September 1 NOTES FOR REFLECTION
Texts: Proverbs 25:6-7; Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16; Luke 13:1, 7-14
Theme: "Humility", or some variation on that, is the obvious choice this week.
Introduction. Solomon, or indeed any king, would seem to be an unlikely source of teaching on humility; but as Jesus bases the first part of his teaching on Solomon's pithy sayings in our gospel passage this morning we should perhaps resist any temptation to scepticism of that kind. Hebrews comes to a conclusion this week by reiterating that a key element of our worship is our attitude towards others, and our whole lifestyle. One-off efforts may make us feel good but they don't make us good. Like Jesus himself, our life of faith must be the same yesterday, today and tomorrow.
Background. In the week in which Messrs Cunliffe, Robertson and Jones launched their bids to become the next leader of the N.Z. Labour Party, while across the Tasman Messrs Rudd & Abbott held their last campaign debate before next week's election, we are invited to reflect on the great spiritual virtue of humility. [On that subject, perhaps, Shane Jones scored an early point with his public assurance that he is a "flawed human being", though he may have rather spoilt it by suggesting that everyone he knew shared that condition. Personal humility and the dismissive judgment of others don't really belongl in the same sentence.]
Last Saturday I listened to a very interesting interview by Kim Hill of Scottish novelist Janice Galloway. She has written two volume of autobiography with the intriguing titles -This Is Not About Me and All Made Up. I was particularly taken with that first title, although I assumed immediately that she was simply being clever, funny or cute. She wasn't. Her early years were dominated by her Mother and her elder sister, Nora (she called her Cora in the book). The message Janice got from both of them was brutal: you are nobody. You have no worth. Who do you think you are? This was so extreme that much of it must be attributed to some nasty streaks in the character of the mother and the sister. But there was also a recognition that some of this reflected the culture of the time – at least, in Britain.
My mother's greatest fear was that I should become "bigheaded". If someone praised me for something in her presence she would (to put it nicely) set it in context – "Well, there was a large element of luck involved, wasn't there, Roger?" This would be accompanied by the maternal look that ruled out any response on my part that in any way could be construed as lessening the element of luck and increasing my personal contribution. This was not due to any meanness on the part of my mother – far from it. She was doing what most good parents believed was right at the time – teaching her young that in our culture we do not put ourselves forward, we do not draw attention to ourselves, and we never, ever boast about our own talents or achievements. In those days there was no scope for the tall-poppy syndrome: from a very early age we poppies were taught not to bloom in public.
At the same time, as Janice Galloway described it in the interview, enormous stress was placed on keeping up appearances. In the privacy of the home, her family was in a state of continual civil war: but nobody outside must ever get even a hint of this. The code of silence was not invented by the Mafia, or by sexual abusers of family members. It covered everything about the family. Again, her comments rang loud bells for me. Whenever I committed some misdemeanour or others (like Shane Jones I was a flawed human being in those days) my mother's immediate concern came out in the form of a question: "what will people think?" Not "why did you do such a dumb thing?" or "what are you going to do to make amends?" but "what will people think?"
As I listened to this interview, and reflected on my own childhood experiences, I realised for the first time what a conflicted message my generation was given. On the one hand we were not to get above ourselves; not to think highly of ourselves, and generally to accept that we were of no significance at all. On the other hand, we must constantly guard against any loss of reputation in the eyes of others. Of course, a large part of the reputational thing was more about their reputation than our own. If I "forgot my manners" (another favourite parental expression of the times) it might reflect badly on my parents; but in reality when called to account for my mistake it was never a good idea to plead my poor upbringing in mitigation.
Has any of this got anything to do with humility? In one sense, no. Humility cannot be imposed upon us. We can be taught to refrain from any behaviour that could possibly be interpreted as boastful; we can be taught, in other words, to "act humble". But humility comes from within and is the fruit of self-awareness – an ability to know ourselves as creatures of God, flawed, yes, but not fatally so, works in progress on our way to perfection. In a moment I want to consider the issue of whether our readings are about true humility, or only about how to "act humble". But first there is, I believe, an issue about the relationship between humility and truth.
To start with a simple example. If I say "Valerie Adams is the greatest woman shot-putter in the world at the moment" I am stating a fact – I am speaking the truth. But if Valerie Adams says "I am the greatest woman shot-putter in the world at the moment" how do we characterise that statement? It is a statement of fact – she is telling the truth – but now it has a different feel to it, doesn't it? It's boastful – it's not for her to say, it's for others. Should she then say, "Oh, not really – I have just had an amazing run of luck?" And then there are the three Labour men we started with. If one of them says that he believes he's got the gifts and talents that make him the best candidate, is he boasting or not? And would we really prefer a candidate who says that one of his rivals is better qualified? (Now there's a point of difference for a candidate seeking to raise his public profile!)
