Moana was just a little girl when she first felt the call to the sea. As she grew into a teenager, she felt torn between what her father was wanting her to embrace for her future and the inner drive that was still calling (and encouraged by her wise, aging grandmother). She eventually chose to listen to that call from the sea and made her way to find the demigod Maui, the only one who could help bring life back to a cursed world. Little did she know that Maui would end up struggling with his own identity and calling. Both of these characters found themselves living between hubris and humility.
The Bible is filled with stories of people living between hubris and humility. In fact, every story of every person in the Bible plays that same story out. Adam and Eve – representative of humanity as a whole – came to grips with this life tension, as did their children, and every child ever born after that. Noah, Abraham, Ishmael and Isaac, Esau and Jacob, Joseph and his brothers highlight the major characters in the book of Genesis, the Bible’s book of beginnings where the people of Israel see that this struggle is central to being a human being. Israel, in fact, translates as “struggles with God” – which is at once sometimes a struggle against God even as God helps us, walk alongside of us in our struggle living between hubris and humility.
Hubris refers to arrogance, pridefulness, a sense of identity that is distorted in such a way that one does not see themselves or others accurately. Humility is on the other end of the spectrum, where a very different sense of self and others exists. These terms matter a lot in this cruciform series where we are talking about the cross upon which Jesus died. The way we view Jesus’ death calls us to wonder about where Jesus was on the hubris-humility spectrum, and absolutely calls us to wonder the same about ourselves. It is entirely possible to view the cross in such a way that hubris is supported and perpetuated, when the whole picture is really about humility. The hubris-driven approach sees God as one who requires sacrifice in order to accommodate us, which means we are so deeply fallen that we must sacrifice, and also means that if we get the sacrifice right, we’ve in some way earned our keep (even if the sacrifice is a statement of faith), which means we’re justified, which means others who have not done the same are not, which means that we have something over them which we have infamously wielded throughout history because we are the worthy ones and the rest of the world deserves everything they get. Hubris writ large over the entirety of human existence.
But I do not believe God was ever really interested in sacrifice at all. Not birds, not bulls, not lambs, and certainly not human sacrifice. I believe God accommodated sacrifice because that was (and perhaps still is) the language of humanity. God spoke in terms people could understand, minimizing the amounts of sacrifices “required” compared to other cultures. The struggle was still there, however, between hubris and humility. We usually prefer hubris. The stories of the Bible, however, remind us that it is humility that works, and is core to our relationship with all reality, including the divine. What does God really require or want for us and from us, the prophet Micah asked? Pursue justice, love mercy, and walk humbly (Micah 6:8).
King David, according to the Bible, was a man after God’s own heart. But if you know much about his story, you are very aware that David vacillated between hubris and humility. Usually the humility followed his most infamous moment of hubris. The Bathsheba scandal certainly outshined them all. Holding all the power, he used his position to have his way with Bathsheba, who was married to a man at war for Israel. David got her pregnant, tried unsuccessfully to cover it up, and eventually gave the order that led to Bathsheba’s husband’s death. He kept on living from a hubristic, ego-driven arrogance until one of Israel’s prophet’s called him on it, asking, “who do you think you are taking this poor man’s wife?” When he agreed with what had really happened (confession), he found himself, finally, operating out of humility. Psalm 51 was written in response to David’s shift between hubris and humility. The humility that David came back to again and again is what made him a man after God’s own heart. Because when we’re humble, we can hear God.
Like David, people in authority struggle between hubris and humility like everyone else on the planet. The difference is that, by nature of their position, their struggle is out in public for everyone else to see. The Roman authorities we see in in Jesus’ storyline (Herod, Herod Antipas, and Pilate) all found themselves more on the side of hubris than humility, caring much more about their power than the people they oversaw. Herod called for the death of the innocents in his attempt to kill Jesus long before he was an adult threat. Herod Antipas had no care for Jesus if he wasn’t willing to perform to his liking. And Pilate, while depicted as surprisingly hospitable toward Jesus, still called for his beating and horrific death.
Unfortunately, the same was true of the Jewish religious leaders as well, from the countryside all the way to HQ in Jerusalem. During Jesus’ ministry they were constantly challenging Jesus lifestyle, teaching, and even his miracles. He was arrested, put on trial and criminalized at the will of the High Priest, who eventually used his power to orchestrate Jesus’ death. Hubris, hubris, hubris.
Jesus, on the other hand, lived on the other end of the spectrum between hubris and humility. He was known not for lording his power and authority over people, but for just the opposite. He was born humble and stayed that way. He was with the people – all people – in their struggle. The poor. The sick. The maligned. The prostitutes. The tax collectors. Even Dodger fans (so I’m told, even though it’s not in the Bible). When it came time for one last supper with the gang, everybody seemed to be living more toward hubris evidenced by the fact that nobody was attending to all the dirty feet in the room. Everybody, that is, except Jesus:
Jesus knew that the Father had given him authority over everything and that he had come from God and would return to God. So he got up from the table, took off his robe, wrapped a towel around his waist, and poured water into a basin. Then he began to wash the disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel he had around him. – John 13:3-5 NLT
In this scene Jesus displayed his humility in an unthinkable way. Nobody would have seen this coming, and nobody wanted it to happen. But why would they be surprised? This is how he lived his life. His identity was not based on a distorted view of himself, but grounded on the fact that he came from God and was going to God. When we choose to live by that definition, while we will still waver between hubris and humility, we will more often find ourselves on the humble side. Which is what God desires. Because that’s when life is marked more by justice and mercy and we all get along and the world and its people live in harmony. Shalom. Eternal life present. Salvation realized. These are ideas that represent God’s end game.
