Ethics of Humility: a downward spiral to greatness

Mark 10:35-45

James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” 36 And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?” 37 And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” 38 But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” 39 They replied, “We are able.” Then Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; 40 but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.”

41 When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. 42 So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. 43 But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. 45 For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

“whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.”

These are highly unusual words for people living in the first-century world. The reason is that “humility” was not considered an ethical virtue when Jesus lived. It had negative connotations. To practice humility was shameful. The Greek word for humility tapeinos and Latin humilitas meant crushed or debased even low to the ground. Indeed, it was the world of might is right! Throughout the Mediterranean, power and honour were seen as something good and positive. The love for power and prestige was celebrated as a virtuous quality.

Aristotle’s Ethics shaped much of the social life of the Mediterranean people under Roman Empire. Aristotle associated greatness with pride. A great human being (the megalopsychos, or a great-souled man) is a proud one. They must think of themselves as deserving of great things and worthy of prestigious positions. They are never to exercise humility before someone equal or lesser in status than them. And if they ever happen to relate to someone that way, it would have been considered morally questionable or unethical.

In today’s world, we admire someone who has humility. We find arrogance distasteful. In the ancient world, it was the opposite. Our word humiliation is how they would have thought of the word humility. It was disgraceful to level oneself down to a status one was not born to. There was simply no honour in it.

So how did we sidestep this honour-seeking way of life? So how did humility come to be valued within the Christian tradition — and, by extension, to the West?

This is where Jesus’ movement is pivotal. Two of Jesus’ disciples, James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to him one day and asked for the seats on his left and right in his glory. They were thinking of God’s kingdom in earthly, political terms, and they wanted positions of power. They had no idea what they were asking. Jesus replied: “whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

This teaching of Jesus was unique. He subverted the ancient notions of greatness and servitude. He taught an ethic of humility instead of and constant upward-bound race for honours. But it wasn’t what he taught that changed things decisively. It was the way he lived but, most precisely, his death that sets a new historical trajectory. To accept a messiah, a great king was crucified would not make sense to the Greeks or the Romans.

It was equally troubling for his first followers. Was Jesus not as great as they thought, given the way he was executed? Or could it be the case that greatness is not what they thought it was? That greatness could mean a readiness to lower oneself for the sake of others. For disciples, the answer was obvious. True greatness is the antidote to honour-seeking arrogance - it involves humility. From a prison in Rome 30 years after Jesus, the apostle Paul encourages Christians to follow Jesus’ example of humble self-sacrifice.

In his book Humilitas, Australian historian of religion John Dickson makes a case that the teaching of Jesus was a turning point in the ethics of the Western world. He tells a brief story of the Roman Emperor Justinian to show how the humility revolution of Jesus reshaped social behaviour.

One day in 531, Emperor Justinian received a visit from a famous Christian monk named Sabas. The monk had come from Palestine with a petition to rebuild broken churches and a hospital. When Sabas entered the grand imperial court, the emperor leaped and ran to him, kissed him, and showed him “great reverence.” This was a surprising role reversal. This was a considerable departure from the long Roman tradition of emperors parading their status and power. Five hundred years after Christ, even the emperor felt the need to be humble.

If there is one thing we see clearly in the teachings of Jesus, it’s that he changed the love for power into the power of love. His is indeed the upside-down Kingdom: The last will be first, and the first will be last; to find your life, you must lose it; the way up is down; the poor are blessed, and the meek are strong.


Humilitas: A Lost Key to Life, Love, and Leadership. John Dickson.

Humility among the ancient Greeks. Sophie Grace.

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