On Humility

Excerpt from: A Theology of Humility

by EC Andercheck

“Whoever humbles himself like this child
 is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”
Mat 18:4

Jesus had begun teaching the disciples that “the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” is as humble as a child. This teaching occurs as Jesus is leading the disciples along the path to the Cross.  Peter has been rebuked (Matt. 16:22) for denying the possibility of Jesus’ death. Concern among the disciples about the departure of their leader is growing; possibly prompting the inquiry, “Who is the Greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven?” (Mat. 18:1) Was this question inquiring about the primary attribute of Jesus’ successor?

It is my reading that Jesus is teaching his disciples how to build a church on earth; first and foremost that this is to be achieved by being as “The Greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven”. As a vision for leadership, I understand Jesus’ statement “Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” (Mat. 18:4) to be an instruction to all disciples that the primary attribute of a Christian leader is humility.

Contexts – then and now.

I am interpreting Matthew 18:4 within the context of New Testament teaching for application in Christian leadership today. It is our own critical reading today that allows us to formulate some valuable extraction from scripture for our church ecclesiology. Hence, the objective of this essay is to ferret out from within the teaching of Matthew 18:4 an answer to the question, “In what ways might a vision of leadership informed by the NT challenge institutional forms of ministry today? Or in what ways might this vision spark renewal in the church?” The issue at hand today is whether Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 18:4 supports the notion that a spark of renewal in the church can be ignited through humility being accepted as the primary attribute of Christian leadership.

The issue at hand for the disciples could have been what is next; who is going to be in charge if Jesus dies. At that time, they did not fully understand how the Cross was about to change everything for them. Stanley Hauerwas commences this dialogue for us “Anticipating his death, are the disciples beginning to wonder who will lead them after he is gone? Matthew does not tell us.”[i] So, let us now look further within Matthew and to the other gospel parallel accounts as a source of possible additional context for our reading.

Matthew has substantially shortened Mark’s introduction to the disciples’ appearance before their inquiry into who is the greatest. In doing so Matthew has eliminated the narrative of the disciples arguing on the way to Capernaum. Donald Senior suggests that “Typically Matthew portrays the disciples in a more favorable light than Mark, but Matthew’s version is not without its implicit critique of the disciples’ attitude.”[ii] I think it is fair to see Matthew’s brevity and elimination of the negative appearance of the disciples’ argument to be good reasoning for his departure from the other synoptic gospel accounts. I do not draw from the Matthean account that the disciples were asking who is the greatest for some reason unrelated to the competition for succession.

Matthew does not tell us that the disciples are discussing who will be the leader when Jesus is gone. However the Markan account asserts, “…They had argued with one another who was the greatest” (Mark 9:34). Jesus then taught them “Whoever wants to be the first must be last of all and servant of all.” (Mark 9:35) Luke’s account acknowledges both the disciples’ argument and Jesus’ awareness of the disciples concerns. “An argument arose among them as to which of them was the greatest. But Jesus, aware of their inner thoughts….” (Luke 9:46-47), and then Jesus took a little child to them and began to teach.         

Matthew will soon acknowledge that there is competition growing surrounding the leadership hierarchy of the evolving kingdom. The mother of the sons of Zebedee asks Jesus for a favor “…Declare that these two sons of mine will sit, one at your right hand and one at your left hand in the kingdom.” (Mat. 20:21) Matthew goes on to report that the other 10 Disciples became angry over this (Mat 20:24). Then Jesus again brings the attribute of humility to bear by repeating his teaching, this time citing his own ministry of serving and not being served (Mat. 18:28). This contextual setting of competition for leadership succession gives us background for reference as Jesus begins teaching about church. Most importantly, for our purpose, is Jesus’s teaching to the Disciples about humility.

What is child like Humility?

“Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” (Mat 18:4) indicates a specific undertaking for the disciples; identify which attribute of a child Jesus is talking about and then humble themselves in order to become that manner of person. Eugene Boring suggests that this pericope is not a “call to imitate” child like traits but rather to rethink concepts of status. He seizes the essence of Matthew 18:4 “To become like a little child is to humble oneself giving up all pretensions of self-importance, independence, and self-reliance and turning in trust to the heavenly father.”[iii] Drawing leadership notions over and against Boring’s take on this text, we find a cultural challenge for today’s churches that will require further consideration.