On his way to the cross, Jesus was asked (with attitude): who do you think you are? The question was asked from people who, all hubris, were living out of their identity as big deal leaders. Their question revealed what they thought of themselves, and their intention was to shape what Jesus thought of himself. That’s the funny thing about hubris. Sometimes it’s all arrogant talk and tweets, chest puffing and the like. But hubris can happen in the other direction, too. Sometimes a person’s identity gets distorted the other way and they feel like pond scum. Jesus walked alongside many of them. Lepers. A woman at a well at the wrong time of day. A bleeding woman. A blind man. These folks operated out of a hubris of self-loathing just as powerful as the other. While they may seem humiliated, it’s not really humility. It’s still hubris. With a very different tone, by his actions and words Jesus asked them, in essence, “who do you think you are?” Jesus wasn’t asking out of a holier-than-thou hubris, nor was he trying to create a scum-of-the-earth hubris in those he ministered to. He was really, sincerely asking the question of them because he knew that how they answered that question determined nearly everything else about them. He knew this because he had learned to live on the humble side between hubris and humility himself. This is where real strength resides. Knowing who you are, where you come from, and what you are capable of.
Humility, paradoxically, is where life resides, not hubris. We notice people with bravado and even respond to it with allegiance at times. We perpetuate hubris wreaking of fame and fortune and power by what we value with our wallets and ballots. This is human nature. We like it until we don’t anymore. When it comes and bites us and we agree with reality (confession) and find ourselves in a humble place, we can finally listen, finally see, finally get it, finally live, finally pursue justice while loving mercy.
Jesus’ followers who carried the Good News forward got the message. Paul told the church in Philippi, “Don’t be selfish; don’t try to impress others. Be humble, thinking of others as better than yourselves. Don’t look out only for your own interests, but take an interest in others, too.” An early hymn reminded the early Christians what they were to be about: little Christs should look like Jesus Christ:
You must have the same attitude that Christ Jesus had.
Though he was God,
he did not think of equality with God
as something to cling to.
Instead, he gave up his divine privileges;
he took the humble position of a slave
and was born as a human being.
When he appeared in human form,
he humbled himself in obedience to God
and died a criminal’s death on a cross.
Therefore, God elevated him to the place of highest honor
and gave him the name above all other names,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father. – Philippians 2
To the Colossian church, Paul instructed, “as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.”
The writer to the church in Ephesus wrote: “Always be humble and gentle. Be patient with each other, making allowance for each other’s faults because of your love. Make every effort to keep yourselves united in the Spirit, binding yourselves together with peace.”
Jesus’ brother, James, advised his readers, “God stands against the proud, but favors the humble… Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up.”
The writer of 1 Peter agreed with James’ theme when he wrote, “clothe yourselves with humility toward each other. God stands against the proud, but he gives favor to the humble.”
Current disciples have resonated with this truth as well:
Do you wish to rise? Begin by descending. You plan a tower that will pierce the clouds?
Lay first the foundation of humility. – St. Augustine (354-430)
It is always the secure that are humble. – G. K. Chesterton (1874-1936)
True humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less. – C. S. Lewis (1898-1963)
Pride makes us artificial and humility makes us real. – Thomas Merton (1915-1968)
Show respect to people who don’t deserve it; not as a reflection of their character,
but as a reflection of yours. – Dave Willis
If you are humble, neither praise nor disgrace will touch you
because you know who you are. – Mother Teresa (1910-1997)
Who do you think you are?
Moana and Maui journeyed together to save the world from destruction. As they faced great challenges, however, their mettle was tested. Each of them had to work through the question Jesus’ ministry begged of his recipients: who do you think you are? Moana discovered she was worthy or her calling not because of any external source, but because it was who she was inherently. Maui decided he was really about doing the right thing instead of the selfish thing.
Jesus knew who he was. He knew that he came from God and was going to God, and that gave him great strength throughout his ministry. This is why he was able to genuinely offer forgiveness to the scoffers who were insulting and spitting on him while he was dying on the cross. He knew who he was. They couldn’t touch him. He couldn’t foster ill will toward them – it just wasn’t in him, and he wasn’t about that.
So, who do you think you are? Where are you between hubris and humility? Are you an arrogant bastard? Do you find yourself wallowing in self-loathing? Either of these might suggest you are on the hubris end of the spectrum.
Let me remind you of who you are. You are created in the image of God. You are very good. You are fearfully and wonderfully made. You are loved deeply, unconditionally, eternally. You are precious in God’s sight. And so is absolutely everyone else on the planet who has ever lived, is living now, and will live in the future. This fact doesn’t make you any less special, but it does equal the playing field and cause us to see everyone – and treat everyone – as we would want to be treated. I wonder if this is why Jesus said the two greatest commandments are to love God, and to love our neighbor as ourselves. Perhaps when we do, the world may in fact change.
Where are you between hubris and humility? Who do you think you are?