“The greatest among you will be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled; but whoever humbles himself shall be exalted.”
Jesus calls his disciples to humble service. He uses the scribes and Pharisees as examples of the opposite. While they are scholars of the law, they do not live the law. There is a disconnect between their knowledge and their living. Rather than taking the covenantal law to heart in love of God and care for neighbor, they lay heavy burdens on others, preferring for themselves the luxury of authority. Jesus rebukes this behavior in his call to humble service.
Last week we celebrated All Saints Day. When we reflect on the lives of the saints, we can see many examples of humility. These women and men gave of themselves, not seeking honor or glory, but serving others in genuine love of God and neighbor. This was the “greatest” of the laws as Jesus reminded us in last week’s Gospel passage.
The teaching today builds on that foundation. The saints all find their model, example and goal in Jesus. He is the humble servant of God whom we too are called to imitate.
Jesus emptied himself in love. This love led to his death on the cross and ultimately to his resurrection. His whole life and existence, which always was and is, is one of humble obedience and service of the Father. He was sent from the Father and took on flesh to lead us to the Father. His humility manifests itself in compassion, not only for humanity as a whole, but for the individual persons whom he encountered every day.
Obedience is necessary for humility. The word “obedience” has its roots in the Latin word for “listening.” The Son listens to the Father and responds, trusting in the Father’s love.
St. Paul identifies a similar response among the faithful in Thessolonika, for which he commends them: “And for this reason we too give thanks to God unceasingly, that, in receiving the word of God from hearing us, you received not a human word but, as it truly is, the word of God, which is now at work in you who believe.” Receiving the word of God means accepting the word, responding to that word, allowing that word to inspire, transform and lead one in life. This is the response is one of humility.
Jesus calls us to live in humble service and to practice what we preach. In order to be of genuine service to others, we first have to be humble before God and his Word, Jesus Christ; hence the importance of obedience, that listening, to the word.
Part of such humility is the fundamental recognition that God’s way is better than my way, that God’s plan is more reliable than my plan, and that God’s thoughts are higher than my thoughts.
Isaiah, speaking for the Lord, reminds us that this acceptance of God’s word will bear great fruit for the individual and the world: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, my thoughts higher than your thoughts. Yet just as from the heavens the rain and snow come down and do not return there till they have watered the earth, making it fertile and fruitful, giving seed to the one who sows and bread to the one who eats, so shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but shall do what pleases me, achieving the end for which I sent it”(Isaiah 55:8-11).
The humble service to which Jesus calls us and all disciples is first based on obedience to the word of God. With that as a foundation, then we will be fortified to lay down our lives for others, for this is the end to which humble service aspires.
Jesus ties the two together when he says: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I no longer call you slaves for a slave does not know what his master is doing. I have called you friends, because I have told you everything that I heard from my Father” (John 15:13-15).
The call to humble service is personified in Jesus, the one who humbled himself and has been exalted. He now calls us to do the same.
Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of Our Lady of Grace Parish, Penndel, and a former professor of Sacred Scripture and rector of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.