The Jewish ethical treatise Mesilas Yesharim (Path of the Just) chapter 22 contains this quote from Vayikra Rabbah (the Midrash on Leviticus):
Our Sages of blessed memory said in Vayikra Rabbah (1.5), “Withdraw two or three levels from your place so that they will say to you, `Come forward,’ rather than go forward and be told, `Get back.’ “
If you are a studied Christian, this should sound familiar. Jesus spoke in Luke 14:7f.:
Now he told a parable to those who were invited, when he noticed how they chose the places of honor, saying to them, “When you are invited by someone to a wedding feast, do not sit down in a place of honor, lest someone more distinguished than you be invited by him, and he who invited you both will come and say to you, ‘Give your place to this person,’ and then you will begin with shame to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit in the lowest place, so that when your host comes he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher.’ Then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at table with you. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
Yeshua’s earthly ministry certainly predates the redaction of Leviticus Rabbah; perhaps his teaching is original and was later repeated by another sage and included in the Midrash. Or perhaps this lesson on humility was a common one in Second Temple Judaism.
Whether Jewish or Christian, though, we would all do well to take this lesson to heart. Even the simple application of the passage is powerful; letting someone go ahead of you at the grocery store sends a powerful message. But while both passages reference the seating arrangement at a gathering, the lesson is much deeper than that and has many applications.
For example, many in the Hebrew Roots movement have come out of mainstream Christianity and made dramatic shifts in their beliefs. Some of these people believe that this new awakening entitles them to seek positions of leadership. Because there is such a vacuum of solid Biblical teaching and unifying vision, there are a lot of opportunities for people with ambition. An Ohio State University study has shown that in a leaderless group, a narcissist is most likely to emerge as the leader. Unfortunately, narcissism (self-absorption) is a quality God eschews in congregational leaders (1 Tim 3:6).
In today’s “leaderless” Hebrew Roots movement, it is better to join a community, quietly learn, work on yourself, and strive to do your best for God, and wait for your community to recognize your gifts and elevate you to a position of leadership. If they never do, it is possible that you are not called to be a leader. Don’t be discouraged if this is the case; most of us are called to be followers, not leaders.
Those of us who have been invested with authority must be extremely careful to remain humble. We have to take the lead in putting other people before ourselves. We have to be the first to demonstrate a humble and lowly spirit. We must be “servants of all.” The second we let pride creep in, we risk ruining ourselves, our ministries, and our communities.
Being humble doesn’t mean being a weak leader, though. Leaders must be firm and strong, with clear vision and a vigilant eye. It is important that as we seek to avoid narcissism on the one hand, we don’t fall into weakness and impotence on the other. This tightrope walk is tricky at best, and extraordinarily difficult at worst. Had I never been called into ministry, I would be perfectly happy just following orders rather than treading on the knife’s edge between pride and passivity.
At any rate, if we resolve to be humble, place others before ourselves, and place their needs before ours, our witness to the outside world will be dramatically improved. If the self-appointed prophets among us would still their tongues and learn with humility, we may find that many who have turned away from the truth would return with open ears.