The child is without power, position or authority in the world of the Matthean community. Hauerwas vividly draws the contrast, “In a world so dark that it would kill children, Jesus tells the disciples that they must instead receive children. In a world that has no time for children, Jesus calls his followers to be people of patience, taking the time to have and raise them.”[iv] The world struggled with disease and the children were the least protected, and the poorest even less so with much shorter life expectancies. Warren Carter shares a look at Roman Empire health outcomes, “Up to 50 percent of children died by age ten. Child-raising practices such as denying protein-rich, infection fighting colostrum to newborns and early weaning onto nutritionally inadequate foods contributed to high infant mortality rates.”[v] Jesus is not talking about the elite and powerful as an example for the disciples to model themselves after.

Ulrich Luz looks to the notion of childlike humility and community in relation to judgment and to how to live, “One may become humble, despise no one and practice compassion”[vi] It is humble to allow the Father to be judge, obedience to the Lord is humility in our spiritual life. Luz also identifies the challenge of how church can grapple with justice being God’s work not ours. So concepts of humility over and against judgment present problems for those who wish to protect their community from evil.  

Raymond Brown suggests that ambition for positions of leadership would inevitably arise and that “In Jesus’ set of values the humble are more important than the powerful, for dependence on God is what makes one open to God’s rule; and so the little child is held up as an example.”[vii]Obedience to God’s rule is the eternal measure of humility. We must humble ourselves to the Lord, as we know our sinfulness is forgiven by his sacrifice at the Cross.

It becomes clearer as we look to the broader pericope that Jesus is pointing to the humbleness of the child as a positive attribute and he is teaching metaphorically. Matthew does not tell us directly that the greatest in the kingdom is the best qualified for leadership in the kingdom. However, once we accept the metaphorical teaching surrounding little ones, children and sheep; then the continuing conversation within Matthew 18: 5-35 logically engages the pastoral responsibilities of shepherds as leaders within those same frames of humble attributes.

Now I wish to bring our attention to the role of humility within a community, one on earth, but one of heaven. Just as the Disciples were beginning to fear Jesus’s imminent departure; we constantly lose our faith in the heavenly Father and need to be reordered within the structure Jesus modeled for church.  Notions of community and hierarchy are going to arrive at center stage for the disciples and will require our careful attention. Boring doesn’t bring us home by defining how the community might be structured, but he gives us a foundation cornerstone to build on. “The first rule for life together in the new community formed by Jesus is to abandon the quest for status and accept one’s place as already given in the family of God.”[viii] Our quest is to search out a set of rules that respect this first rule; and discover how a theology of humility can be at the core of a hierarchical church.

A Teaching on Church?

“For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” (Mat.18: 20) suggests that the life and teachings of Jesus will be preserved in a community which gathers in his name and recalls his life. Today, we know this form of community primarily as church. Here in Matthew we find the beginnings of this vexing intersection of Christology and ecclesiology – church – a conception that both binds and separates the members of the body of Christ on earth today.

Raymond Brown describes this fourth major discourse of Mat. 18:1-35 as the Sermon on the Church.[ix] Brown continues “Matt recognizes the danger that any structure set up in this world tends to take its values from the other structures that surround it. This chap. is meant to insure that those values do not smother the values of Jesus.”[x] There is no sense to the proposition that a child should lead the church, however Jesus asks his disciples to change themselves to be as children. Jesus is asking the disciples to understand what it takes to lead the kingdom they are about to inherit from him. This is possibly the first lesson in ecclesiology. The Lord is saying, once I am gone, the most humble will be the greatest, learn humility. The son of man has come as a servant and so must the leaders of the disciples as they build a community to be known as church.  

Hauerwas suggests that the alternative to tyranny is a church governed by our serving one another, “This is the climax of Jesus’s instructions for how the church is to be ordered in light of his cross and resurrection. The church is to be the exemplification of his life, giving life to the world.”[xi] The idea that church is to be of the kingdom of heaven, not of the kingdom of earth, is the antithesis to tyranny, much as childlike humility is. Jesus is teaching that the humility of a child is to be the attribute of the greatest in heaven. So if we accept Brown’s premise then this attribute must be injected within the core structure of this community on earth to prevent the secular world from smothering the Christian values within church.

If the hierarchy of church is the ordering of the values of Jesus; then a kingdom of the son of man on earth must place primary value on the attributes of the humble ones whose humility allows them to be the most obedient to God’s rule. Senior summarizes his view of the Matthean community discourse as portraying the virtues essential for the Christian community. He asserts “The community, and in a special way its leading members, was to be characterized by a childlike humility, not seeking special status but willing to change their perspective and take on a new life.”[xii] I understand Senior’s analysis to be addressing the disciples who are exhibiting a lack of humility before they received the teaching of Matt 18: 4. Within this context Senior’s text provides clear  insight into what Jesus hoped his disciples might achieve. However, it is important to engage his comment carefully for today’s ecclesiology, I suggest it is critical that we not infer that community leaders, once theologically grounded in humility, should become willing to change their perspective and be open to whimsical adventures from these core teachings.

