Henri Nouwen said that people tend to define themselves in three ways: I am what I do. I am what I have. I am what other people think or say about me.
In today’s passage from John, the Pharisees attempt to fit Jesus into this framework. Jesus stands up to preach at the Feast of Booths, and the questions start flying: “How is it that this man has learning when he has never studied?” (v. 15.) Translation: “This guy didn’t study with us or go through the usual channels, so how can we trust him?” Jesus could easily have answered with something like, “I just fed the five thousand, walked on water, etc., etc., and you guys are asking where I went to school?” But He doesn’t. In humility, He points to the Father, exposing the Pharisees’ motives with his response: “My teaching is not mine, but His who sent me. If anyone’s will is to do God’s will, he will know whether the teaching is from God or whether I am speaking on my own authority. The one who speaks on his own authority seeks his own glory, but the one who seeks the glory of him who sent him is true, and in him is no falsehood.” (vs. 16-19) In other words, if you guys really wanted to do God’s will, you’d know my teaching is from God. He finally tells them, “Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment.”
Like Nouwen says, we all struggle not to define ourselves by earthly standards, and to judge with right judgment. (The recent “Operation Varsity Blues” college admissions scandal is just one example of what it means to share the Pharisees’ obsession with credentials today). For much of my career, I tried to be the best pianist, go to the best schools, and perform in the best places. It was an endless striving. Like the Pharisees, I have often missed the freedom, beauty, and relationships Jesus had right in front of me because I’ve been judging with WRONG judgment. In “speaking on my own authority,” I have failed and been broken countless times. But Jesus, in his abundant mercy, shows us a better way, pointing to the Father all the way to the Cross. And because of the Cross, we, too, can speak with the Father’s authority if we submit ourselves to Him humbly, as Jesus did.
“Do not let me hear
Of the wisdom of old men, but rather of their folly,
Their fear of fear and frenzy, their fear of possession,
Of belonging to another, or to others, or to God.
The only wisdom we can hope to acquire
Is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless.”
--T.S. Eliot, “East Coker,” Four Quartets
May we all seek the wisdom of humility, as Jesus did. Amen.
Hilary Van Wagenen lives in Cheverly with her husband, Tom, son, Peter, and two fluff-muppets, Hamish and Violet. She loves tromping around on muddy trails, playing and listening to Brahms, and having dance parties.