“Just One of the Crowd,” Matthew 23:1-12

My son is an excellent athlete—a very good golfer, played on a high school state final four basketball team, skis well.  The irony is that I am the one who got him started in all those sports.  I taught him his first basic lessons.  So why is it that he is head and shoulders better than I in all things athletic and has been for many years?  When I asked him once why that was so, he just smiled and told me, “Dad, I just watched you and saw how not to do things.”  Fortunately, he also learned from my bad example how to be a more confident and relaxed father, husband, and overall good human being.  Apparently teaching by negative example can be a very effective educational methodology.  “Do as I say and not as I do”  becomes “Just do the opposite of what I  do and benefit from my boneheaded mistakes.”

In Matthew 23, Jesus uses the Scribes and Pharisees as examples of how not to be a faithful follower of God.  Jesus is teaching “the crowds” and his disciples, and he begins by saying, “The Scribes and Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it.”  So far that sounds like a pretty good recommendation, right?  Then comes the ‘but.’  “But do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach” (vs. 1-3).  Jesus then goes on to itemize a variety of prideful, egotistic behaviors these religious leaders engage in to support his argument that they don’t practice what they preach:  expecting others to live up to a higher standard than they do, showing off how religious they are by wearing prominently displayed religious symbols, doing good deeds not to help others but to earn brownie points with God, expecting the best seats of honor at church potlucks and luxury boxes at football games, I mean in the synagogues, always being greeted and treated with proper titles of honor.

It seems the Pharisees needed a shift to the educational philosophy that encourages teachers to move from being “the Sage on the stage to the guide on the side.”  Jesus says in verses 7 and 8, “they want to have people call them rabbi (teacher).  But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students.”  In other words, no matter what our income tax bracket or net worth or educational pedigree, we are all part of the crowd learning together from the one true Rabbi, Jesus.

That does not mean the Pharisees are evil personified.  Their daily religious rituals and the reminders of God’s law they wear are good spiritual disciplines, as far as they go.  The world would be a better place if all of us were more conscious all the time of God’s commandments instead of treating them as mere suggestions.  Christians can learn a valuable lesson from our Muslim friends who take time to pray five times every day wherever they happen to be.  As Jesus reminds us, the Pharisees, the teachers of God’s laws “sit on Moses’ seat,” i.e. we should listen to those who specialize in studying God’s word and learn from them.  But the lesson ends when their actions are inconsistent with their words.  Do as they say and not as they do.  Jesus delivers a not so gentle reminder that those who are privileged to be messengers of God’s word bear huge responsibility.  The Pharisees sometimes forgot that they, like Moses himself, were recipients of God’s law, not the giver or creator of that law.  Because the Scribes and Pharisees let their position of authority go to their heads, this text reminds us all again that “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

As always, the scriptures teach us more if we move from history lesson to current events, from pointing fingers at “them” to holding up a mirror in front of ourselves,.  Jesus makes it very clear that the Pharisees and Scribes don’t practice what they preach, but by verses 8-12 he does what some congregations describe as going “from preaching to meddling.”  He turns his teaching to the crowd and the disciples, and those with ears that work can hardly miss the point.  We are all students with one teacher and only one unfailing authority figure in our lives.  We are all called to be servants, not teachers or masters, and the take away line in verse 12 is, “All who exalt themselves will be humbled and all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

This text is not a teacher evaluation for the Pharisees.  Its relevant question is to you and me: Do we practice what we preach?

  • We teach the Golden Rule and the love of neighbors as ourselves, but we pay our farmers not to grow wheat while thousands starve in Somalia.
  • We teach “thou shall not kill” but violence is epidemic in our society and we continue to develop more sophisticated and impersonal drones and other ways to eliminate our enemies.
  • We read over and over again in our Bibles that God wants us to care for the widows and orphans and strangers in our midst, but when it comes to welfare or health care reform or taxation, our first thoughts are often not “what is best for the weakest and most vulnerable members of our human family?”  Instead we ask, “What will this mean to my bottom line?”

I know because I say it too.  “I’ve paid my dues, worked my way through school, taken my job and my family responsibilities seriously.”  We’ve made it on our own, why can’t everybody else?  But have we “made it on our own?”  What do we take for granted that our parents and grandparents bequeathed to us – land, money, values and self-respect, a solid work ethic, a good education, a spiritual foundation.  Those are all things that many of the least fortunate people in our society and world have never had.  Competition can be good and build character and strength, but only in a fair game with a level playing field.  The danger with succeeding in any competitive venture is that we might begin to believe our own press clippings and think we deserve the seats of honor and special treatment for what we have achieved.  That’s why we only get 15 minutes of fame.  After that it starts to go to one’s head.

