What Jesus wants of each and every one of us is the very same thing; he’s not all that concerned with husbands being better spiritual leaders as they exercise their authoritative headship over their God-ordained subordinates or with wives being better helpers as they joyfully and intelligently submit to their God-ordained superiors. He didn’t want an exact role reversal, because he was talking to the individual on his or her spiritual journey. He didn’t want all the slaves to take up being masters or all the masters to sell themselves into slavery. He wasn’t after all the citizens becoming foreigners anymore than all the foreigners becoming citizens. I think the essence of the only role that matters summed up in just one word: humility.
For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.
It’s probably not a great idea to interpret the Bible in such a way that God exalts you over overs, bestows upon you privilege over others, or anything like that. Eventually somebody will interpret it the other way ’round and it’ll be just as valid.
Jesus wanted people to take stock of where they were and what it would take to follow after him. The way he talked, there was a lot that people had to give up in order to follow him. He was, after all, an itinerant Rabbi who never married, settled down, and started a family – which makes his path a difficult one to follow for those of us who don’t have the option of being just as itinerant as he was or has certain obligations that demand that we remain in one place for awhile.
In James, the poor are instructed to take pride in their humble circumstances while the rich are reminded that they’re little more than a blooming flower that would soon wither and die. In a church full of prosperity gospel teachers, they must find this verse a perplexing one as it’s the opposite of the teaching they want to draw out of the verses.
But the Bible does that – a lot. When you think you can read only one interpretation of a verse, along comes another that says something totally opposite and is still valid in it’s own way. But humility seems to be the foundation of it all. Jesus, after all, despite his position as a deity was born in a manger. Even though he could have called down a legion of angels to do his bidding; he set his highest powers aside and laid them down.
It’s something that’s missing in Christianity. I’ve sat through enough “men are the heads of their households” and “women have the duty to submit to their husbands” sermons to know that humility is a missing ingredient.
Perhaps some imagery will help. According to the way these verses are interpreted commonly, women help hold their husbands up, so imagine a human pyramid, with all the women in the church holding up all the men in that church, and some of those men being the elders/deacons who are held up by some men even as they hold up the pastor above them. Men are told to be “servant-leaders” or to sacrificially put the needs of their wives above them as they use their authority for the good of the family. But do you know the one thing they must not ever do? Free their wives from the burden of helping them up. This is the way that God wants it; so they say. So the men can direct the women: go that way, shuffle this way, but they can’t be the ones holding up their wives, or taking over when her muscles begin to fail her. As a purely spiritual exercise, she’s never supposed to get tired of this treatment of always having to ask permission much as a child would for anything she would like.
But to me a picture of humility is to erase the concept of hierarchy, privilege, special treatment and for all men and all women to be on the same level, helping each other. This to me, is what Jesus was really trying to speak to; but the first-century world in which he lived in could barely stomach the idea that masters and slaves were equal (the males ones, anyway), it would take centuries or possibly millennia for the idea that men and women were just as equal to each other in every way. Today, that teaching still hasn’t materialized in a Christianity that’s so enamored with the concept of hierarchy. But at least I can practice humility in my own life by doing what I believe to be right, and that’s to follow Jesus’ example in laying down any power or privileged I’d have to make decisions for others and empower them in a world that would very much prefer them to be powerless.