But you—do not be called “Rabbi,” for you have one teacher. All of you are brothers and sisters. Do not call yourselves “Father” on earth, for you have one heavenly Father. Do not be called “Masters,” for your own Master is the Christ. The greatest among you shall be your servant. Whoever will exalt himself will be humbled, and whoever will humble himself will be exalted.
Matthew 23: 8-12
If you are willing to obey,
you shall eat the good things of the earth.
But if you persist in rebellion,
the sword shall eat you instead.
Isaiah 1: 19-20
Many years ago now, several of us travelled a distance to the wake of the mother of one of our brothers. The brother introduced each of us to his family, not only by name but by office in the community or professional title. Afterwards, one of our brothers said: “Everybody is somebody but him.” The truth and the pain of the comment has stayed with me to this day. The truth of the matter was that the brother whose mother had died was one of those brothers who was, throughout his life, a great contributor to the community and one of the most effective and beloved teachers and coaches of his time. But, the sad truth is that in human societies, even in so-called religious societies, it is power and title that too often constitute what we mistake for significance and value.
Of all the evangelists, it is Matthew who most highlights the struggle “between the sociological necessity for institutionalization and the mandate for community fellowship.” (Daniel Harrington, SJ, The Gospel of Matthew, p. 324) This was obviously an acute tension for Matthew’s community, as it has remained throughout history. Some degree of hierarchy is realistically necessary for order and efficiency, yet, to be faithful to the gospel, an institutional role must never become the source of a person’s significance and place within the community. This narrow path between the necessity of institutionalization and hierarchy and the transcendent gift of community is an extremely one to navigate, as we shall always tend to seek our value in our relative position in the hierarchy and our degree of power over others. Perhaps all acts of human sinfulness are to some degree manifestations of our prideful and violent exercise of power over other human beings.
It is here that the challenge of Isaiah comes to the fore. “If you are willing to obey . . .” What does it mean, in daily practice, that we have but one “Teacher” and one “Father”? It means, in short, that our lives are not our own and that we are responsible to Another for them. It is not the status we have before others that constitutes the fullness of our lives, but rather our willingness to obey the “Law” and “Way” of God for us. It is not by exercising power, but rather by lovingly willing the path that is ours, the path of humility and service, that we shall “flourish like the palm tree” (Psalm 92:12). Exercising our will in such a way that we become less “willful” and less “will-less” and more willing is a continuing work. So often we vacillate between willfully pushing our own designs on ourselves and others on the one hand, and will-lessly giving up our responsibility for our life on the other. We “learn to do good” by developing a capacity to live discerningly, to heed what we can do within our humble limits and to give ourselves generously (willingly) to that small act of generosity and love to which the present moment calls us.
Thus, in a sense, we are all both “nobody” and “somebody.” In the hollow ways we tend to attribute and measure significance, we are really nobody. In the willingness to be in the world the unique image of Christ that we have been created to be, despite our pervasive sense of inadequacy, we are each truly somebody.
Humility, which is also called lowliness or self-abasement, is an interior bowing of the heart and mind before the transcendent majesty of God. Righteousness requires this, and because of charity the loving heart cannot leave this undone. When a humble, loving person observes that God has served him in so humble, loving, and faithful a way, and that God is so powerful, high, and noble, whereas a human being is so poor, small, and lowly, then there arises in his humble heart a feeling of great reverence and veneration toward God. To honor God in all one’s works, whether exterior or interior, becomes the first and dearest work of humility, the sweetest work of charity, and the most fitting work of righteousness. The loving, humble heart cannot pay enough homage either to God or to Christ’s noble humanity and cannot set itself as low as it would like. For this reason it seems to the humble person that he is always falling short in the homage he pays to God and in his own humble service.
Jan van Ruusbroec, The Spiritual Espousals, Book I, Part 3, A