Call No One Master

“The greatest among you must be your servant. For whoever exalts himself will be humbled and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”[1]

If you knock around the Gospels for awhile, you begin to notice a pattern in the sayings of Jesus. He reverses ideas, turns them upside down, bends and breaks them, then shapes them into something new. These are sometimes hard to hear. They run outside the grooves we’re used to; their rhythms and inflections don’t follow common patterns, so that if you’re just tracking the rise and fall of a familiar verse — not really paying attention to the words — he tangles that all up and then you have to pay attention and really listen, not just hear.

So it is with his idea of exaltation and humbling.

By now, we may have read this text so many times that it is worn smooth, nothing there to snag a finger on a jagged edge. If you come to this looking for leadership principles, like those in Jesus, CEO (“How Jesus built a disorganized staff of twelve into a thriving enterprise! Principles of success that can translate into any corporate business!), you will be disappointed.

Humility is like one of those Chinese finger traps: forcing it tightens it down. If you exalt yourself, you will be humbled. If you humble yourself in order to be exalted, you’ve defeated the purpose and you will most likely end up humiliated. Humility or humbleness is almost impossible if you have to schedule it. If you try it on, it won't fit. It will be too tight, too short, too big, dead false. In other words, humility raised to the level of consciousness becomes pride.

I’ve wondered if genuine humility instead comes from character built over time. How to still the insistent voice that pipes up, “Me! What about me?”

Thomas Merton links pride with despair, the end result of an unwillingness to accept anything from the hand of God because of one’s mountain of pride. “But a man who is truly humble cannot despair,” says Merton, “because in the humble man there is no longer any such thing as self-pity.”[2]

The greater the attention to oneself and the greater the position one holds, the more self-pity becomes the drug of choice when others will not bow to one’s will.

Whether one be the president of the country or the president of the church, the principle applies: the higher the office, the greater the responsibility to serve. When the office is greater than the man (or woman), when the officeholder is not equal to the responsibilities — when, in fact, the character and conduct of the officeholder demeans and corrupts the office, the honor of the office may only be restored by a servant who leads, one who is wise and humble.

I doubt this practice of humility would have been intuitive for many rulers in Jesus’ time. Most would not have seen any advantage in it for themselves, and as for principle — well, that’s just some people talking. Machiavelli said there are only two ways to become a ruler: either you inherit it or you take it. The Roman experiments with forms of democracy certainly didn’t extend to their outlying provinces, especially not for the Jews, who had a long history of volatility. Force applied liberally and strategically, would have been their best practices for leadership.

But force applied compresses the mass and conforms it to the shape of the instrument of force. Those in authority beneath the Romans had no other models of governing except the ones they were subjected to. The idea of servanthood in a leadership role would have seemed both insufficient and ludicrous. Where there were clear lines of class, wealth, and privilege, no one in a position of authority would deign to humble himself.

Jesus locates humility as a practice that begins in the family and continues through one’s education. He calls on religious leaders and teachers to be humble, since they are in a position to exploit their authority and their power.

But you must not be called ‘rabbi;’ for you have one Rabbi, and you are all brothers. Do not call any man on earth ‘father;’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. Nor must you be called ‘teacher;’ you have one Teacher, the Messiah.[3]

This is one of those sayings of Jesus which we adhere to by the spirit, rather than by the law. If we read this literally, limiting it to titles alone, we miss entirely the deeper meaning that all of us — leaders and teachers also — are as dependent on God as children are on their parents.

You must not be called Rabbi, says Jesus. You have one Rabbi and besides, you are all brothers. And you must not be called teacher, he adds, for you have one Teacher, the Messiah. These sayings are in the passive voice, thus the responsibility is on us not to encourage the fawning and favoritism that often comes with degrees and titles.

When we talk about titles and honorifics, though, we are treading on ground that is sacred for a lot of people. Titles represent the hard work that was put in, the long nights of study and the exams taken and passed. They speak to the discipline and ambition that it takes to rise to the top of one’s profession, and they serve as a bright dividing line between the entitled and the poseurs.

When I taught at Stevenson University and at Trinity Washington University, the students called me Professor. I rather liked that because it meant that I professed something. What I professed was something that I sincerely believed, although I was not able to articulate it or even demonstrate it to my own satisfaction. But every time I entered a classroom or spoke with a student or graded her papers, it was uppermost in my mind. It was a dual question for the students: “What are you doing here?” and “What does your life mean?”

Posed as much to myself as to my students, the questions were a constant reminder that my motives were not always aligned with my outcomes, and I am still, in part, an enigma to myself. The truest desire of my will, only sometimes realized, was that my students should see me as a window through which they could see a path forward to a country they could call their own.

