This passage from Philippians invites us to reflect on the virtue of humility. But I have to confess I struggle with the actual living out of this virtue – at least in a consistent and deepening manner. Can I suggest that maybe we all experience the same. I do know that life’s formative experiences carry messages about what it means to express humility in our network of relationships with others. Those early messages have a habit of sticking with us. They have the power to become the default settings that stay with us unless displaced by other models.
I was raised by loving and caring parents who left me with worthy models of self-respect, living out the courage of one’s convictions, accepting personal responsibility, working hard according to one’s ability … but if there was any formal instruction on humility, it was not in words but by their own stance toward others which came to them from their own very different upbringing.
My mother came from a well to do family from a rural town. She lived in one of, if not the nicest homes. Her father had ‘status’ as did her mother via memory of the social connections in the old country. Mum was private school educated, a loving mum but she knew who should look up to her and show respect.
Dad had little formal education having been forced to leave home when he was 15. He knew what it meant to make one’s own way in life and clearly imbibed the Australian attitude of ‘Jack’s as good as his master’. Dad didn’t let others push him around. He was anything but aggressive but he knew how to stand his ground.
I suspect we all have our stories about how we came to have a mindset about humility. I say ‘mindset’ because Paul, in this passage keeps referring to having a particular mind (re humility):
be of the same mind,
being in full accord and of one mind (v.2)
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, (v.5)
A mindset, an embedded stance that expresses a humble presence carrying the possibilities of setting the tone for all personal encounters. A stance so deeply embedded that it displaces all other natural inclinations.
The passage is one of the great Christological passages in the New Testament. Passages like this have been the Church’s source for the formulation of the creeds and other affirmations concerning the person and work of Jesus Christ.
For instance 1 Cor. 8:6 affirms Christ’s pre-existence with the Father
yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.
And Colossians 1:15-20 which among many affirmations includes that
in Him “all things hold together” and that “through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.”
But the Philippians passage feels a bit different to a lot of the other Christological passages.
It even looks different. It looks like a hymn that you’d find in the hymnal. And, the scholars are pretty well agreed that it is exactly that. Probably not something Paul wrote but that he employed in his appeal to the people at Philippi.
But more than looking a bit different, it reads differently. It (at least vs 5-11) has a certain narrative quality – almost an attempt to take the listener/reader into the inner processes of Jesus as he approached the Cross.
The significance of the passage has been identified by the framers of the Church’s lectionary as being so significant that it appears in every year of the 3 year cycle as the epistle reading for Palm Sunday, and then once again in Year A for today’s reading.
It’s there for us on Palm Sunday as we head into Holy Week, helping us step slowly through the movement of Jesus toward the events of the Cross and the empty tomb. But, can I suggest, this Palm Sunday reading focusses attention on the quality of the self-offering – a quality that is caught up in the key word, kenosis, (self-emptying) in verse 7 of the reading
… though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave, (Vs 6,7)
This humility that Paul is speaking about is not the sort of humility that comes immediately to mind when we hear the scenario of being invited to a meal and wondering where to sit … go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, “Friend, move up higher”.
Jesus was not suggesting that this is an honourable expression of humility. Rather it seems he was seeking to subvert that very self-serving appearance of humility for the benefit of others.
Unfortunately that hasn’t stopped the Church’s elevation of that sort of humility. A subservience, especially for women who have been encouraged to adopt a sort of ‘doormat’ deference has explained a great deal of domestic violence over the centuries which is still with us in too many places.
Paul is not speaking of this as simply a virtue to be admired and worked hard at acquiring: “Jesus was humble, so we Christians should try and be humble, too”. Paul won’t have anything to do with a life that focusses on acquiring an endless collection of supposedly Christian virtues.
This humility is gentle and understanding but also tough edged, hard working. It gives space to the other, but it means business as well. A humility that can go the distance, a humility that relinquishes, rejects that need to win at all costs that wants to get things done, to resolve difference by sheer application of will and determination).
Karl Barth suggested that this hymns’ appeal was “the heart of the Pauline ethic”.
Paul talks of ‘having this mind’ (among you). He is seems he is suggesting that there is a “mindedness”, an embedded disposition … a stance that is nourished and energised by relationship. There is, he says, a way of “minding” an approach to life, to others, to self, to God which characterises those who are “in Christ”.
