From "It's Hard to be Humble" to Humility
This text is often preached in the way of Mac Davis' song "It's Hard to be Humble." "It sure is hard to be humble but give it another try." But having said that Jesus did preach humility. Where's the path from "gee wilikers it's hard to be humble but go ahead and try" to humility? Follow the text.
The text begins with Jesus teaching the Gospel. Jesus didn't want the crowds to know where He and the 12 were "because He was teaching them." The Greek expresses that the teaching was ongoing. You should not think Jesus merely said the words in our text, "The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into the hands of men. They will kill Him, and after three days He will rise." Just as Jesus didn't merely say the words, "Repent for the kingdom of God is at hand," so here Jesus was explaining what He meant.
What you know about Jesus' suffering, death, and resurrection, Jesus was trying to teach them, but the 12 were having no part of it. Again the Greek expresses two continuing things on the part of the 12. They were not understanding and they were afraid to find out more. No Bible study for this group. They knew what they knew and they were afraid to find out anymore than that.
I've said this repeatedly in the Hebrews Bible class. The default position of the fallen human heart, the fallen factory setting we always return to is the Law. By being afraid to dive deeper into the depths of the Gospel, they end up in the shallows of the Law. How else can you explain that Jesus' talk of suffering, dying, and rising to save them leads to them arguing about which one of them is greater than the other? Comparing yourself to someone else can only be done in terms of the Law.
Here's where people get turned around in the text. The sin of the 12 is being content with not understanding the Gospel because they were afraid of knowing more. The lack of humility they evidenced in their arguing about who was greater is the symptom of the real problem. If you approach this text as chiefly dealing with being humble, you won't address the real problem and you'll never get to real humility.
Jesus starts with the symptom of the problem which is where all good physicians start. He asks them actually it says He was repeatedly asking them and they were repeatedly silent. Jesus knows what they were arguing about, and they know too, but they don't want to admit it. Jesus even makes it easy for them. He asks, "What were you discussing on the way?" Jesus doesn't use the word for argue, but a milder, gentler term even though the text reports they were in fact arguing.
God is in the habit of making it easy for us to confess our sins. He approaches Adam with questions. "Where are you? Who told you that you were naked?" Of Cain, He asks, "Where is your brother?" In the parables we have, "Why didn't you put my money in the bank to get interest?" "Where is your wedding garment?" Here it's, "After My marvelous teaching about My suffering for your sins, My dying in your place, and My rising from the dead, what were you all discussing on the way?" But they wouldn't confess. Would you? Do you?
The next thing Jesus does is sit down; that's because this is the teaching position. He is indicating to these sinful rejecters of the Gospel whose rejection shows up in their lack of humility that He still wishes to teach them though they didn't want to be taught. He starts with their symptom: quarreling about which one of them is greater. "It's simple," says Jesus, "If anyone wishes to be first he will be last, that is, he will be servant of all." I've translated literally and correctly. The word "must" that's in your insert isn't in the Greek. There is an indicative not an imperative here. Jesus is indicating what is; He is not saying what must be.
Do you see if you read this as an imperative how easy it is to read this like Mac Davis? It's hard to be humble, but if you want to be first you must be the last. Do you see that this makes Jesus a teacher of how to be humble? Even worse it makes Jesus teach humility as a means to get first place. Finally, do you see that this is the fallen flesh's default setting? This is the way sinners like us naturally hear this text.
Jesus exposes the symptom of their grave sin of rejecting the Gospel with the question about what they were discussing. His statement, "If anyone wishes to be first he will be last," is a new approach at the Gospel they were content with not understanding. He continues this new approach by introducing a child into the discussion. In the midst of an argument about who is greater, Jesus brings one whom they all would agree is the least.
You have a hard time seeing that this is the point because children have more standing in our society. But some of you are old enough to remember when people said unapologetically, "Children are to be seen not heard." They didn't speak until spoken to. What they wanted, needed, and especially thought didn't have much influence in the family. I am not trying to introduce a discussion on the proper attitude toward children. I'm pointing out that when Jesus stands the little child in the midst of the disciples, they didn't go "awwh, how cute." He was putting someone who everyone agreed was the least.
