October 1, Ordinary 26A (Philippians 2:1-13)
Paul’s words about humility should be handled with care.
I wonder if another word for “empty conceit”—rendered in other translations as “vain conceit” or “vainglory”—would be “narcissism.” Paul wants to tell the faith community in Philippi that no one is served when some seek their own self-aggrandizement rather than the collective good of the community. In Paul’s vision of a healthily interdependent, interconnected, love-centered people, there is no room for narcissistic attitudes or behavior. There is only mutual care, mutual support, mutual concern, mutual love.
Aiming for this kind of community, Paul’s words about humility should be handled with care: words about imitating Christ, emptying ourselves, taking the form of a servant. Humbling ourselves, obedient even to the point of death. Regarding others as better than ourselves. Looking to others’ interests, not our own. These instructions can easily be twisted to perpetuate injustice rather than birth justice, as people with more power inflict them on people with less power to justify the status quo. I don’t think Paul intended this.
Paul’s broader hopes for the church in Philippi can ground our understanding of what Paul does and doesn’t mean when he urges people toward humility. What does Paul want for these people, whom he remembers with such deep joy and gratitude (1:3–5)? He wants their love to overflow (1:9). He wants them to stand firm in the face of outside threats (1:27–30). He trusts that their lives are marked by comfort in Christ, by consolation in love, by partnership in Spirit, by tender compassion and mercy (2:1). He wants them to shine like stars (2:15). Any interpretation of self-emptying, self-humbling, or looking to others’ interests, then, should move in these directions—for all people, and especially for those society has already humbled a little too much.