We might now revisit the first rule Eugene Boring suggested for community life and infer some value from his suggestion that we acknowledge that God has given each of us a place in His community and that we do not need to be ambitious for status. This allows us to participate within the community with a primary focus on obedience to God’s will. Now, how do we assure that we hear the teachings of Jesus as we humbly pursue the vocational calling and responsibilities we have each arrived at within the structure of church; without the secular world squelching them?

In the simplicity of a childlike humility we can see the absence of an agenda for status and no inclination to be preoccupied with the quest for power and position. However, being imperfect and living in this earthly world constantly allows intervening forces to tear us from that place of humility and challenge the practice of Boring’s first rule. I believe the antidote can be found in the humble discipline of Prayer, a regularly ordered and rhythmic return to visit the values of Jesus.

Stanley Hauerwas suggests, “…that one of the essential tasks of the church is the care of words.”[xiii]  This is the witness of recalling Jesus to be present in our lives. How can we be faithful in our recollection of Jesus without a careful recognition of who we are and where we as Christians came from theologically? Invention from the world outside of and around church continues to be the editor of our words. Hauerwas brings an answer, one that I shall build on; “Truthful language can go dead, because all language requires constant care. That is why the church cannot live without the poetry of careful speech, which often takes the form of prayer, in particular the prayer of monks, who have honed their prayers through the centuries by singing the Psalms.”[xiv]

Practicing God’s rule within a community on earth presents a significant challenge to church, one that has been struggled with since the disciples denied Jesus on the way to the Cross. Jesus’ teaching on humility is indeed regularly seen in conflict with human desires for earthly power, the ambitions of the Mother of James and John is repeated throughout the centuries. This becomes an important conversation for us as we see personal power as the motivation for so many individuals that seek leadership authority within the church. For many a church, this leadership – power versus servant -dialogue seems to be yielding to popular concepts and secularization. In Praxis there is a challenge today to the reading of Matthew 18:4 as an instruction to lead with humility. Might the ecclesiology of the community be the demon? We shall examine this text in conversation with the historical successes of a Sixth-Century rule for community living in obedience to God on earth whose author addresses the attribute of humility.

Is there humility in a Monastic Rule?

Benedict of Nursia introduces his teaching on humility by engaging the Lukan text, “Brothers, divine Scripture calls to us saying: Whoever exalts himself shall be humbled, and whoever humbles himself shall be exalted. (Luke 14:11; 18:14)”[xv] In the seventh chapter of the Rule of Saint Benedict he goes on to prescribe twelve steps by which brothers can attain exaltation in heaven. Benedict asserts these are the necessary steps of humility to be taken in climbing the earthly ladder of ascension towards heaven. However, we must both challenge and appreciate the context of this sixth-century monastic formula and then engage it critically to determine what value it lends to our current era.

The Rule of Saint Benedict – Prologue:

Listen carefully, my son, to the master’s instructions, and attend to them with the ear of your heart. This is advice from a father who loves you; welcome it, and faithfully put it into practice. The labor of obedience will bring you back to him from whom you had drifted through the sloth of disobedience. This message of mine is for you, then, if you are ready to give up your own will, once and for all, and armed with the strong and noble weapons of obedience to do battle for the true King, Christ the Lord.[xvi]
It was in Italy amongst the disintegration of the great Roman Empire during the sixth century, that Benedict of Nursia disillusioned with the world in turmoil around him sought refuge as a hermit in Subiaco. He lived there being tended to by a monk named Romanus for some few years. And so Benedict began his monastic experience by living out a humble solitude and receiving support for daily living from a basic simple monastic culture.

From this experience Benedict found a special appreciation for humility and hospitality and he went on to establish monasteries to model these virtues, including Monte Casino, and eventually to memorialize his thoughts within his rule for monastic community living. Saint Benedict refers to his Rule “as a little Rule for Beginners”, it is comprised of 73 short chapters. In his last chapter entitled This Rule only a Beginning of Perfection, he depicts the obedience and humility necessary to appreciate his meaning. “But for anyone hastening on to perfection of monastic life, there are the teachings of the holy Fathers, the observance of which will lead him to the very perfection of monastic life.” (RB73:2) This perfection is a primary monastic objective only able to be approached through a humble obedience to the Father.

