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Humble Pie (ty)

Thomas J Parlette

“Humble Pie(ty)”

Matthew 23: 1-12



Have you ever had to eat “humble pie?” Most of us have heard this expression. It’s an idiom meaning “to face humiliation for an error or wrongdoing, something for which we must apologize, often in some public way.” That’s the official definition.

Far fewer of us, however, know what humble pie actually is. The origin of this odd phrase derives from “umble pie”- umble with no “h”. This was a rather nasty meat pie usually filled with the parts of the animal you usually wouldn’t eat, like liver, heart and other organ meat, especially from a cow, but often from a deer or a boar. “Umble” evolved from the word “numble”, which was French for “deer innards.” So real humble pie is actually deer innard pie. Not very appetizing.

Umbles were considered inferior food – not surprisingly. In medieval times, the pie was often the only meat dish available to people of the lower economic class. So for someone of noble rank or superior station in the middle ages to be publicly humiliated would be sort of like having them sit down with a commoner and have a bowl of umble pie.

The word “umbles” and the word “humble”, appeared with and without the initial “H” until about the 19th century – but now the word “umble” has pretty much disappeared. But the word “humble” is still around, as is the phrase “humble pie.” And after all these years, it still retains its meaning of having to sit down to a meal of deer innards – a humbling experience indeed.(1)

In our Gospel reading for today, Jesus says that those who exalt themselves will eat humble pie, while those who eat humble pie will be exalted.

Actually, that’s not what he said, but that might be how we hear it. What Jesus said was “all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted. His meaning was that the truly great among us are those who choose to serve others and not get all wrapped up in self-promotion. In fact, the scripture says, “The greatest among you will be your servant.”

In other words, Jesus was talking about the intent of our actions and attitudes, not the status assigned to our positions. We have many great leaders who really do try to put others first. And that’s good. It’s the ones who use their position to benefit themselves that Jesus had a problem with. He was not talking per se about everyone in high places getting knocked off their perches. The kind of reversal Jesus had in mind was to move service from its maligned position at the bottom of public perception, to the top of the heap; while at the same time devaluing self-promotion. The bottom dog becomes the top dog, so to speak. The greatest among you will be willing to eat humble pie. Or, to apply this to our life of faith – the greatest among you will live with a humble piety.

But humility, even though Jesus thought it was really important, often seems in short supply these days – even among Christians, sometimes. We can change that, at least as far as our own lives go, but it takes effort. But our faith calls us to be a light to the nation, and do our best to model a humble piety for a world that could use a dose of humility.

One place we could use some humility is in our assessment of others. Yes, we have the Biblical standards as expressed in places like the Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount, but those were given not to make us judges of other people, but as guides for ourselves. Gods laws were not meant to be used like the hammer, but were meant as a mirror. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus jokes, “Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but you don’t notice the log in your own eye?”

Historically, the church has never been hesitant to label certain behaviors as wrong, but Christianity as a whole has always considered verbal stone-throwing to be risky business. I’m sure you remember the story about the woman caught in adultery who was dragged by the Pharisees before Jesus for judgement. The Pharisees asked if she should be stoned to death and Jesus said that whoever considered themselves without sin should cast the first stone. And of course none of them could make that claim, so they slunk away.

I’ve read that some pastors, and even some other professionals like teachers, doctors and business people have started to keep a stone on their desks. Most of them are smooth and polished. On the stone is an inscription – “The First Stone.” It’s a good reminder that only someone who is without sin can safely throw stones of judgment at someone else. And who can make that claim. In other words, The First Stone is one which is never thrown. It is always best to think twice before pointing the finger in judgment at someone else.(2)

Another place we need some humility is in our opinions, recognizing that simply because we hold them doesn’t make them true. This is especially important in the current polarized culture in which we live, where the temptation is often to assign low-character motives to those who don’t agree with us.

Back in 2002, fifteen years ago, syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer wrote an article called “Stupid vs Evil” that still rings true today. He wrote about what he saw as one of the fundamental truths of American politics. He wrote: “Conservatives think liberals are stupid. Liberals think conservatives are evil.” Or, as he also stated in the same column, “Liberals, who have no head…, believe that conservatives have no heart.”(3) And vice versa. Neither of which is true of course. Conservatives are not evil and liberals are intelligent people, but the stereotypes live on 15 years later. A little humility in regards to our own opinions would go a long way towards establishing some peace and some mutual respect these days as we try to move toward a more civil discourse.

Yet another place we need some humility is in our assessment of our own character. We need to be aware of our own capacity for self-deception and realize that even good deeds can have elements of self-interest. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do good things, but we can be aware that we are not above having mixed motives. The late Steve Hayner, who was the President of Columbia Theological Seminary, once said, “I believe in objective truth, but I hold lightly to our ability to perceive truth.”(4) Good point.

Now here’s the catch-22 about intentionally adopting a humble piety – the minute we start focusing on our humility and thinking we have achieved it, we exalt ourselves because of the achievement. As Helen Nielsen once quipped, “Humility is like underwear – essential, but indecent if it shows.”(5)  How true.

In his book The Screwtape Leters, C.S. Lewis pointed out that “any of the virtues we possess become something of a spiritual problem once we become aware of them.” As an example, he said that if we truly are humble, the depth of our humility may suddenly occur to us, so that we say, “By jove! I’m being humble!” Almost immediately, Lewis says, pride – pride at our own humility – will appear. And then, if we awake to that danger and try to smother this new form of pride, we can become proud of our attempt to do so!(6) You just can’t win.

But even so, humility is definitely something calls us to exhibit. And as C.S. Lewis also wrote, “True humility is not thinking less of yourself; true humility is thinking of yourself less.”(7) A humble person doesn’t discount themselves, they simply elevate serving others over serving primarily oneself.

And now, scientific research is backing up Jesus’ call to a humble piety. A headline in The Washington Post last year read “Leaders are more powerful when they are humble.” The author, Ashley Merryman wrote, “True humility, scientists have learned, is when people have an accurate assessment of both their strengths and weaknesses, and they see all this in the context of the larger whole. They’re a part of something far greater than themselves. They know they aren’t the center of the universe. And they’re both grounded and liberated by this knowledge. Recognizing their abilities, they ask how they can contribute. Recognizing their flaws, they ask how they can grow.”(8)

Perhaps that’s what Jesus meant when he said “Listen to the authorities, do what they say – they are empowered to teach. But don’t follow their example. Don’t do as they do. Think of yourself less and more of others. That is truly humble piety.

As Jesus says, “All who humble themselves will be exalted.”

May God be praised. Amen.


1.    Homiletics, Vol. 29, No.6, p8.

2.    Ibid…p9.

3.    Ibid…p9

4.    Ibid…p9.

5.    Ibid…p11.

6.    Ibid…p9-10.

7.    Ibid…p55.

8.    Ibid…p10.