September 16, 2010
by Patrick Lafferty
. . . but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant. . . .
At least one reason we give credence to the gospels is their unabashed portrayal of the disciples’ obtuseness. There provide plenteous examples. They often mistake Jesus’ metaphorical words for the literal (Mt. 16:7), glory in their newly bestowed authority rather than in new the identity they’ve been given (Lk 10:17), and jockey for position in His entourage, rather than imitate His self-abnegation (Mt 20:20ff). They even call for excessive retribution against detractors (Lk 9:54) and are surly toward children (Lk 18:15). And despite Jesus’ frequent references to His own imminent passion, they are at best perplexed when he shares His last supper with them.
What pitch for the credibility of the faith would include such embarrassing anecdotes of its earliest adherents? In our age of spin, the absence of consensus in a given group detracts from its message. Yet, those who compiled the testimonies of Jesus seem not to care that His message was understood so poorly at first by His disciples.
For the next several weeks, Mark and this column will devote attention to the humility of Jesus. We’ll explore the basis, expression, and necessity of humility—both in Him and in us.
This last Sunday, Mark prepared us for the Table by unpacking how it supremely demonstrates Jesus’ humility. That He gives Himself at all—and entirely—is proof positive of that humility. But we do well to notice a subtler dimension of His humility in that moment: He gives what is eminently precious to those who scarcely understand its value.
The disciples’ obtuseness notwithstanding, Jesus does not predicate His offer on the basis of how much they’re tracking with Him. To be sure, He lingers with them until the earliest signs of understanding materialize (Mt 16:13ff), but His kindness is not contingent upon full respect of what He’s doing.
We, on the other hand, tender kindness too often with an unconscious expectation of commensurate respect. And when neither respect nor reciprocity manifest, we come away perturbed. Has the kindness you show your spouse drifted into a mode of self-seeking, rather than self-giving? Does the love you show your kids or your friends hinge on their respect of what you offer? Have you been present to the needs of your neighbors and colleagues only insofar as you gauge their appreciation of your past efforts? Does your willingness to make a defense of the hope that is in you (1 Pet 3:15f) pivot on whether you think they’ll respond?
You and I stand before the grace of God’s redemption in Christ, at best, obtuse. We scarcely understand how broad, long, high, and deep is His love (Eph 3:14-19). That Christ has secured us an eternal inheritance tests the limit of our imagination. Who of us can say we love to a degree comparable to His demonstration of love anticipated at the Table? Had Christ waited for His disciples’ full respect of what He would do, we’d all still be waiting for His redemption. We marvel at His humility in the extent of His sacrifice. Perhaps just as marvelous, though, is His willingness to extend grace to those who barely comprehend it.
It is a grace of God that anyone begins to understand what He has done for us in Christ—that’s the essence of conversion. It is a continual grace of His that we should grow in our appreciation of it. Because our hearts are prone to make demands of others we ourselves are unwilling to fulfill, there’s never a bad time to ask that He grow in us that appreciative understanding of His grace. Otherwise our love devolves into a contingent act, obscuring the most compelling argument for our faith. As Marilynne Robinson has recently put it, “Christians acting like Christians would be the most effective possible evidence for the truth of what they profess.”
Pray that love might flow as freely from us, and without condition, as it did from Him. Therein lies the humility He means to build in us.