Humility is a characteristic that is not easily described. It’s simpler to say what it is not. Humility is not fawning or behaving obsequiously. It is not an attempt to ingratiate oneself to a superior or to curry favour. Such attitudes are feigned humility, and are more akin to the unctuous self-proclaimed “‘umbleness” of Dickens’ Uriah Heep in the novel David Copperfield.
At the other extreme are those who dismiss humility as equivalent to weakness and affirm “hardness” instead, as Adolf Hitler did: “I want the young to be violent, domineering, undismayed, cruel . . . There must be nothing weak or gentle about them.”1 In this connection one expects to see pride, arrogance, hubris, narcissism, boastfulness, with a total disregard for others. Hitler dismissed as “namby-pamby utterances” such virtues as “sympathy and care for others”. Yet these were the concern of Jesus.
“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28–30, italics added).
There’s nothing harsh, hard or ruthless here. Nor is there any boastful arrogance in these utterances from the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5):
• Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth (v5).
• Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy (v7).
• Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God (v8).
• Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God (v9).
Jesus preached about the “kingdom of God/heaven”. The disciples welcomed “the good news of the kingdom” (Matthew 9:35) but then had difficulty grasping its humble nature. They were preoccupied with the question: “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” (Matthew 18:1). Jesus replied, “the least among all of you is the greatest” in the kingdom of God (Luke 9:48). “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and slave of all” (Mark 9:35). To enter the kingdom of God required that one accept the lowly status of a child (Mark 10:15).
Even the mother of James and John thought it appropriate to urge Jesus to grant her sons a privileged status in the kingdom of God, which meant that neither she nor they had grasped the humility that was at the heart of the kingdom of God, as Jesus conceived it (Matthew 20:20–22; Mark 10:35–38). Incredibly, the dispute in Galilee over which of them was the greatest (Mark 9:33,34) still prevailed during the last supper. There arose “a dispute . . . among them as to which one of them was to be regarded as the greatest” (Luke 22:24).
This was to evaluate greatness in the terms of the world where those who are served, such as kings and authorities, are esteemed as great. But Jesus was among them as One who serves and waits on tables (Luke 22:27). Furthermore, “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many [for all others]” (Mark 10:45).
With the bread and the wine on the table before Him, Jesus declares His ultimate service to be the crucifixion. In the midst of the tension of the disciples’ dispute among themselves over which of them was the greatest, and during the meal itself, Jesus “got up … took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him” (John 13:4,5). He who was their Lord and Master did for them what none of them were willing to do, that is, take the role of the slave and wash their feet. Jesus lays aside (tithēmi) His garments just as He was soon to lay down (tithēmi) His life for His sheep (John 10:11,15) and for His friends (John 15:13).
Whereas humility describes “a modest opinion of one’s own importance”, humiliation refers to the ridiculing of others in order to destroy their self-respect. The devices used to this end are sarcasm, mockery, sneering, shaming, belittling, bullying and taunting. How did Jesus understand Himself? The Christmas announcements provide an answer:
• “He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end” (Luke 1:32,33).
• “To you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord” (Luke 2:11).
Frequently, Jesus is affirmed as the Messiah (Matthew 16:16; Luke 24:46; John 20:31; Acts 2:36; Romans 9:5); a title that He accepts (John 4:25,26). The Messiah, or the Christ, is the ideal, hoped-for Davidic king, the Anointed One.2 It is this claim—that Jesus is the Messiah—that is ridiculed and mocked throughout the trial of Jesus.
In his film The Passion of the Christ, Mel Gibson devotes 10 minutes of his 126 minute movie to the scene of the scourging with all its horror and brutality. This is not where the Gospels place their emphasis. In their view, it is not the physical pain that is important, but the mockery and shame He endured for us. “Looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame” (Hebrews 12:12, NKJV).
The mocking began as soon as they brought Jesus before the high priest and the council (Mark 14.53–65). There is no disdain or insult more demeaning than human spittle directed at a fellow human being, and that’s where it started in the case of Jesus: “Some began to spit on him, to blindfold him, and to strike him, saying to him, ‘Prophesy!’ The guards also took him over and beat him” (v65). The humiliation of Jesus continued after they led Him bound to the Romans (Mark 15:1).
“They called together the whole cohort. And they clothed him in a purple cloak; and after twisting some [fronds] into a crown, they put it on him. And they began saluting him, ‘Hail, King of the Jews!’ They struck his head with a reed, spat upon him, and knelt down in homage to him. After mocking him, they stripped him of the purple cloak and put his own clothes on him” (Mark 15:16–20). Here we have barracks buffoonery of the worst kind. Every element of it, from the draped cloak and the mock crown to the spitting, beating and feigned homage, is calculated to show the mercenary troops’ total disdain of this Jewish King (Messiah).
The unrelenting abuse continued at the cross (Mark 15:29– 32). Passersby reviled Him and sneeringly asked Him to prove His claim to be able to destroy and to rebuild the temple in three days by saving Himself from the cross. In the same spirit, the religious leaders mockingly addressed Jesus in the third person: “Let the Messiah, the King of Israel, come down from the cross now, so that we may see and believe [in Him].” Those who were crucified with Him also taunted Him.
On the night of His betrayal, Jesus reminded the disciples that He had given them an example to follow (John 13:15). More is meant here than the washing of each other’s feet: “We know love by this, that he laid down (tithēmi) his life for us—and we ought to lay down (tithēmi) our lives for one another” (1 John 3:16). We are “to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love” (Ephesians 4:1,2, italics added).
“Finally, all of you, have unity of spirit, sympathy, love for one another, a tender heart, and a humble mind (1 Peter 3:8).” “Be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. 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 to his own advantage,
but he emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:2–8 NRSV, adapted, italics added).
“As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience . . . Above all, clothe yourselves with love (Colossians 3.12, 14, italics added).”
Love and humility are twin sisters, as is clear from Paul’s famous praise of love in 1 Corinthians 13:
“Love is patient; love is kind;
love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.
It does not insist on its own way;
it is not irritable or resentful.”
In all humility let us “live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us” (Ephesians 5:2).
Dr Norman Young is a former senior lecturer at Avondale University College.