Scots Church Adelaide
The Humble Greatest

Lectionary: Matthew 23:1-12

Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, ‘The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses' seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practise what they teach. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. They love to have the place of honour at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, and to be greeted with respect in the market-places, and to have people call them rabbi. But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students. And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father-the one in heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah. The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.

The Pharisees receive such bad press in the New Testament that in English, "Pharisaic" is often used as another word for Hypocrite. Chapter 23 in Matthew rather sets the seal on that. After a constant series of arguments with the religious authorities, all of which he wins, Matthew's Jesus concludes with an overwhelming denunciation. The context, of course, is the struggle of Matthew's community with the Jewish religion of its time. It was a hostile relationship with each side struggling to justify itself and survive. Matthew's people have been ejected from the synagogues and are on their own. There is much hostility.

I've just been discussing this with a friend, who said that in English Lit. the tutor would say, "X was drunk when he wrote this, and it means that..." And she would say, "How do you know she was drunk? You're assuming that. Perhaps he was not drunk that day!"

She's right, but we can't avoid doing the best we can to understand where a piece of writing has come from. It's like the old saying, "Not to decide, is to decide." And if we will not try and imagine what the source and background of a piece of text is, then we will understand it according to some point of view we have inherited from somewhere, perhaps even unwittingly. But this understanding is not all that we do. If we decided that Matthew is putting words into Jesus' mouth at this point, "so what?" as they say. Is this an interesting artifact from the past, with no relevance to today, or does it say something to us?

As Christians, we are by default, saying the text is of more than academic interest. We are saying that there is some way in which it speaks to us.

What strikes me first of all is the emotional weight of the text. The strength of the denunciation immobilizes me. We have a habit of taking denunciations of the Pharisees as a critique of the same tendencies in ourselves. At this level of understanding I am shocked into reviewing who I am and how I am behaving! The section of the chapter chosen for the lectionary this week is verses 1-12, and in one sense the really heavy attack is in the verses which follow that about the blind guides and hypocrites. But the heart of it all is in the first verses; "they do not practise what they teach." And then;

"They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them."

A detailed religion, hard to follow, economically burdensome, was laid down, and the poor were damned for not practicing all its minutiae. God help us as (in my case) clergy if we bring religion to people like this! God help any of us who make God a burden rather than a bringer of freedom for life.

This is only the first level of the word from Matthew in these verses. A in the middle of an hostile broadside at the Jewish people roundabout, Matthew suddenly slipped in a blunt, uncompromising challenge to his own people, the Christians. He does it here too.

But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students. And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father-the one in heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah.

There is a solid attack on the beginnings of hubris and status within the Christian Community. Be careful about exalting and elevating people among you. There is only one teacher - Jesus. But it goes further;The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.

At Geoff's funeral last week, after an untimely death, there was standing room only in a large church. The man was a legend. It was hard not to feel a bit useless as I listened to all the amazing things he did; I had no idea about most of them. I think Geoff might have been surprised too- as someone said, "Geoff would say, ‘Look at all the people... for me!'" He was a servant. And he did humble himself. There were no airs about Geoff, he just got on with the job.

Do we trust enough to simply love God and people, and work for justice and peace? When are we offering our expertise and passion to the church, and when are we simply looking for affirmation and the seat of honour? Are we so good at being Godly that we "lock people out of the kingdom of heaven?" Is our theology so subtle as to become ridiculous and tithing mint, dill and cumin but neglecting the weightier matters of the law: justice mercy and faith?

We can all point the finger at this moment. We can all think of some TV evangelist or other religious high flyer that this fits. What about us? Do we practice what we preach? Do we really care for what our faith tells us, and live it out, or are we simply, ever so subltly, loving the place of honour at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues?

Andrew Prior 2008
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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