Childlike Humility

illustrated by O.A. Stemler, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Synopsis: Jesus taught us that the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven are humble like a child and welcome the lowly. How can we deal with pride within ourselves, develop childlike humility, and welcome the lowly as Jesus did?

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Scripture: Mark 9:30-37.

The Catholics have a list called “the seven deadly sins.” Does anyone know which sin is typically #1 on that list? Pride. They are called “deadly” sins because in Roman Catholic theology, these sins inspire other sins. St. Augustine believed that pride is the very essence of sin because pride seeks to glorify oneself rather than God. Pride is a big threat, and in today’s scripture reading, Jesus takes aim at his disciples’ pride.

Let’s take a look at the important context around it. Jesus and his disciples had entered gentile territory, with Jesus conducting several miraculous healings. Within a few days, quite a large crowd had gathered around them, and Jesus, concerned that they had not eaten, fed about 4,000 gentiles just as he had fed the crowd of Jews in Galilee – miraculously with very little available food and with plenty left over after everyone had eaten.

After Jesus fed the people, he and his disciples headed back into Jewish territory to the district of Dalmanutha (Dal-man-OO-tha), which is located on the northwest coast of the Sea of Galilee. They got into a boat and began sailing to the other side of the sea. Along the way, the disciples complained that they had no bread. Jesus commented on their lack of faith. They had witnessed two large crowds miraculously fed, and they didn’t trust God to provide bread for thirteen men?

After landing at Bethsaida and healing a blind man, Jesus and his disciples head to the villages of Caesarea Philippi, where Peter proclaimed Jesus to be the Messiah. Jesus then spoke about his upcoming death and resurrection, and Peter took him aside and scolded him for saying such things. Jesus strongly rebuked Peter saying, Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

Mark chapter 9 opens with Jesus taking only three disciples, Peter, James, and John, up a high mountain, where Jesus is transfigured. After descending from the mountain, they met up with the other disciples, and Jesus casts a demon out of a boy after the other disciples were unable to do so.

And that brings us to our scripture reading for today. Jesus decides to make his way back to Capernaum with his disciples, but he doesn’t want anyone to know about it. You see, Jesus knows that he has entered the final stage of his mission, and it’s time to prepare the disciples for Jerusalem – for his final destination – the cross.

Jesus knew they would struggle to understand what he was about to tell them, so he created some time alone with them. His words are crystal clear: “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.”

I’m sure that they had all been daydreaming about Jesus taking the throne as King of the Jews. I’m sure that their excitement grew with every miracle he performed. So, upon hearing Jesus’ words, their first befuddled thought might have been, “Oh, there he goes again – speaking in parables.”

But they were afraid to ask him what this “parable” meant. There are several possible reasons for this. First, perhaps they were embarrassed. They had not understood many things lately – and here was yet another thing they didn’t understand.

Or perhaps they didn’t want to know what he meant. We’ve all had experiences where someone says something kind of cryptic to us that we can’t quite translate, and we’re afraid to ask, “What’s that mean?” Especially with teenagers. We’re like, “Eh? … never mind, I don’t want to know!”

This wasn’t the first time Jesus spoke about his suffering and death. He spoke about it back in chapter 8 after Peter proclaimed him to be the Messiah. This is a third possible reason why they were afraid to ask. Perhaps Peter shared with them the harsh words he received from Jesus after having rebuked him for saying such things. I can imagine the other disciples quickly glancing over at Peter, who was wide-eyed, and shaking his head as if to signal “don’t say a word, trust me!”

What Jesus told them just didn’t fit into their vision of what they wanted to see happen – especially the part where he would be “delivered” into the hands of men and be killed. The word, “delivered” hinted at betrayal, and the word “killed,” suggested murder. I’m sure their minds filled with some very disturbing questions: “Jesus is going to be betrayed and murdered? Who would do that? Is it one of us?”

After they arrived back at Capernaum, at Jesus’ home base, Jesus asked them what they had been discussing among themselves along the way. It seems that the Lord was walking alone some distance in front of them, probably in deep thought about his coming trials. The disciples were walking behind him, grouped together, in a heated discussion with one another about who was the greatest.

