16 Pentecost, Year A
16 Pentecost, Year A
Humility and judgment. Two opposites, yet, in our psalm today they’re woven together. How is it possible to be humble and exercise judgment at the same time? Who even wants to be regarded by others as a humble or a judgmental person? Does society not regard both of these traits as negatives and liabilities, rather than positives and assets? In Psalm 149, we see both humility and judgment as God-given traits to be exercised by God’s people.
In verse four of today’s psalm, the psalmist tells us: “For the LORD takes pleasure in his people; he adorns the humble with victory.” Now that’s a rather interesting and ironic way to describe being humble isn’t it? The LORD adorns the humble. When one thinks of humble people, one does not usually think of them as being fancy or possessing adornments. Rather, they quite likely, more often than not, reflect a presence of being plain; the last thing they would wish for is to stand out in a crowd like a sore thumb! Yet, the LORD adorns the humble, our psalmist tells us. Even more ironic is the “what” of adornment here. The LORD adorns the humble with victory. Now that seems rather odd too, doesn’t it? How is it possible for the humble (who have trouble putting their best foot forward) to be adorned with victory? Usually the humble, in our society, and possibly in the church too, are looked down upon as not being assertive or ambitious enough; not possessing the necessary chutzpah, the forthrightness to win and succeed in life. But is this really an accurate picture of humble people, especially in light of the biblical understanding of humility? I think not!
It was the famous scientist, Isaac Newton, reflecting on his life and work, who once stated: “I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore and diverting myself now and then finding the smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.”
Humility in the genuine article is like that, is it not? Truly humble people are usually modest about their accomplishments; realise that their contributions are only a small part of the whole picture; and are neither motivated by public popularity nor intimidated by the critic. They often have an unwavering commitment to doing acts of lovingkindness for others.
For example, someone once told me about Grant MacEwan, former Lieutenant-Governor of Alberta from 1966-1974, and, among other things, author of several western Canadian history books, including: Fifty Mighty Men; And Mighty Women Too: Stories of Notable Western Canadian Women; and Grant MacEwan’s West: Sketches from the Past. Apparently, when he was working late after hours in his office one night; the janitor came in to clean. Grant MacEwan struck up a conversation with her. He was asking her how her husband and family were doing. She poured out her soul to him, speaking of her husband, who was gravely ill at home. MacEwan listened with care, and then responded by telling her to go home and be with her husband; he would do her janitor work for her. She was very surprised and at first could not accept his offer because she felt him too dignified a personage to be doing a janitor’s work. However, MacEwan insisted, and she finally accepted his offer, with much gratitude. From that time on, apparently a strong friendship developed between Grant MacEwan and the janitor and her family.
According to Rabbi Meir of Apt: “The true service of God is the achievement of humility with joy. How can one rejoice in feeling humble? By knowing that thereby one is fulfilling the will of God. That alone is sufficient reason for joy.”
When we examine the life of Jesus in the Gospels, it seems to me that Jesus reflects that perfect example of humility; he joyfully fulfilled the will of God. His was a life of unlimited and unconditional humble service for others. In small acts of lovingkindness; in healing the blind, lame, and lepers; in befriending the outcast street people and sinners of his day; and in going deliberately to die on a cross; Jesus is our perfect example of what the Bible teaches us about true humility. He calls forth each of us to respond by following his example.
Now we shift gears for a bit from humility to judgment. In verses six to nine of today’s psalm, we discover this shifting of gears to judgment in the form of God using Israel to supposedly wage “holy war” on the nations and thereby wield God’s judgment against them. Who of us enjoys being a judge in this way over other people? This has to be one of, if not “the” most dreaded tasks God could ever ask of us, isn’t it? Furthermore, it is one thing to speak God’s word of judgment—although even that is never easy! But it is quite another thing to actually take delight in claiming that you are taking vengeance on the nations by waging a “holy war” on God’s behalf! Is that not why we have the problems today in our world, with fundamentalist Muslim groups declaring “jihad” on God’s behalf against all the Western world nations?
As the old adage goes, those who would stand in judgment of others must always realise that when they point a judgmental finger at someone else, there’s always three pointing back at themselves.
I wonder if you know the story of the king who had four sons. He sent the eldest to see as certain fruit tree in Winter, the second to see it in Spring, the third in Summer, and the fourth in Autumn.
Then he summoned them to his presence and asked each to give a description of the tree.
“Just a black ugly skeleton,” said the eldest.
“It was beautiful—covered in blossom,” said the second.
“Very pleasant in its shady Summer attire of green leaf,” said the third.
“Well, I didn’t see it like that,” said the youngest. “I saw it as a tree filled with delicious fruit.”
The king smiled. “There is a lesson to be learned from your answers. You need to know a fruit tree at least a year before knowing what it is truly like—and you need to know a lot about things and people before reaching conclusions about them.” 1
There are no worse psychological defects than hypercriticism. It totally blinds the individual from self-knowledge. No one can know his or her own house who is always living in someone else’s. By failing to probe deeply within one’s own soul an individual lacks humility of spirit, which makes one kind and charitable toward others. When one never admits his or her own faults, such a person is functioning as a judge rather than a brother or sister towards one’s fellow humanity. The critic and faultfinder is so busy focussing on the faults of others that they are unable or unwilling to examine their own faults.
Self-examination helps us to make kind judgments on others. Hopefully in so doing our judgments will function to show mercy by trying to help our neighbour with overcoming their faults because we likely are wrestling with the same faults—if not worse ones than theirs!
So be humble and take joy in fulfilling God’s will. In so doing, your judgments will be sound and filled with mercy, which always seeks the well-being and building up of our neighbours.