This word comes into our language from the Middle English, via Anglo-French, from Latin humilis low, humble, from “humus” the word for earth. Webster’s offers this as a definition
- not proud or haughty: not arrogant or assertive
- reflecting, expressing, or offered in a spirit of deference or submission
- ranking low in a hierarchy or scale: insignificant, unpretentious –or : not costly or luxurious
Does this capture the biblical sense of “humility?” Humility comes from the Greek tapeinoō (make low, humble; EDNT 3:334). In its verbal and noun forms, the word occurs 18 times in the NT and describes appropriate human conduct before God. And yet the use of the word often has a passive aspect to it. For example, John the Baptist challenges his listeners to ready themselves for God’s salvation by preparing the way of the Lord and making his paths straight. The decisive feature, however, must be performed by God himself, for every valley will be filled (by him) and every mountain made low (by him), i.e., leveled. The salvific action begins with God’s own actions.
The statement “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 14:11; cf. 1 Sam 2:7; Ezek 21:31) occurs also in Mt 23:12 and Luke 18:9-13. In these three uses one begins to see that humility is, at its core, a response to a salvific action already begun by God. In Matthew humility is the response of one who responds as servant (23:11). In Luke the humility of the guest (Luke 14) or the one in prayer (Luke 18) is that they know all is for God to offer, to give, and to answer. Outside the gospels, both James 4:10 and 1 Peter 5:6 exhort Christians to humble themselves so that God may exalt them.
In Philippians 2:8 the verbal use refers to Jesus’ free decision to become a human being, which includes the path to death. In the death on the cross Jesus’ humility is the very basis of our salvation. It is not a model to be imitated by Christians but rather the basis for Christian humility (v. 3).
In 2 Cor 12:21 Paul fears God will humble him upon his arrival as Paul feels responsible for the community as seen in his pride concerning them (1:14) and yet he knows that there are abuses and problems in the Corinth church (vv. 20, 21b). Perhaps Paul’s pride was enmeshed in believing that his efforts had converted the Corinthians, only to be reminded that conversion depends ultimately on God (v. 21b).
All of these uses echo the OT exhortation that one is to develop a humble attitude of the heart (cf. Prov. 25:7; Joel 2:12-13; Is. 58:5ff.) so as to enter into a right relationship to God (Ps. 116:6).
In Luke 18:14 the humility of the publican sets him in a right relation to God. Mt. 18:4 adds the special nuance that abasement before God means becoming a child before him. Jesus asks for total trust in God that expects everything from him and nothing from self.
Biblically, “humility,” (being humble) is indeed different form Webster’s definition. Humility, at its core, is being in right relationship with God. We should strive to be more completely humble even knowing all the while that our conversion is accomplished by God’s grace. And so we strive in this lifetime to accomplish His will, knowing that it is God who accomplishes all things through us – and in the process via our experiences come to even greater depths of trust in God.
Honor at Meals. The meal setting is common in many of the gospels as a metaphor for the celebration of the Kingdom’s come. But it also often a setting of controversy. Consider that vv.1-6 centered on the debate at table regarding the lawfulness of curing on the Sabbath – reminiscent of earlier discussions about appropriate behavior on the Sabbath (e.g., 6:2, 9; 13:14–16). When Jesus asks if it would be lawful to cure the man with dropsy, those at table are silent. When Jesus next asks if their son or oxen fell into a cistern would they pull them out, again, they are silent. The easiest take on their reaction is that Jesus has them timid and stumped. But there was a long-standing tradition for debate about the understanding of the Law. I would suggest that given Jesus’ challenging questions, one would need time to think about the reasoning – and in the face of such challenging wisdom, perhaps there is a struggle for the host to figure out exactly where this wandering preacher from Nazareth should be sitting.
That dynamic then opens the way for Jesus’ larger questions about honor at meals. Notice that vv.7-11, addressed to guests, is parallel to vv. 12-14, addressed to hosts, both showing a common pattern in which humility plays out.
As Culpepper points out:
- to the guests
- “When you are invited…do not recline…place of honor…the host…may approach you…”
- “Rather, when you are invited…take the lowest place”
- “Then you will enjoy the esteem….”
- the eschatological implications (v.11)
- to the hosts
- “When you hold a lunch or a dinner….do not invite… in case…”
- “Rather, when you hold a banquet…invite”
- “blessed indeed will you be…”
- the eschatological implications (v.14b)
- Allen Culpepper Luke, vol. 9 in New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary (Nashville, TN.: Abington, 1995) 286-88
- Gerhard Kittel, Gerhard Friedrich and Geoffrey William. Bromiley, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans, 1995, c1985) – Grundmann, tapeinós VIII, 1-26
- Horst Robert. Balz and Gerhard Schneider, Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1990) – Giesen, tapeinoō , 3:334-335.
- Scripture quotes from New American Bible by Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Inc., Washington, DC.