01 March 2017

Learning Humility

Matthew 11:25-30

Ash Wednesday

Preached at the Hunting Ridge Presbyterian Church, Baltimore, MD

“Come to me, all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:30). Familiar words. Maybe, too familiar.

There’s a poetic beauty about these words, when taken together. They have a rhythm and flow that’s comforting. They have a way of inviting us in, calming our spirits, providing promised rest.

But I wonder if the invitation to cast off our heavy burdens for some rest distracts us from what Jesus is asking us to take on. I wonder if these words, lulling us toward “rest,” pulled by a desire for “easy” and “light,” distract us from what Jesus is calling us to do. “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me.” Jesus isn’t removing a yoke from us. He’s inviting us to take on his. And the yoke that he’s asking us to take on is all that we need to learn in the school of Jesus.

Anyone listening to Jesus or reading Matthew’s gospel would have understood Jesus’ use of the word “yoke.” Rabbis, teachers in the First Century, especially in Galilee, invited people to learn to keep Torah, the Law of Moses. This was called taking on “the yoke of Torah” or “the yoke of the kingdom of heaven.” Rabbis, having achieved the highest level of education, were given the authority to teach; they were also given the authority (s’mikhah) to offer new interpretations or yokes. Each rabbi had a community or even a school of disciples around him. Jesus is a rabbi with his own yoke, his own interpretation. The most advanced students desired to study with a rabbi, which often meant leaving home and traveling for a period of time from synagogue to synagogue. These students were called talmidim, which we translate disciples. A disciple (talmid) was more than being a student, which implies achieving a certain level, passing a test, and graduating. Instead, a disciple wants to be like the teacher, to become what the teacher is. Disciples were passionately devoted to their rabbi. In time, they, too, would become rabbis to pass on all that they had learned. Jesus used this model of learning. He invited people to follow his way, to take on his yoke. And he chose the people in his school because they had the ability and the commitment to become like him. He chose them because they were teachable, because he believed in them and trusted them to pass on his teaching.[1]

Jesus invites us to learn from him so that we can do what he does—teach the good news and embody the way of God’s kingdom. He invites us to learn. He trusts us because he believes that we’re teachable!

Three years ago, I was in London’s Heathrow Airport en route to Washington from Edinburgh. Walking around the Duty Free, a book cover and title caught my eye: The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot, by Robert Macfarlane, a new author to me. Macfarlane, Fellow of Emmanuel College, Cambridge, has written extensively—and beautifully (he’s become one of my favorite writers)—about the connection between the landscape covered by our feet and the landscape of heart and mind, all of which he knows something about since he’s also an avid walker. Macfarlane shows us that there’s a deep connection between walking and learning. The connection is rooted in language. The etymology of a word has much to teach us. So he tracked down the history of the English word learn. “The trail begins,” he writes, “with our verb to learn, meaning ‘to acquire knowledge’. Moving backwards in language time, we reach the Old English leornian, ‘to get knowledge, to be cultivated.’ From leornian the path leads further back…[to] Proto-Germanic, and to the word liznojan, which has the base sense ‘to follow or to find a track.’” Do you hear the connection between walking and learning? “To learn” therefore “means at root—at route—‘to follow a track.’”[2]

As disciples, isn’t that what Jesus calls us to do? Follow and learn. Take on his way. Go on the way with him, who is “the way” (John 14:6), who is “way.” And as you go learn, discover! The way is open-ended. There are things we can only discover when we’re walking, moving forward, step after step, into the unknown. Jesus calls us forward, not to the past, but forward. And as we go we learn and discover new things.

In order to discover new things, in order to learn anything, we have to acknowledge there are things that we don’t already know. We have to confess ignorance. We have to say, “I don’t know.” We have to admit that we don’t know everything; that we don’t have everything figured out. We only have to be slightly conscious to know that we don’t know everything. But there are plenty of Christians out there these days who think they have Jesus all figured out; they assume quite a lot about God and what they think God desires. And we all know what happens to you and me when we try to assume too much. We make fools of ourselves—or worse. We see the foolishness of others. Still, there are plenty of dogmatic Christians who have their theologies and beliefs, viewpoints and worldviews so tightly ordered, so fearfully restricted in tight, confining boxes that there’s little room for the Holy Spirit to breathe or breathe new life into them. They’re so afraid of discovering anything new or anything that might burst open their well-guarded theologies, question their worldview, their morality, their understanding of the Bible, what it means to be human, their understanding of science.

