The Virtue of Humility

It may be said -- and today's Gospel reading is a magnificent example -- that Matthew is a sustained presentation on the virtue of recognizing Jesus as God's messiah. Knowing who he is. Edgar Krentz suggests that the virtue shown in the trial in the wilderness, greatly expanded by Matthew, and in the entry into Jerusalem is the same: humility, in Greek praütētos. That this is not meekness or lowliness or any other sort of wimpy virtue, but purely and simply that Jesus knows who he is, and who he is not. That he acts only on the basis of his self-recognition as God's messiah, and that passing the trial by Satan in the wilderness is a demonstration of his correct understanding of this identity. Humility in Jesus consists of knowing who he is, and acting like it.

What difference would it make if Jesus was one of the prophets? I've argued before that he is a prophet, in Mark -- that he performs a prophetic role in teaching. And clearly, in Matthew, Jesus also performs this prophetic role in teaching. And what do the prophets do? The prophets are those sent by God to call the people of God to account. To account, not for the letter of the law or for their obedience to teaching, but for the root of the law: for their relationship to God, and their corresponding relationship to one another. A prophet tells the people the uncomfortable truth of where they have gone wrong in their relationship with God and one another as God's peculiar people, and calls them to turn back to God and behave justly toward one another.

And given the Sermon on the Mount, and his interactions with the Pharisees and Sadducees, it's no wonder that people could mistake Jesus for his cousin John, that great contemporary preacher of repentance and right relationships. Oh, but Elijah? And Jeremiah? These are the hopes of the people, and their fears. For Jesus is no mere preacher. He heals, he stands with the people in their distress, and he lightens their burdens. He sustains them out of the meagerness of their hopes with the fullness of God's love and grace. He is not merely a preacher and a teacher, but a miraculous one -- who could signal either the victory of the people against their oppression, or their destruction and further exile, but in any case who is for them the sign of the presence of God with them.

But is this who Jesus is? Standing here outside of Caesarea Philippi, at the root of the Jordan River, far to the north of Jerusalem, when we know that this story is going south, and in a hurry -- is this who Jesus is, a prophet and a teacher of repentance, even if a miraculous one? Destined for the treatment a prophet deserves, even a prophet's death?

The Spirit of God bubbles up within us and says "No!" That is not all there is here. No; "You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God!" And knowing who he is, we know who we are -- and with that knowledge we could walk straight into hell and back out again. And we will walk with him all the way down the Jordan, straight into Jerusalem, and back out, and along the way we will learn what it truly means that he is the messiah, the son of the living God. We will learn who we are with him; who we are because he has taken our sins upon himself; who we are because the Romans raised him up and he died; who we are because the Father raised him up and he lives. Who we are because he always goes ahead of us, and we always fall down at his feet and worship God, though sometimes we doubt. Who we are because he sends us out to do his work in the world, and we always return to hear the story again.

So as Paul says to the Romans, I say to you: don't get the wrong idea about yourselves. Think practically about who you are, because Christ the living Son of the living God goes before you. Understand how who you are guides your actions. "Do not intend that you should be more than it is necessary for you to be, but be intent upon practical wisdom, since God has apportioned to each of you a share of our common faith." Here is nothing more than humility: the virtue of knowing who you are. And just as Paul cautions you not to reach too high, I would caution you not to reach too low. You are exactly what it is necessary that you should be. You are one with the disciples in the story -- as they fail, and as they succeed, as they doubt and as they believe. All at the same time. Perfectly ordinary people, God's good creation, following Jesus and learning what that means anew every day.

Jesus is no mere prophet. He does not simply call us to account for our relationship to God -- he forges that relationship, creates it in us and sustains it. Christ gives you a full measure of the faith and trust in God that we share, washing over each of you in baptism, broken from our common loaf and poured from our common cup each week. This faith lives in you every day, in the gifts of your abilities used in daily life. In millions of miraculous ways, the grace of God shines forth from each of you, holy and pleasing to God.

Thanks be to God.



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