“Let them Prefer nothing whatsoever to Christ.” (RB 72:11) The Benedictine rule provides a guideline for humility in monastic community living formed around obedience to God, stability, love, hospitality and reverence for the human person. Archabbot Justin DuVall, OSB, monk of Saint Meinrad Archabbey in his essay Sharing the Mind of St. Benedict suggests, “Our contemporary culture stresses finding a balance in life, but St. Benedict in his Rule speaks more of a rhythm of life that ebbs and flows according to the demands of time.”[xvii] The Archabbot teaches that to share the mind of Saint Benedict one must be humble and empty or open their mind in preference to the way of Christ. Then having fostered receptivity, carefully discern the values presented by the world around us and carefully employ discipline in our life in the Benedictine manner. This disciplined rhythm of life is most outwardly apparent in the Rule’s call for movement from work and life’s activity to Prayer and back eight times each day. It is from this rhythm of Prayer and work; that we gain the informal motto of Benedictine life “Ora et labora”. The rhythm of humility is found by subordinating ones earthly schedule to the importance of Prayer to our Father eight times each day.

Upon the occasion of a visiting lecture to the Sant’ Anselmo Benedictine community Dr. Rowan Williams, Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury noted that the rule of Saint Benedict asks us to contemplate two important questions: “1. What is the life that best sets a person free to advance to the joy for which we are made? and 2. What is the style of authority that will enable a ‘faith beyond resentment’?”[xviii] These questions are intended to engage the modeling process for Christian institutions facing ecclesiological challenges, and also apply to a church facing a crisis in relevancy. These questions seem particularly relevant to the challenges of community living in the Matthean Disciple dialogue, and those in the founding of the Monastery at Monte Casino and still to our church dilemma today. I suggest that both of Archbishop Williams’ questions are engaged fruitfully by the teaching of Matthew 18:4. Today’s disciples must all advance their Christian joy by taking steps toward humility. Christian leaders can best escape resentment and build church authority by leading from the rungs of that same ladder of humility.

The tools for good works in the Rule of Saint Benedict instruct the brothers to, “Renounce yourself to follow Christ (Matt 16:24; Luke 9:23); discipline your body; do not pamper yourself, but love fasting. You must relieve the lot of the poor, clothe the naked, visit the sick and bury the dead. Go to help the troubled and console the sorrowing.” (RB 4:10-19) The brothers are being asked to place Christ’s love first and live apart from the world’s ways, but not to depart from Christian service and engagement in the earthly world.

 Fr. Meinrad Brune, O.S.B. teaches Oblates and Novices that, “The hospitality of Abraham, Sarah and Mary are echoed in the Rule of St. Benedict, which says that every stranger should be received as if he or she is Christ. St. Benedict wants his monks to attend to the needs of guests and strangers….But most of all the monks just let them be. The greatest act of hospitality is when guests and strangers can feel comfortable and be themselves without fear of judgment.”[xix]Humility is the calm daily path of Ora et Labora; but the Rule of Saint Benedict is not a gentle rule for those who stray from the prescribed path and are overtaken by evil. However, the Matthean community is also one of laws, and we know Jesus taught rules for living.  Ulrich Luz asserts that Matthew 18:15-17 is a rule for excommunication and the process for eliminating sinners is apparent as, “…the Matthean community has many structural elements in common with a sect visibly in the process of self definition.” [xx]Luz sees the Matthean text bringing righteousness and obedience to the fore as virtues of community; much in the same way Benedict does in his rule.

The twelve steps of humility can be extracted from the Rule as simple and direct instructions to disciples for living in community; the first is to keep the fear of God while recalling His eternal presence and the second is to love not your own will nor to take pleasure in personal desires. The third step is to submit to obedience of the Abbot for the love of God and the fourth when obedience is difficult; one is to embrace the suffering. The fifth is to not conceal anything sinful from his Abbot but to humbly confess it and the sixth is that a monk is to be content with menial tasks and treatment. This first half of these twelve steps of humility provide sufficient insight to see how a brother must humble himself as a child to live according to the Rule of Saint Benedict.

What leadership attribute is the greatest?

Faith, Hope and Love! The numerous attributes of Christian living bring many challengers to humility as the greatest attribute for Christian leadership. The thesis that Matthew 18:4 is teaching the disciples that the greatest attribute for Christian leadership is humility does not suggest that the disciple ignore developing other good Christian attributes. In Matthew 5:1-11the Beatitudes provide us with a delineation of eleven virtuous attributes, all which will be blessed. This template teaches us how God will bless those who society might not, those who are the least and humblest. Hauerwas suggests, “Perhaps a more honest alternative reading acknowledges that the sermon is meant to apply to our lives, but such an application is useful only to make us “feel Guilty”.”[xxi] He goes on to suggest that the sermon indirectly puts forth ideals for Christians to try to achieve in community. Virtuous ideals identify the attributes of a Christian person living well in community.