As always, we need to dig a little deeper, and when we do at some depth or other we will find God. Is Valerie Adams the world's best woman shot-putter? Yes, she is. How has that come about? In part, through instruction by her coaches, and by the support of Athletics New Zealand, her sponsors, and many other family members, friends and supporters. Let's call that Level One. But none of that would have got her where she is without her personal contribution; her willingness to do all the training, practising and travel; and, of course, her dedication and focus on the day of competition. Let's call that Level Two. But none of that would have got her to where she is without the physical and mental qualities she has, some acquired, perhaps, but most innate. She was given them as part of the gift of life; and the source of that life is the one we call God. At the deepest level we can say that Valerie Adams would not have become the greatest woman shot-putter in the world today without God's gifts to her. Perhaps at the heart of the spiritual virtue of humility is the profound belief that everything we are and everything we do depends ultimately on the gifts of God.
Proverbs. The fact that The Lectionary could come up with just two consecutive verses as a related reading for the gospel passage reminds us that The Book of Proverbs is an eclectic collection of pithy saying ranging from the profound to the bizarre. Today's verses are taken from chapter 25, which opens by informing the reader that what follows are "other proverbs of Solomon that the officials of King Hezekiah of Judah copied" (an interesting cross between good provenance and political spin, perhaps). If your antennae are not already on high alert, read verses 2 and 3; scepticism about Solomon's credentials for giving advice on humility may be justified after all. Verse 6 could be read as no more than a summary of the royal protocol: do not approach the king unless expressly invited to do so. Verse 7 is a little terse. For whom is it "better"? And why is it better? Presumably to avoid the humiliation of demotion. But isn't that more to do with my mother's question, "what will people think?" Surely, a truly humble person would not need this teaching anyway.
Taking It Personally.
- Are you on Facebook, Twitter, or other social networks? If so, why?
- Do you have a C.V.? In an interview would you be able to "sell" yourself, or would you be more likely to "hide your light under a bushel"?
- How do you react to praise?
- If you attended a funeral service for a family friend where some seats were "Reserved for Friends of the Family" would you take one?
Hebrews. This week we come to the end of this Book, with its central core of the divinity of Christ and the importance of true worship. Today the author reminds us again that true worship comes out of who we are as people of faith; we cannot offer true worship to the Holy One if we do not live holy lives. He starts very simply: "Let mutual love continue." In other words, he starts with the community of faith. Two good things here. First, it seems that mutual love is already the norm; this is an exhortation to keep it going, not to start doing it. Secondly, the word "mutual" reminds us that we are not only called to love others but to let others love us – not always evident in our faith communities, from my experience. Then he opens the door, as it were, to the rest of the world. A life of faith requires hospitality to strangers. It also requires marital fidelity. Then comes the crunch: do not develop a desire for wealth – accept what you have – and place your trust in God. We are down to Level Three again. Ultimately everything depends on God.
Taking It Personally.
- A day for self-examination. Read slowly through verses 1-7. Which challenge you most strongly? Make your confession to God.
- Now ponder your own attitude towards worship in the light of verses 15 and 16. Are you a Sunday morning worshipper or is your whole life an offering to God?
Luke. I wonder if the authors of The Lectionary had a less obvious reason for linking verse 1 with verses 8-14 than simply providing some scene-setting. Try this. In verse 1 "they were watching him closely": they had Jesus under surveillance, to coin a phrase. Cut to verse 7 and Jesus "noticed" what some of them were doing. Intentionally or not, the juxtaposition of these verses shows that "they" were presuming to sit in judgment on Jesus to whom they are themselves to answer one day. The little episode in verses 8-10 does no more than illustrate the same teaching in the reading from Proverbs, and carries with it the same problem of interpretation or application. Is it practical advice to avoid public humiliation or is it about something deeper? The answer comes in verse 11. Then we have verses 12-14, surely as counter-cultural (or even counter-intuitive) as they come. I mean, who actually DOES this? Maybe on Christmas Day, or the occasional street party, or at times of community distress following natural disasters. But in normal, regular circumstances? Again, there is a clue to suggest that we are approaching this teaching on the wrong level; and that clue comes in verse 14. To be hospitable and welcoming in this way is not about self-denial, self-sacrifice and self-flagellation. This attitude and ministry of this kind bring blessing. How often do we hear our "good sorts" say that they get far more out of helping others than they give? Maybe that's not false-humility – maybe they are telling the truth.
Taking It Personally.
- When you attend a dinner party, or a wedding feast, does it concern you where you are asked to sit? If you are the host, how much thought do you give to the seating arrangements?
- Do you invite "spares" to join you for Christmas lunch?
- Have you ever taken part in a community Christmas lunch? As a helper or as a diner?
- Are there any circumstances in which you might follow Jesus' teaching in verses 11 and 12?