This is where humility comes in. Years ago, a Franciscan priest friend reminded me that the meaning of the word humility simply means, “truth telling.” We often think humility means having a modest or low view of ourselves. Sometimes as Christians we think we’re not supposed to think too highly or too much of ourselves, that we need to think more modestly or low of ourselves. If we think too much of ourselves, we knock ourselves down. Or, if we see someone who is too high and lofty we want to see him or her knocked down a few pegs—perhaps you help with the knocking down. But that’s not really humility. And there’s nothing inherently Christian about that. Humility, from the Latin humus, meaning soil, means, simply to be “of the earth.” It means being grounded, real, honest, truthful—about who we really are and who we aren’t, truthful about what we’re passionate about and what we’re not, and specifically related to this text, truthful about what we know and truthful about what we don’t know.

Several weeks ago, in National Capital Presbytery, I got to hear Willie James Jennings speak at a conference on “Theology, Racism, and Christian Practice: How Shall We Respond?” Jennings, professor of Systematic Theology and Africana Studies at Yale Divinity School, is one of the leading theologians of our time. He’s the author of The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race, which has been called “a theological masterpiece.” It was an extraordinary lecture. At one point in his talk I wanted to jump out of my chair and shout out, Amen!—but that didn’t seem very Presbyterian. Jennings invited the church, invites us, to practice the “humility of a learner,” to consider this as a way of life for the Christian. Jennings exposed and critiqued something that’s been pervasive and destructive in the history the Church for a long time, what he called “pedagogical imperialism,” often practiced by white Christians toward—well, just about anyone who isn’t white. This is deep in Christianity he said. It runs through colonialism and the time of slavery; it’s embedded in our racist tendencies. Imperial theology assumes that God knows everything and therefore has no need to know anything more. It assumes that God is the only teacher and doesn’t need to learn anything from us. Imperial theology, practiced by people who hold this image of God, is always teaching—always telling people what they need to know, what they have to believe, or else. Imperial theology is always teaching, never learning, never listening, never open to learning anything new. Early missionaries, for example, viewed themselves as teachers, reluctant to learn anything about God or the world or themselves from indigenous people.[3]

However, Jennings said, what we find in the Bible, instead, is a God who is always on a journey, who delights in learning and discovering in and with and through God’s people. God discovers something about Godself in and through the incarnation, by entering into creation, entering into human experience. God delights in learning about God’s own creation. God learns. Jesus learns. Jesus is a teacher, yes, but he’s open to learning—that’s how one becomes a good a teacher.

To be a disciple means that we are perpetual students in the school of Jesus. We are always learning—we’re always on the lookout for discovering something new about the depths of God’s love, the radicality of God’s grace, the meaning of the cross, the mission and work of the Holy Spirit in the world, walking with Christ and expanding our awareness of who we are and what God is hoping to do in and through us, discerning what God is dreaming in and through us, not only for us and for the Church, but for the world! God needs teachable, humble spirits who continually confess that we have so much to learn, so much to discover about the height and breadth and depths of God!

The ashes symbolize our mortality. They’re also ashes of humility—they invite us to be real, down to earth, facing the truth of our lives, that we are not God, that we are mortal, that we are finite and limited. They remind us that we are finite and limited in what we know about God. Yes, it’s true that we have the fullest revelation of God in the face of Jesus Christ. But even this theological confession—“Jesus Christ is the fullest revelation of God”—requires a lifetime to fathom what it really means, not only intellectually, but practically, in how it shapes our walk and our actions. There’s so much to discover about life in Christ! And Christ delights in our learning!

So, what if our Lenten practice included learning something new? What if it involved a spirit of inquiry and discovery, of searching after all the new things we can discover and learn about God, about Christ, the work of the Spirit, the mission of the Church? What if we discovered something new and meaningful and redemptive about ourselves as children of God? What if you learned something new about an injustice near where you where you live, become more involved, then did something about it? You get the picture. What if we committed to learning something new and then using what we learn for the glory of God? What if Christians were known as people constantly learning something new about God’s grace? Just consider how radical that would be.
I have a hunch that living this way will not only feed our souls, but that our souls might actually experience a kind of rest—rest in knowing that this is what we were created for. It’s why God breathed life into dust and formed us in the first place.


[1] Ray Vander Laan, “Rabbiand Talmidim".

[2] Robert Macfarlane, The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot (New York: Viking, 2012), 31.

[3] These ideas are further explored in Willie James Jennings, The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010), 112-116ff.

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