I can imagine their egos blustering during that discussion. Peter says, “I am greatest! Jesus told me that I am the rock on which his church will be built!” And Matthew says, “He probably meant you’re as dumb as a rock, Satan!” And Peter says, “Well what about you Matthew? You’re a traitorous, corrupt tax collector! Your heart is as hard as a rock. And you call me Satan?”

Mark tells us that the disciples didn’t want to tell Jesus what they had been discussing. I’m sure the sick contrast wasn’t lost on them. Immediately after Jesus discussed with them his upcoming betrayal and execution, they were arguing about their honor and glory. Immediately after Jesus discussed with them his coming cross, they were arguing about their coming crowns.

To their credit, they recognized their prideful behavior. Notice that Jesus knew what they were discussing even though they remained silent. But Jesus didn’t scold them, he taught them. He said, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

Let’s compare what he said here in Mark’s gospel to what he said in Matthew 18:1-5. “At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, ‘Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?’ He called a child, whom he put among them, and said, ‘Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.’”

The greatest in the kingdom of heaven is humble like a child. What does it mean to be humble like a child? How many of you, when you were a kid, remember eating at the kids’ table for those big family meals – like Easter, Thanksgiving, or Christmas dinner? All the adults ate at one table, and the kids ate at a separate table. Yeah, me too.

I remember how proud I felt when I was promoted to the adult’s table, but I quickly found out that the kids’ table was a lot more fun. You know, you could blow bubbles in your milk; you could create interesting artwork and conduct science experiments with the food on your plate; you could toss food into each other’s mouths; you could flick peas or corn nibblets at the kid across the table from you – endless fun and games without worrying about annoying the adults.

And once in a while, an adult would yell out, “Hey kid, get us some more rolls, will ya?” or “Get your Uncle Tony another root beer, alright?” or “Get your Aunt Millie another slice of apple pie!” Yeah, the kids’ table was also the go-fer table. Go-fer this, and go-fer that!

The kids’ table was the table for the lowliest and the servants of all. But at the kids’ table, life was simple and fun. We didn’t fret about ourselves or our lives. We didn’t have a care in the world because we knew we were loved, and we knew we were well cared for, and we didn’t mind being the go-fer because we loved opportunities to help. That is childlike humility.

At the Marriage Feast of the Lamb, the greatest will eat at the kids’ table.

What did Jesus mean when he took a child in his arms and said, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”?

During Jesus’ time, children were the lowliest Jewish society. In Matthew chapter 19, the disciples scolded the people who were bringing their children to Jesus for his blessing. But Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs.”

How do we treat people who are lowly? Do we welcome them as Jesus welcomed lowly children? Do we welcome not only children, but other lowly people, such as those who struggle with poverty, homelessness, mental illness, or disability?

I’ve noticed that many people either avoid lowly people or won’t even acknowledge their existence. They walk past them as if they were invisible. I think that’s worse than treating them with contempt. The lowly just want to be treated like a human being – with simple care and concern.

It can be challenging to treat them with respect. I work on the city streets as a cleaning, safety, and hospitality ambassador, so I encounter them all the time. Last week, I saw a homeless man whom I hadn’t seen in a while. I’ve known this man for a couple of years, and he has caused mayhem. I was keeping a close eye on him because I didn’t trust him.

I was cleaning up an area near where he had settled down to take a nap. As I got closer to him, my mind was telling me, “That man is trouble! Stay away from him!” But my heart was telling me, “That man is a beloved expression of God.”

As I started cleaning up near him, he stirred, and said, “Hey Pops!” Then he realized I wasn’t Pops, so he said, “Oh sorry, I thought you were Pops. He usually cleans up around here.” He was referring to one of my co-workers.

I said, “No, he’s off today. How are you? Are you OK?” He replied that he was OK, but I noticed that he had a black eye, so I asked, “What happened to your eye?” He explained that he got punched. I replied, “Oh, I’m so sorry that happened to you.” We chatted a bit more, then I told him, “Take it easy, OK?” As I was walking away, he said, “Thanks! God bless you!”