There are many virtuous attributes a Christian might practice that can be hidden. So we must ask if a leader is virtuous but fails to communicate this virtue, does he possess the most important attribute of leadership? This line of inquiry suggests that a loving person might not always communicate that virtue despite its pious practice. I suggest that servant leadership is communicated through a life of “lived out humility”. Vigorously living out of humility vividly models the qualities of the virtue essential to leadership success. Humility is not the only virtue of a Christian, it might not be the top virtue of a Christian, but that humility that Jesus lived out in giving his life for us, must be at the heart of Christian community formation.

Although Matthew does not tell us directly that the greatest in the kingdom is the best qualified for leadership in the kingdom; he does tell the disciples who will be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. In describing that humility, Matthew leads us to the witness of the ministry of Jesus as servant leader. It is in looking at our Lord’s vision of the greatest in the kingdom of heaven as an image, framed by how He led that the greatest attribute of leadership is revealed.

Is Humility still of value today?

It is quite a leap from Monte Casino, Italy circa 547 to Nashville, TN of 1997 when a different type of community was formed following the core of the Rule of Saint Benedict. It is in an unlikely twentieth-century cottage industry setting that we find the Prayer and work of everyday life, the Ora et Labora, of recovering prostitutes operating in a community organized around 24 principles derived from the Rule of Saint Benedict. In August of 1997 volunteers from Saint Augustine’s Chapel on the campus of Vanderbilt University began a recovery community for women who had survived lives of prostitution and chemical dependency. Manufacturing women’s care products, Thistle Farms started first and foremost so the women in recovery at Magdalene House could work productively in a community that revered human dignity.

The vision of the Thistle Farms – Magdalene community is to build a caring mutually supportive community for women in recovery from prostitution and drug addiction. The mission is to provide humble basic sanctuary along with an array of support services and educational training opportunities. Not every Christian will choose to live as a Monk, but all can see the dignity of humility at the core of thriving communities derived from the Rule of Saint Benedict. The saving of lives through humble community living still goes on today.

As a vision for leadership today, Jesus’ statement that “Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” (Mat. 18:4) is the foundation for evolving how the attribute of humility can be supportive of authority in a Christian leaders voice. The observation of leaders living out Christ’s humility in daily testimony yields teachable moments in the pews. It overcomes challenges to church leadership authority, thereby spawning the possibilities for a spark of renewal to ignite new horizons for church. The world watched as a humble newly elected Pope Francis shunned the Pope mobile, rode the bus and paid his own hotel bill. The image of a pious lived out humility appeared. The virtually unanimous response was that maybe church could change; for at least a moment Pope Francis gained the fragile voice of authority. The attribute of humility is primary to a Christian leader because without it the teachable moment never occurs and the voice of the leader never gains authority.

End Notes

I Stanley Hauerwas, Matthew – Brazos Theological Commentary (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Brazos Press, 2006) 161

[i] Mattthew Brazos Commentary, Stanley Hauerwas.

[ii] Donald Senior, Matthew  (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1998) 207.

[iii] Eugene Boring  NSRV COMM

[iv] Hauerwas, Matthew – Brazos Theological Commentary,161.

[v] Warren Carter, The Roman Empire and the New Testament (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2006) 116.

[vi] Ulrich Luz, The Theology of the Gospel of Matthew (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993) 108.

[vii] Raymond E. Brown, An Introduction to The New Testament (New York: Doubleday, 1997) 191.

[viii] Eugene Boring, NIBC Biblical Commentary Series, Volume 8  (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995) 374.

[ix] Brown, An Introduction to The New Testament , 191.

[x] Ibid, 192.

[xi] Hauerwas, Matthew – Brazos Theological Commentary, 178.

[xii] Senior, Matthew, 212.

[xiii] Hauerwas, Matthew – Brazos Theological Commentary, 123.

[xiv] Ibid, 123.

[xv] Timothy Fry, OSB, ed., The Rule of Saint Benedict In English (Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1982) 32.

[xvi] Fry, The Rule of Saint Benedict In English , 34.

[xvii] Justin DuVall, OSB, Sharing the Mind of St. Benedict ( St. Meinrad, In.: Abbey Press,  2007), 3.

[xviii] Rowan Williams, Sharing the Mind of St. Benedict(St. Meinrad, In. :Abbey Press, 2007), 2.

[xix] Meinrad Brune, , OSB, Offering Hospitality, (St. Meinrad, In: Abbey Press, 2010), 4.

[xx] Luz, The Theology of the Gospel of Matthew, 105.       

[xxi] Hauerwas, Matthew – Brazos Theological Commentary, 59.


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