Who is the greatest … – Subdeacon Peter Theodore Farrington

It is interesting that so much of the Scriptures, both the Old and New Testament, is written as a history of things that actually took place. If we had been given a text book, or a theoretical manual, then it would be harder for us to enter into the central message of the Bible, which is that God is at work in His world, calling out a people to be His family.

So when we read the Gospels we are reading about real people, with problems and attitudes that we can sympathise with, because they are weaknesses that we share in and understand all too well. The Scriptures are not about perfect people, they are about faithless people that God has to spiritually discipline and encourage to trust him, and about faithful people that God chooses to use in extraordinary ways.

Just one chapter before this passage in the Gospel of St Matthew, some of the disciples had been with Jesus when he went up on to a mountain to pray. He had taken His closest friends, Peter, James and John. They had seem Him perform great miracles and had sat at His feet while He taught them ‘as one who had authority’, and then, on the mountain, they caught a glimpse of His Divine glory as He was transfigured before them.

And then just a short while afterwards and the disciples are asking who among them was the greatest. Jesus must have sighed. Had they learned so little? How could they even ask such a question?

But we can take heart from the disciples slowness to understand. Because there are many times when we have also experienced some wonderful blessing from God, perhaps in the Liturgy, perhaps while in prayer, perhaps in some miracle in our daily lives….and then a little while afterwards we find that we have also forgotten what the Christian life is all about.

One moment we are in prayer, the next moment we are angry with someone in our family, or someone at work. One moment we are sure and certain of the love of God, the next moment we are full of doubts and wonder where God is and why He is leaving us to suffer alone.

We can be sure, as we read the Gospels, that the disciples experienced all of these changing and conflicting emotions. Indeed St Paul writes in one of his letters, ‘the things I want to do, I don’t do them, and the things I don’t want to do, those are the things I keep doing’.

And we can also be sure that Jesus understood His disciples and understands us. There were times when Jesus was angry, especially when he saw injustice, or when He saw the name of His Father dishonoured. But on this occasion He was not angry with His disciples, rather He took the time to explain to them how they should live if they truly wanted to be His disciples.

He took a child and said that unless the disciples became like the child, unless they were changed in their hearts and became humble, then they could not enter the Kingdom of Heaven.

I find this a wonderful lesson. The disciples had seen the Divine glory of the Lord, and yet this did not guarantee them a place in the Kingdom. They had been with Jesus as he travelled around Judeae and Galilee, teaching and performing miracles, but that did not guarantee them a place in the Kingdom. He did not suggest they were lacking spiritual power, He did not tell them they were not educated enough, or had not yet learned the teachings of the Old Testament thoroughly enough.

What was needed in them was humility. They had to become humble, as a child, then they would find a place in the Kingdom.

Isn’t this an encouragement for us? We know within our hearts the same contradictions. One moment we are all for God, another moment we are thinking of ourselves. But we cannot expect to perform great miracles, or walk and talk with the Lord. Yet we can, perhaps, hope to learn how to be humble.

Elsewhere in the Scriptures we are taught,

God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.

Therefore if we are willing to ask God for humility we can believe that He will give us all that we need to find it in our hearts, and if we become humble then we can believe that God will grant us a place in His Kingdom.

To be humble does not mean that we go around telling people how humble we are. There is a character in one of Charles Dicken’s novels, Uriah Heep in David Copperfield, who constantly wrings his hands together and says that he is ‘you’re very ‘umble servant’, but actually he is a scoundrel.

To be truly humble is to consider others better and more important than ourselves. It is to have a true appreciation of our weakness and inability before God. But most importantly, and this is where our own humility must be like that of a child, we must have a boundless confidence in the love of God and in His strength and ability at work in us by His Holy Spirit.

A truly humble person can say with the Apostle, ‘I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength.

Isn’t this the humility of a child?

