games of squash to your little brother.
And it isn’t the fawning humility that hides ambition and greed.
And it isn’t the psychologically dubious practice of putting yourself down, treating yourself as inferior, unimportant.
It’s the humility of Jesus. The humility of love, that considers the other before itself. Amen.