Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, ‘What were you arguing about on the way?’ But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest. He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, ‘Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.’ – Mark 9:33-35 (NRSV)
There are some passages and quotations that always stick with me, even if I can’t always remember precisely where to find them (thank God for Google!). The one for today’s reading, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all,” is one of them. Another along the same vein is from Luke:
When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable.‘When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, “Give this person your place”, and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, “Friend, move up higher”; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.’ – Luke 14:7-11 (NRSV)
Both scriptures deal with the same thing — the place (or non-place) for pride and the emphasis on the virtue of humility. Virtues are notoriously uncomfortable things; they’re a lot harder to do than their opposites. Virtues these days also seem to be a bit less desirable, sort of like shopping in second-hand stores for a dress to wear to a White House state dinner or Hollywood gala. Just because there’s a tiara involved doesn’t mean it’s made of diamonds.
The story of the wedding banquet has stuck with me for years, the part about not taking the higher seat, a place of honor, unless invited lest I be asked to move to make way for more exalted people. I have been reminded of this numerous times in my life, if not at a dinner party or gala. When I begin to be proud of something, someone or something comes to remind me that there are so many greater than I, more intelligent or more creative or more talented. Oh, I’m allowed to feel some pride when something I’ve done is good, but I’m reminded not to take TOO much pleasure in that feeling because it is transient and it’s not healthy to be too attached to the feeling of pride.
Jesus reminded the Sons of Thunder that there were more important things than being considered important enough to occupy places of honor. There are duties required of people of honor, duties that seem to be for those lower on the status chain to accomplish. That’s where humility comes in. Humble people do humble things because they need doing, not because they have to do them. They have a choice and they choose to let their actions speak louder than their words, to walk the walk and not just talk the talk. To be humble is to try to be transparent, to work behind the scenes almost invisibly and yet to do what needs to be done because it is the right thing to do, without looking for glory or fame. The joy is in the doing, not the recognition of having done it.
The tiara of pride is made of jewels of paste; the tiara of humility may be invisible, but the purity of its diamonds shine brighter than any visible light. It is that tiara with which Jesus crowns those who do not seek riches and fame but who quietly go about doing the work of the kingdom here and now.