I remember a couple of weeks ago my wife and I took our youngest child, Callum, to the woods at Bedgebury Pinetum. There are lots of children’s activities constructed along the woodland walks. One of them was a climbing wall. Callum wanted to see if he could get to the top of it, but the first step was too high for him, and some of the other hand and foot holds were too far apart for his short legs. He knew that he could not climb the wall on his own. He didn’t have a false sense of his own ability. He knew that he was unable to achieve what he wanted. But he also knew that his father had the strength and ability to help him, and had the love and will to life him up to the first step and hold him all the rest of the way to the top.

This is what it means to be humble. It means being aware of our weakness, but being even more aware of the greatness of our God.

How can we be humble?

Of course in the first place we must pray. We must pray to God for the grace he promises to the humble person. We can pray, ‘Lord, you know my weakness, and I offer it to you so that you can use me for your glory. Help me to be always aware that I can achieve nothing without you, but with Your grace I can do all things’.

Secondly we can start to put others first. Humility is a matter of the heart before it is a matter of words. So we can practice humility at home, at work, at school, in the shops, wherever we are. I was watching the television yesterday evening while my wife was having some trouble getting Callum ready for bed. We had been out late at my parents and he was exhausted and getting cross. Humility means that I should stop putting myself first and put my wife and son first.

Should I do the dishes as well so that my wife can sit down? If I really had a humble heart I would.

Thirdly, we will not feel the need to always be right. We will not always need to have the last word in a conversation, and we will not always need to join in other people’s conversations. Many of the accounts of the Desert Fathers show that it was very hard to get them to say something. The oldest and wisest and most humble would sit quietly while a conversation or discussion took place around them, and when asked for their opinions they would say, ‘Oh I don’t know anything about that’.

In the place where I work I used to have my own office right the way around the building from everyone else. I quite enjoyed spending time on my own. But about a year ago the building was redecorated and redesigned and now I sit in a large open plan office. There are lots of opportunities now for me to try and be a contagious Christian and talk about spiritual things when I can, but there is also the temptation to be involved in every conversation that takes place up and down the office.

Suddenly I have opinions about everything and feel the great need to share them with my colleagues. But this isn’t the way of humility. A humble person does not need to push themselves forward, or have the last word, because God gives grace to the humble, and gaining the attention of our colleagues, showing them how clever or funny we are, is nothing compared to gaining the friendship of God.

The humble person does not ignore others. But we can listen to others conversations, joining in where appropriate, without needing to push ourselves forward.

Where does it stop then, if we take this view? Well of course it doesn’t. The humble Christian always puts others first. This is what it means to think more highly of others. Can we achieve this on our own? Not at all. In fact after a couple of efforts we would grow discouraged and filled with frustration and even anger.

The humble person is filled with a divine peace and joy that allows them to always consider that serving another before themselves is the same as serving Christ Himself. If we also seek to have this view then we will find that service become a joy for us as well.

Doing the dishes, tidying the living room, putting away toys. These can all seem like trivial things that get in the way of us growing as Christians since they stop us reading the Bible, and praying and attending services. But if they are performed with humility, with a real desire to put another person first, and if we do them truly serving God, then they become filled with His presence and are as important to our salvation as prayer and reading the Bible.

For it is the humble who inherit the Kingdom of God.

What can we do this week to become more humble. Humility is something that can ony be learned by putting it into practice. It is no good learning about being humble if we do not become humble people.

We can pray each morning that God will teach us to be humble. And at home, at school and at work we can find opportunities each day to put someone else first in a practical way. This may be as simple as making breakfast for others, or it could be offering others a coffee. It might be taking time to thank people for things they have done for you. It could be making sure that you encourage someone in their own work. When others are criticising someone perhaps humility means that we will find something good and positive to say about them.

Our lives are different, and the exercise of humility will produce different opportunities for each of us every day. We can each find one opportunity each day to put one person before ourselves. We can prayerfully ask, who is there here where I am who I can help in some way? Who can I put before myself.

God gives grace to the humble. We can achieve nothing by our own abilities because we are weak and dependent on God. But if we offer ourselves each day to His service, recognising our weakness and depending on His strength, then we will learn to be humble as he desires for us.

Because God opposes the proud and gives grace to the humble, and the humble will find a place in His Kingdom.

May we take the opportunity to learn to be humble each day, with God’s grace and strength, to His glory, both now and forever. Amen.