Ready for the Gospel in pictures? Jesus stands the little child in front of them, and then in a grand gesture, unlike Jesus usually makes, He sweeps this least one up into His arms. Jesus had just said to them, "The One who embraces the least is the very last and the Servant of all." Thus Jesus portrays the Gospel to them and you that He is there to serve them by being betrayed, killed and raised.
Come be served by this One. He is betrayed, given up, forfeited into the hands of men to do whatever their wicked hearts pleases, so you can be given into the hands of God to be cleansed, cared for, and caressed. Let Jesus serve you in this way. Let it be Him who is killed to pay for your sins rather than you who suffer a thousand deaths in your conscience not one of them paying for even one sin. Let this Servant of all serve your salvation. Let His resurrection mean your victory over sin, over death, and over all the power of the Devil because Jesus' rising mean your sins really have been paid for; your death really has been died, and it means the Devil has no Law of God or sin of yours to point to as undone.
This is the Gospel that the 12 were content not to understand, and not having the righteousness of Jesus they went on to try and establish their own by saying I'm greater than you. Having once more showed them the Gospel, Jesus moves on to speak of humility, but as always not as we expect.
Jesus says, "Whoever welcomes the least of the world in My name welcomes Me, and whoever welcomes Me does not welcome Me but the One who sent Me." Like I've said many times in Bible class, Greek can make the relative pronoun me emphatic or not. You should hear the first three "me's" as emphatic. Picture them in bold. The last one is not; that's because the last conjunction "but" is also emphatic. So read with emphasis Jesus' words say: "Whoever welcomes the least of the world in My name welcomes Me, and whoever welcomes Me does not welcome Me but (alla) the One who sent Me."
The path to the Almighty, the path to the absolutely Greatest of All is through what the world scorns. It's the same path that the Gospel, the forgiveness of sins, freedom from guilt, being a new person, is on. The path is the Truth and the Life who is also called the Way: The Son of Man. The three times Jesus makes a prediction of His Passion in Mark He says it will happen to the Son of Man. The Son of Man is the One betrayed, killed and ridiculed. It's the Son of Man who has nowhere to lay His head. It's the Son of Man who came to serve not be served.
The 12 had a problem with this. In the upper room Jesus pleads with them, "You believe in God the Father almighty; believe also in Me." That troubles them, and one says, "Show us the Father and it is enough." Jesus responds, "He who has seen Me has seen the Father. No one gets to the Father except by Me." No one gets to the greatness of the Father except through the Son of Man, the suffering, sighing, dying, lower than low, Son of Man.
It is in receiving what He receives - the least of this world, rejection, suffering, and even death - that you receive greatness, acceptance, joy, and life. As Peter says, "Be humbled under the mighty hand of God with the result that He should exalt you in due time." Note it's not in the way of Mac Davis; Peter doesn't say "humble yourselves" as many translations have it. No it's "be humbled;" it's passive. God must do it for you, and He does by coming out of heaven in the Person of His Son. He forsakes all power, riches, and wisdom to embrace you, and embracing you means sin, death, and the devil for Him. It means shame, guilt, and black despair. Yet willingly Jesus bore all of these to claim you.
Jump to the Prodigal Son parable. What finally breaks the heart and humbles the pride of the prodigal is seeing his aged father running to meet him, him who had only recently crawled out of a pig sty. You can't humble yourself. Humility happens when the radicalness of what God did to save you reaches you. What God did for you is not only far beneath Him it's beneath you, below you in the Person and Work of the lowly Son of Man. As a tree can only find what grows it upward beneath it, so we sinners find the power, riches, and wisdom of heaven above in the things left to us below. The Son of Man put the power of a new life in the weakness of Water; the wisdom of everlasting life in the foolishness of preaching and teaching; and He put the riches of forgiveness, life and salvation in poor Bread that is His is Body and plain Wine that is His Blood. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost (20091004); Mark 9: 30-37