The Forgotten Ethic

Reference: Luke 14:7-14

Kenosis is not talked about very much as a Biblical mandate. It isn’t taught much in catechetical classes or sermons. Even less is it part of society’s mandate. Among the many books on how to be successful, none mention it. No marches demand it, no lobbyists promote it.

On the other hand, it is central to Jesus. Not only does it define his whole being and mission, he advocates the concept for us numerous times. The word in Greek means “empty,” and the theology is that Jesus, in becoming incarnate, empties himself of his power and glory to enter humanity as a helpless babe of a virgin in very humble circumstances. The connection between Jesus’ humility and ours is made quite clearly in Philippians 2. Jesus himself advocates the ethic in the two parables he tells in the reference above, in Luke 14.

But humility gets a bad rap among us. Behavior in our culture is built on the opposite idea, that you must look after number one in order to win the competition to be in first place. Self-promotion is the generally acknowledged strategy for success as it is defined among us. Those who do not do so aggressively and smoothly are not generally admired. If Christians behave differently than others in this regard, I have not noticed it, although I admit that is not the same as a scientific survey. I can tell you with complete certainty humility was absolutely not a quality among the many bishops I was around.

Humility is also misunderstood in our society. To be humble, in the opinion of many, is to adopt a low sense of self-worth, to undervalue your skills, intelligence and personality. Low self-worth is a very serious and widespread problem, contributing to many individual and community tragedies. The strong message of Christianity, in contradiction, is that God himself has created you, and his creation is good and valuable. To think you are without worth is to criticize God and the quality of his work. Further, you are so valued by him that the entire incarnational kenosis and sacrifice has been done for you, among others. We who are made in God’s own image, as we are told (Genesis 1:27), have as an article of faith a consequently positive view of our own creation.

But low self worth is not what Jesus means. Even his comments that we should love our neighbor as ourselves assumes that we have that positive view of ourselves. St. Paul picks up on that in regard to marriage, commenting to men that loving your wife should be the same as loving yourself, since “after all, no one ever hated his own body” (Ephesians 5:29). St. Paul would probably be surprised to learn that, in our modern age, lots of people do indeed hate their own bodies. He would not be surprised that such people have a great deal of trouble loving others, since in Christianity, we know that love emanates from God, who loves us. If he loves me, I can love me, and therefore can also reflect his love to others in a circle of validation. Without the starting point of love from God, the whole chain snaps.

What Jesus means by humility, kenosis, is precisely connected to that. I empty myself, not of worth, but of arrogance, dominance, selfishness and being self-centered. Instead of seeking to triumph over the people around me, I seek to support and value them, to rejoice in their growth, achievements and well-being. I care about them.

But then comes the hard question. Does your church community reflect this? Do the people who observe it note how well you love and care for each other and for the larger community in which you live? Does the kenosiscarry over to the rest of life, how you treat family, your employees or fellow workers, your neighbors and the strangers who come among you? Or has your church become a place where people are consumers of Christianity, not really participants in it as an absorbing lifestyle?

In the second of the two parables in Luke referenced above, Jesus points to a humility which is about giving, about agape love, which empties itself without an expectation of being rewarded by love or material goods in return. The world knows how to interact by giving in order to get in return, Jesus observes. Christian humility gives without expectation of return, a reflection of the kenosis modeled by Jesus. The Eucharistic process reflects this. On Sunday, we empty ourselves at the altar, offering our whole life and the work of our week to Christ, through the items representative of our productivity, bread and wine. Jesus blesses that, and empties himself to go with us for the week to come, just as the bread and wine we receive with his presence integrates completely into our bodies. Our emptiness has been filled, so that we may share the love of that presence with others, emptying ourselves for them, as Christ has done for us.

Do you suppose this could catch on in our congregations? It would be quite wondrous if whole congregations of Christians started acting like that. Perhaps it’s time to teach kenosis.