You see, he wasn’t the “evil monster” my mind was making him out to be. He was who my heart told me he was. The moment I was able to shift my focus from my mind to my heart, I welcomed him into my experience as a beloved child of God, and I treated him like a human being – with respect and care. It meant so much to him, and it filled me with joy. That little chat made my day.

How can we be humble like a child? First, we need to understand the source of pride: the fear of not being good enough. Prideful people are very insecure people. They are attempting to establish their own worth when their worth has already been established by God. It’s like they are trying to fix something that isn’t broken. That’s not possible, so they live lives of constant anxiety-ridden striving. 

If they knew who they are and how much God loved them as they are, they wouldn’t have a problem with pride. We are not really these imperfect human beings; we are a part of the perfection of God’s Creation, which is part of God Himself. If that’s not something to be proud of, I don’t know what is.

Next, we need to accept the fact that we will have prideful thoughts. They come with the territory of being human. The mind of me is programmed to experience ourselves as separate when we are really One with All This It. There is a purpose for this. Just as we can’t experience hot without cold, the illusion of separation allows us to discover and experience this Oneness.  

I believe the mind of me’s programming is not yet fully developed in young children. Unless we come from an unstable or abusive home environment, it doesn’t really take root until around the teenage years. That’s when we’ve lost the memory of who we really are – add to that the confusion of our changing bodies, the peer pressure to be cool (whatever that means), and the parental pressure to make decisions about our future, and you can understand why the teenage years can be so miserable.

The Mind of Christ knows the truth about who we are, and the Mind of Christ is where our true thoughts reside. The thoughts that come out of the mind of me, thoughts of separation, thoughts of pride, thoughts of judgment of others, are NOT our real thoughts. So, we do not need to feel bad for having them.

We can simply observe those thoughts and then let them go. We can choose not to believe them. When those thoughts compare us to others or judge others, we can simply remind ourselves that they are false. The truth is that all are equally beloved of God. I am beloved, you are beloved, everyone is beloved.

Finally, we need to turn our focus away from our grumbling minds and toward our grateful hearts – especially when we are engaging in service to others. Our souls love to help others because we are so grateful for the infinite love and support we receive from God, and all we want to do is return that love.

My family put my mother in a nursing home back in March, and I’ve been helping my father out with the necessary tasks to ensure that my mother’s care is paid for. My father is an anxious guy, so this process has been extremely stressful for him. It’s been challenging for me not to absorb all of his anxiety and to keep myself calm and focused.

When I pay attention to what’s going on in my mind, I have noticed that there’s a whole lot of grumbling going on. Grumbling about my father, grumbling about how much time it’s all taking, grumbling about how difficult some processes can be. But when I tune into my heart, I feel love for my father, gratitude for all he has done for me, and delighted to be of service to him.

Humility is not simply the absence of pride; it is the presence of love inspired by gratitude for all that we have been given – gratitude that comes from knowing that God loves us just the way we are and knowing that God provides for all our needs. Out of that gratitude, springs a selfless desire to serve.

And it was that selfless desire to serve that inspired Jesus to take the road to Jerusalem, to be betrayed, and to endure the cross – a tremendous demonstration of pure love so that humanity could be freed from the fear of death – and truly live.

Let’s pray together: Lord, we are willing to be humble like a child – to stop fretting about ourselves and our lives – so that we, full of gratitude and love for all that we have been given, are free to selflessly serve all – especially the lowly in our midst. Amen.

Resources

Kistler, Jerry. “The Deadly Sin of Pride.” Montrose Press. 8 Mar. 2019, www.montrosepress.com/news/the-deadly-sin-of-pride/article_1589c4ac-4227-11e9-80b0-23ef11363d68.html

Mueller, Chris. “Living Last in a ‘Me First’ World (Mark 9:30-37).” FBC Media Library. 24 Nov. 2013, media.faith-bible.net/scripture/mark/humility