The other warning Jesus gives us is in the active voice: “Do not call any man on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven.”

Are we to take Jesus literally on this point? In a male-dominated culture, in which the father was the undisputed head of the family, this must have surprised his disciples, if not grated on them. And while not everyone will be a religious leader or a teacher, everyone has a biological father, absent though he may be. The particular points to the universal: our fathers bow to Our Father.

Perhaps Jesus felt this more keenly than most of us. After the incident in which Jesus ditches his parents to discuss with the rabbis in the temple, we hear no more of Joseph. It’s no stretch of the imagination to think of Jesus, the eldest of several siblings, with a growing consciousness of God, his Abba, after Joseph passes away. Jesus was the eldest, the one set apart, special somehow, although he couldn’t say why, and Mary wouldn’t — not yet. All those years so alone; he must have stretched himself upward, opening to the sun and the cold moon and the distant, gentle presence he wished to call “Father.”

Thomas Merton, who struggled with humility all his life, saw it as the way to joy. “It is almost impossible to overestimate the value of true humility and its power in the spiritual life,” he wrote in New Seeds of Contemplation. “Humility contains in itself the answer to all the great problems of the life of the soul. It is the only key to faith, with which the spiritual life begins: for faith and humility are inseparable.”[4]

To call no one “Master” is a liberating experience. It removes compulsion from our relationships and replaces it, where possible, with a freely given loyalty. Loyalty, when not the blind variety, is a much stronger bond than those cemented through fear and humiliation. When we are free in this way, with a quiet confidence that we are sons and daughters of God, we can be free from fear of anyone.

Notes & References:

[1] Matthew 23: 11,12, New English Bible.

[3] Matthew 23:8-10, New English Bible.

Barry Casey taught religion, philosophy, ethics, and communications for 37 years at universities in Maryland and Washington, DC. He is now retired and writing in Burtonsville, Maryland. More of the author’s writing can be found on his blog, Dante’s Woods. Email him at darmokjilad@gmail.com.

Photo credit: Elijah Hiett on Unsplash

We invite you to join our community through conversation by commenting below. We ask that you engage in courteous and respectful discourse. You can view our full commenting policy by clicking here.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/9958
1 Like

EXCELLENT! …but who am I to grade the “professor” (speaking of humility). Still, it is very good.

4 Likes

Benjamin Franklin wrote once that he was afraid if he ever achieved humility, as a virtue, he would end up being proud of his humility.

7 Likes

Wonderful thoughts and insights. Thank-you.

Merton was an interesting and intelligent person. It had to be a spiritual calling that led him to become a religious monk. By anyone’s estimation, his early life was filled with loss and change. He fathered a child and was considered a womanizer in his youth. Merton did not appear to be inclined towards introspection and faith- certainly not typical priest or monk material.

But, his agnosticism slowly grew into an awakening of spirituality and a desire to become what no one would have ever expected him to be- a man of faith and conviction. It would be difficult to see an individual with so much will and self-determination submit to a religious order…but this is just what he did.

Merton’s search for God and meaning in life lead to a most remarkable faith journey imaginable. His encountered much opposition along the way for his unorthodoxy. Humbleness was not easy for such a man…but it was the price for his vocation. However, Merton was devoted to following the Spirit wherever it lead him and to obey that Still Silent Voice.

4 Likes

I think the word “Father” is closer to the our English word-- “mentor.” Jesus warns us not to place undue trust in human leaders, either by their position, learning or accomplishments. It is very easy to be mislead by those whom we trust and look to for our values and life directions.

On the flip side, leaders should be careful not to assume the position of a Church “Father.” That is permitting youthful followers to embrace their teachings as ideal, encouraging and creating a religious-theological cult around them. TV personalities and charismatic camp meeting speakers, are most vulnerable to accepting star status. “Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth.”

2 Likes

That’s right, Frank.
It means “final authority”.
Jesus does not condemn the role of a teacher. Nor does He condemn levels of authority established in the bible.

But the final “teacher” and “authority” is God by way of the bible.
And all teaching and authority must be subject to this higher authority.

You make a good point. Yet we must admit that it is easy for leaders to slide into “final authority.” I wonder if this could apply to the influence to EGW?

To prevent this trend in religious circles of human homage, Jesus often warned leaders to not strive to be first, but last of all and servant of all.

2 Likes

That’s right. EGW is not some “final authority” to guide the Christian community.
The basis of final authority is actually Moses.

Even Jesus refers to this authority to affirm His own ministry.
And Peter concludes after his testimony.
“We have also a more sure word of prophecy…”

Everything must line up with Moses as the final affirmation of bible truth and the kingdom of God.