I learned a lot of valuable life lessons from my years as a Boy Scout—lessons that I only came to appreciate years later.  One of the most important is humility.  One of my best friends, Blaine Brunner, and I had a very serious but friendly competition to see which one of us could achieve our Eagle Scout badge first.  Eagle Scout is the highest rank in scouting and one that takes several years and a great deal of support and encouragement from family, community and scout leaders along the way.  Blaine and I ran a very close race through all of scouting’s ranks from Tenderfoot to 2nd Class, 1st Class, Star, and Life awards, always with our eye on the prize that took 21 merit badges in skills as diverse as cooking, swimming, hiking, and camping.  Fortunately, it turned out that we both completed our requirements at about the same time, and we were proud to receive our Eagle badges together during a Sunday morning worship service in our church.

The Eagle badge is a red, white and blue ribbon in the shape of a shield that has an eagle hanging below it.  The badge is worn by pinning it on the scout uniform over the left breast pocket.  Blaine and I wore those badges with great pride as long as we were in the scouting program.  When it came time to move on from scouting and our youth to the pursuits of young adulthood, my Eagle badge went into a shoe box along with other mementos of that part of my life.  I found that box while packing for a move several years later, and to my dismay discovered that the ribbon on my cherished Eagle Scout badge had been shredded by a mouse who needed material for her nest.  “All who exalt themselves will be humbled.”

This text fits well for Reformation Sunday, a time to reflect on the principles that inspired the Protestant Reformation nearly 500 years ago.  Humility is foundational to the Protestant Principle which reminds us that there is always room for improvement in the church and in us as individuals.  Protestantism began in large part as a protest against the Roman Catholic doctrine of the infallibility of the Pope and the abuse of that power.  That doctrine reminds me of the hilarious country song that says, “O Lord, it’s hard to be humble when you’re perfect in every way.  I can’t wait to look in the mirror, ‘cuz I get better lookin’ each day.”  The song gets better from there (you can Google it if you dare), but you get the point.  One of my favorite biblical summaries of what faithful living looks like is Micah’s response to the question, “What does the Lord require of you?”  He says it is “to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8)  Humility is one the top 3 qualities of the Godly life.  Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth” (Mt. 5: 5), is another familiar affirmation of the importance the Judeo-Christian tradition place on humility.

Most of us enjoy being around humble people much more than those insecure souls who feel the need to toot their own horns incessantly.  And yet, when Jesus says “the greatest among you will be your servant” we cringe a bit, don’t we?  When asked as a child what you wanted to be when you grow up, did anyone say, “Oh, I want to be a servant?”  Service sector jobs pay minimum wage because the ways of the world are not God’s ways.   The truth is that human beings and organizations like the church can never be satisfied with where we are or who we are.  We are either growing as life-long learners or we are falling behind the times.  We all have had teachers who have grown complacent and are recycling old knowledge and lesson plans instead of staying current with new ideas.

Clergy for nearly 400 years have been asked a question designed to remind us to stay humble during the United Methodist ordination service.  It is a question from one of our founders, John Wesley, which simply asks, “Are you going on to perfection?”   Not that we believe we achieve that state in this life; that would not be very humble.  The question is a clever reminder that life is a journey, not a destination; and so is faith and ministry.  Baptism, confirmation, ordination, graduation, marriage, a big promotion; none of the milestones in life’s journey mean we have arrived.  Those with the mind of a humble servant know that and live accordingly.

Another key doctrine of Protestantism is “The Priesthood of All Believers.”  Simply put, it means we are all one of the crowd.  No one is to be called holy or rabbi.  Lay persons have as much access to God as clergy and vice versa.  That’s the good news.  I don’t have to go through any fallible human intermediary to communicate with God.  The power of Being itself is ready and willing to listen to my joys and concerns 24/7, our fears and confessions, our hopes and dreams.  No busy signal, no maddening telephone answering system where the menu has recently changed, no elevator music or commercials to listen to while we’re on hold, no power outages or servers that are too busy, no “please try again later.”  Everyone in the crowd who wants it has instant access to God, and the only prerequisite is enough humility to admit we need God’s help.

The terminology from the Hebrew Scriptures that comes to my mind here is that of being “God’s Chosen People.”  We all like to be chosen, don’t we?  One of childhood’s most painful memories for most of us is not being popular or being chosen dead last when teams are picked for a game of soccer or baseball.  Perhaps no words are tougher to hear than, “go play right field.”   The scriptures tell us in both testaments that we are indeed “God’s chosen people.”  I Peter says, “You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, God’s own people” (2:9).  Does that not contradict the need to walk humbly with God or Jesus’ call to servanthood?  Not if we understand what it means to be one of God’s priests.  Being chosen by God is not a call to privilege but to service of God and humanity; to take up a cross and follow Christ.  The rest of I Peter 2:9 says we are “a people belonging to God (God’s very own possession) that we may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into God’s wonderful light.”  We are clearly chosen to toot God’s horn, not our own.

Yes, we are God’s Chosen ones, but we are chosen not to be served but to humbly and gladly serve.  We are all one of the crowd, listening to Jesus, the master teacher, learning together as fellow students to faithfully follow both his word and example.  Because Jesus is the only teacher who can honestly say, “Do as I say AND do as I do!”

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