Leonard Bernstein, the renowned conductor of the New York Philharmonic was once asked what was the most difficult position to fill in the orchestra. Without hesitation he replied, “The second fiddle! I can get plenty of first violinists, but to find someone who can play the second fiddle with enthusiasm—that’s a problem. And if we have no second fiddle, we have no harmony.” 

I think Bernstein captures in this little story the essence of what is important about humility. He uses the phrase “second fiddle” which we usually apply to someone who doesn’t measure up, someone who is just not good enough, but then he hits the nail on the head when he says that without a second fiddle, we would have no harmony.

A friend of mine once told me that the most difficult group of people he ever worked with was a committee of the United Church brought together to plan worship for a national event. The committee was made up of one representative from each of our 13 conferences who was experienced in worship planning. Every one of the committee members, in other words was a leader, a first violinist. Nobody was willing to compromise. If a person had an idea about the worship they were planning, that person stuck to it no matter what anyone else thought. It was nearly impossible to get agreement, except on the point that everyone else’s ideas were wrong.

Harmony, whether in music or in meetings or in life generally, requires that some of the participants play a supporting role that embellishes the main theme, thus enhancing it. Some of the hymns that we sing from Voices United have a line of harmony, which is included for only one verse. Singing that line means letting others carry the melody while you sing a different tune that often floats above the main theme like a halo, amplifying its beauty.

The central message that I take from the story we heard read today is Jesus’ aphorism that “all who exalt themselves will be humbled and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” ‘Exalt’ is not a word we encounter very often in everyday speech. It originates from the Latin and means to lift up or to raise higher. To be exalted means something like getting a promotion, being moved to a higher status.

In Jesus’ day, as is still the case, the place that a person sits during a formal dinner or feast signified their status. Rather than get into a competition for the best or most prestigious seat Jesus advises us to take a less conspicuous seat and trust that you will be recognized by the host and moved to a higher one.

Jesus’ words can be heard as very practical advice to someone trying to get ahead. In our day it might be rephrased as “don’t try to push yourself into a position you are not qualified to fill. Work hard at what you are good at and eventually you will get noticed and get a promotion.” One business writer summed it up as “faking humility.”

It would be a mistake, I think, to take Jesus’ words here in this way. He is not likely to have been concerned about helping people climb the ladder of social status in his day, or the ladder of corporate success in our own. One way to understand this text is to recall that in Luke’s gospel, Jesus is continually reminding his hearers that the commonwealth of God is at hand. And many times Jesus uses the image of a banquet or feast to help us understand what he means by that term.

Rather than imagine this banquet as a state dinner, or the wedding feast for a corporate tycoon, I suggest we are being invited to picture the meal that Jesus shares with us, the meal that embodies the relationship of equality and justice that God desires for all humankind. The poor will be fed and the rich will go away hungry. The powerful will be brought low and the lowly will be exalted. In God’s commonwealth our usual expectations will be reversed and the social order will be inverted so that the humble will be recognized while those who grasp for power and prestige will tumble to the bottom of the pile.

In short, humility is a character trait that will be rewarded. God will recognize the humble and give them the seat of honour at the head of the table.

If that’s the message, we need to think about what it means to be humble. C.S. Lewis may have said it best; “Humility is not thinking less of yourself, it is thinking of yourself less.”

Psalm 22 includes a line that captures that ‘thinking less of yourself” when it says, “But I am a worm, and not human; scorned and despised by the people. All who see me mock at me;” Taken by itself this line has led to what we might call contests in humility. There is a rabbinic story of a wealthy man who came into the synagogue one day and found a poor man there reciting this psalm. The rich man sneered and said to his companion, “Who does he think he is? He’s not nearly as humble as I am.”

Humility is not thinking less of yourself, it is thinking of yourself less. Instead of focusing on how you are doing and trying to discover what people think of you, a humble person is focused on the other person, trying to discover who they are in a deep sense. Lewis referred to this state of being as “blessed self-forgetfulness.”

We have an example of the opposite of humility currently running for president in the United States. Everyone who seeks that high office must have a pretty well developed ego, but Donald Trump has been described in an article looking at his psychological makeup as someone who is always ‘playing Donald Trump’. In other words, he is always focused on how people are perceiving him and responding to him, rather than being focused on the people themselves. In his world, he is the only one who matters.

For many of us, Jesus’ call to humility is hard to take because in our culture to be humble feels degrading, it feels humiliating. We hear the call with the words of that psalm in our ears and think, “I don’t want to grovel like a worm. That’s not who I am.”

We live in a time when mental health is recognized as including a good dose of self-esteem. But a positive self-image can include humility, indeed it should include humility. Donald Trump may be an extreme example of the narcissistic personality type, but there are many who share that characteristic. The story of Narcissus, you may recall, is the Greek legend about the young man who was so beautiful that when he came upon a quiet pool of water and saw his reflection for the first time he was so entranced that he stayed staring at it until he died.

Jesus’ desire for us is that we live as whole human beings, fulfilling our individual potential and contributing to the well-being of the wider community. To fulfill that desire we need to be humble enough to accept that we are not the greatest at everything, we need other people to help us thrive in life. Sometimes we need other people simply to survive.

The commonwealth of God is not, I think, a banquet where there is a simple reversal of roles, where the humble get a chance for payback by lording it over those who were formerly the masters. Jesus reminds us elsewhere that to be a master means we are to be the slave of all, in other words, despite the reversal we remain humble servants.

What changes, however, is that in the commonwealth of God we serve others with a sense of love and fellowship rather than from a sense of fear, obligation or necessity.

Let me finish with a story that describes the difference between heaven and hell. When a certain man died and arrived at the pearly gates St. Peter asked him if he preferred heaven or hell as his eternal home. The man was surprised to be given a choice and asked if he could visit each so that he could decide.

St. Peter first took him to hell where he walked into a huge banquet room, with tables full of rich meats, glasses full of fine wines and cakes and desserts piled high. The room, however, was filled with the agonized hungry moaning of the people gathered at the table. They were unable to feed themselves because instead of arms they had long spoons coming from their shoulders, spoons that could not bend. Although they were able to dip the spoons into the food they could not get the food to their mouths.

“Well that doesn’t look too good,” said the man who had recently died. “Can I have a look at heaven please?”

“Certainly” said Peter and instantly they were transported to a very similar banquet hall, tables sagging with food and drink surrounded by people equipped only with spoons and no arms.

But here the hall was filled with the sound of laughter and the chewing of food. In this hall, the people were feeding one another.


Rev. D. John Burton reserves all rights © 2016. You are welcome to use, copy, edit or reproduce these sermons with copyright attached. Publication is prohibited.