I’ve never heard this stated before, “that everything must line up with Moses as the final affirmation of bible truth and the kingdom of God”. Can you elaborate a bit?

Can you provide a text regarding Jesus pointing to Moses as this authority to affirm His ministry? I’d like to see it in context. In 2 Peter it refers to the “prophetic message” but doesn’t refer to Moses specifically, but, I think it is referring to all of the prophecies concerning the Messiah. What about the Transfiguration?

Perhaps you have other scriptures in mind?

3 Likes

Obviously Moses didn’t start first…lol

1 Like

At least this is pleasing to your Muslim friends. Moses is revered as the receiver of the Torah (Tawrat). which the Quran cites as being “guidance and a light" for the Israelites and that it contains teachings about the Oneness of God, prophet-hood and the Day of Judgment.

4 Likes

“If they believe not Moses and the prophets, neither would they believe though one rose from the dead.” Jesus referring to Himself after His resurrection.

“And beginning at Moses and all the prophets, He expounded unto them in all the scriptures the things concerning Himself.” Luke 24:27

This is not, in any way, saying that Moses is the final authority, as you said. It’s speaking of unbelief in the way that God had already used Moses and the Prophets to speak and inform the Israelites. If they don’t believe them, how can they believe in the One of whom they spoke and prophesied?

In the text from Luke, Jesus is showing how He was the fulfillment of the Prophets (Moses and all of them). This is not about “Moses being the final affirmation of bible truth and the kingdom of God”, as you stated above. I want to be clear on what you are saying. Are you saying that Moses is above Jesus in some way?

Also, what about the Transfiguration?

4 Likes

Oh. I though it was Jesus.

What did Moses say or do that is so amazing that we all need to line up with it? Maybe an African folk story he learned from his wife?

2 Likes

One of the main reasons for flaunting elitism is a compensatory reaction for an impoverished sense of self and individual identity. Leaders who have developed a strong and robust sense of confidence and conviction do not demand attention. Their power is bestowed to them by their followers for having earned their confidence. When leaders resort to “shaming and humiliating” to bolster their authority, such as our current GC leaders, this becomes strong evidence of having exhausted their repertoire of problem solving skills and is a compelling argument for easing them into the green pasture of retirement. ASAP.

5 Likes

Shamefully, what will be happening now is that there will be a bunch of people being paid to work on TW’s witch hunt crusade. I wonder if there is now a new position, Secretary of Witch-hunting. Maybe a VP position?

All just because there are discriminators occupying positions of leadership in a religious institution, a denomination that calls itself, “the remnant.” Sure… :roll_eyes::roll_eyes::roll_eyes:

1 Like

Well, if anyone dares to defy Honored Leader, to hold any opinion different than Honored Leader, why don’t they just leave on their own? How dare anyone challenge Honored Leader?

3 Likes

As a follow-up question to Bill…

What do you do with the Transfiguration, where Moses and Elijah (who represent the Law and the Prophets), disappear. Only Jesus is left. Then God says, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!”

@Billsorensen

4 Likes

Thank you! The Transfiguration is so important for an understanding of the new era. It is something I noticed a while ago. Jesus is the climax. Moses a prequel or part 1, important, but the story continued and is continuing.

2 Likes

In theory, your opinion may sound good (at least to non-Adventists), but in practice, it is far from truth! A simple proof: Ellen white has the final say in our sabbath school lesson studies. When the bible says that Jesus entered the most holy in AD 31, she delayed His entry until 1844! and the church upholds it. Our early Adventists believed her to be the final authority and it is so today. Make no mistake.
Here is a statement by Roderick S. Owen (an educator in the Adventist Church from 1883 until his death in 1927):
“Thus Protestants have always claimed that the Bible is its own interpreter. Perhaps it is better to say the spirit of prophecy (we use the term here as synonymous with the gift of prophecy), or testimony of Jesus, is its own interpreter.”

“The Bible is an infallible guide, but it needs to be infallibly interpreted to avoid confusion and division.”

“The spirit of prophecy is superior to the reason and judgment of any council of men that can be called.”

“Because in it would be found the source of final appeal in the church, to wit, the spirit of prophecy…When will the people of God cease trusting their own wisdom? When will they come to the place where they will cease to measure, construe, and interpret, by their own reason, what God says to them through His appointed channel? When we come to the place where we place no trust in man nor in the wisdom of men, but unquestionably accept of and act upon what God says through this gift, then will the spirit of prophecy, as set before us in the Bible and as witnessed in the present manifestations of this gift be confirmed among us and become, in fact, the counselor, guide, and final court of appeal among God’s people.” (Review And Herald, June 3, 1971).

4 Likes