I carry a picture of the humility that seems to have been embodied in the little man, Dom Helder Camara, one time Bishop of Recife in Argentina, who visited Australia in 1985. I recall listening to comments made by Margaret Throsby of (then) ABC Classic FM who happened to be attending that Melbourne gathering. As soon as she saw this diminutive figure come to the lectern, she recalled how struck she was by the compelling attractiveness of this man. A winsome and peaceful presence, humble and yet outgoing … But no obsequious self-abnegation but a hard-edged humility that was able to speak truth to power but lay aside the options of power that his office afforded. (Not so the man who followed him as bishop. He quickly made use of the bishop’s purple ceremonial dress, travelled in the limousine that was available and was housed in luxury.)
By contrast (from an obituary …)
“A tiny figure, barely five feet tall, Dom Helder rejected the pomp and ceremony of his rank. He always wore a battered brown cassock, adorned only by a simple wooden cross… a wizened brown face, battered by years of exposure to the harsh sun of the drought- ravaged north-east. I remember, above all, his gentleness and his concern for everything in the world around him, including its animals and plants (which had earned him the nickname of St Francis).” (From his obituary)
Well, we all have those figures who come to mind. You may, in your own mind, find that such a picture of this humility is found in other characters: the Dalai Lama, or Desmond Tutu, Simone Weil, Mother Teresa.
Having said all that and knowing the outward appearance of this deep humility there has to be more to the story. Admiring the humility of others takes us only so far.
We have to know something of the inner process that nourishes, that feeds, the “in Christ” reality.
Can I suggest some key elements?
There will be a recognition of cost: A downward movement?
“Regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.”
Pause a moment, would you, and consider what interests of others there may be near to hand that would require you to “move over”, even a bit.
This quality of humility doesn’t come to us without struggle but the more it operates, the more there is a willingness, even a desire, to make space for “otherness”: a willingness to make room, to relinquish what I too easily count as my own possession (my own ‘ground’ as my father would have said) thanks to education, physical strength, gender, position authority or age.
Humility reminds me to be calm in the face of opposing ideas, refusing to reach for the weapons of accumulated knowledge and experience, or my orthodoxy that gives me the confidence that “I know”!
There is an unmistakable downward journey that Paul speaks about. And going downward runs counter to our desire to be upwardly mobile.
There will be an inward journey: OT scholar Bonnie Thurston says on this passage: Christ did not “give himself away without first possessing himself.” As the passage says he knew his identity, knew who he was …
Who though he was in the form of God did not regard equality with God a thing to be exploited” … (v.6)
Humility invites a true and grounded vision of oneself, and that suggests a self-awareness that how I see myself in the world often owes a great deal more to my ego than it does to reality.
That inward journey is one of honest reflection and prayer. It is a slow and deliberate process.
It’s a process not of self-improvement through gritted teeth. The process is spiritual and the enabling is “in Christ”.
There will be an outward attentiveness.
Paul has in mind disputes between people within the community that have spilled over into the community as a whole and caused disruption (4:2).
But there is a world beyond our individual personal encounters that longs for healing, reconciliation, peace and community wellbeing.
And let me suggest that humility (of the sort that is gathered up in this “kenotic hymn”) holds in the imagination a future for the world, for humanity and for the non-human as a harmonious realm, a coming together of the best of all possible goods. It rules out nothing as an obstacle to a reconciliation that keeps listening to the other’s perspective and searches relentlessly for ways to find common ground.
But that attractive image of the harmonious realm is secured in increments as humility bears the costs of making room for the “other” … open to the possibility that this “other” may actually have a greater, truer grasp of the complexities of life, of God’s being and presence than do I.
Humility tells me to be calm in the face of opposing ideas, refusing to reach for the weapons of my orthodoxy to protect that which “I know, (or think I know) to be ultimate truth”.
With this way of being in the world there are no guaranteed outcomes. Karl Barth summed it up in the words, “The grave of Christ was a cave not a tunnel.” Christ acted on our behalf without view of gain.
A spiritual journey but with real world outcomes at stake.
And there is a great deal at stake, especially for this community which has as one of its goals … “to build an inclusive and caring community”.
When we gather at the table we enact that wildness in the generosity of God displayed in Jesus’ embrace of those who were “awkwardly other” for the Jews of his day: the tax gathers, the Gentiles, the people of questionable morals, the Samaritans, the Roman occupiers and so on.
Yes, an “open and caring community” that needs to keep plunging deeper and deeper into what that entails: a sharing in Christ’s own humility.
(this) mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
May it be so.