November 2, 2008 - All Saints Sunday
A few months ago I dug out old home videos and started to transfer them to DVD. Beth and I got misty-eyed watching pictures of our two little girls who are all grown up now. One recurrent theme in those old videos goes something like this: There’s Joanna, maybe a year old, doing some cute baby thing, like tugging at the wrapping on packages on her first birthday. Then in dances six year old Susan, in the swirl of a long, pink, dress-up gown, saying, “Look at me! Look what I can do! See! See!”
It’s a human need we all have. We desperately want someone to pay attention to us. Jesus saw in verse 5 how that need played out in the actions of religious leaders in His time, “Everything they do is done for people to see.” His description of putting on a show of piety and goodness rings very true on the eve of an election. We’ve been watching two men doing just that, performing every single act with an eye to the television camera and how they will appear.
Yet it’s not just children and political candidates who seek attention. As Jesus saw, most of us carry our desire to be noticed and appreciated well into adulthood. I think it may particularly be an affliction of us males. A joke goes, “What’s the difference between men and government bonds? …Bonds mature.” Most of us don’t grow out of it. We want to be noticed, to be affirmed, to have people honor and respect us.
Jesus taught us here that the problem comes when that desire for notice and respect gets out of hand, so much out of hand that it becomes uppermost in our minds. His first criticism of the scribes and Pharisees is that, while they did have a legitimate authority, their concern for God’s law was all for show. They “sit in the seat of Moses,” says verse 2. They teach the commandments that were given through Moses and those commandments need to be obeyed. Jesus did not challenge the teachers’ authority. He challenged their practice. So we get the strange instructions of verse 3 to do what they say, “but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach.”
We judge politicians by that practical standard. Though it’s extremely difficult to get behind the image portrayed for us by a campaign, we want to know whether a candidate talking about family values actually demonstrates those values in his own family life. We want to know if a candidate who says he’s concerned for middle and lower income people has actually voted that way in the past. Do they do what they say? Will they do what they say? It’s awfully hard to know. But Jesus knew about the scribes and Pharisees.
In verse 4 Jesus pictured all the rules laid down by the scribes and Pharisees as heavy loads put on people’s shoulders, but with no help offered to carry them. It’s as if we adult leaders gathered the youth for our annual backpack trip and loaded their backpacks to overflowing, then carried almost nothing ourselves.
Over the centuries, the Jewish teachers built up a whole system of minor rules around the great commandments Emma talked about last week. To loving God and loving neighbor, they added rules about how far one could walk on the Sabbath and how you had to wash the pots in your kitchen, and hundreds of other regulations. For ordinary people that system was an incredible burden and their leaders gave them no help in carrying it.
Instead, Jesus went on in verse 5, those leaders performed their own keeping of the rules all for show. God gave His people simple ways to remember His laws. They should bind the words of the law on their hands and arms it says in Deuteronomy 6:8, like tying a string around your finger to remember something. These became little boxes of Scripture verses tied on their foreheads and forearms—“phylacteries.” They should put tassels on their garments we read in Numbers 15:38 to look at as reminders of God’s commandments. But what was supposed to be a simple, personal reminder, became a public display of piety. The scribes and Pharisees made their scripture boxes big and their tassels long so everyone would notice, and completely forgot that they were the ones who were supposed to notice these things and remember to love God and love their neighbors.
Then verse 6 pictures more familiar forms of attention we still often seek. They liked to sit at the head table at banquets, to have the important seats in the synagogue. They wanted to sit right up front, facing the congregation, so their holy, pious expressions and prayers could be noticed by everyone.
Out on the street, Jesus says in verse 7, these same leaders liked to be noticed and greeted by those passing by. I still remember the day at a public function in Lincoln, Nebraska, when I met a man and asked him to introduce himself. It turned out I was talking to the mayor. The worst thing that can happen to a politician is not to be recognized.
The end of verse 7 brings up another matter that occupies almost the rest of our text. The Jewish teachers wanted to be called “Rabbi,” which meant something like “master” or “teacher” and was a title of honor and respect. In verse 8 Jesus picks up on this desire for titles and teaches us that in His church titles are not important.
He says we’re not to seek three titles: “Rabbi,” “father” and “teacher.” These were all terms of honor for those who taught God’s law. “Father” was particularly reserved for the patriarchs and teachers of the past, like “Father Abraham.”
Some Protestant Christians have used these verses to excoriate Catholics and Episcopals for calling their clergy “Father.” But that’s not the point. These are not absolute prohibitions—absolute regulations were part of what Jesus was complaining about. Christians may still call their male parent “father.” Paul speaks of himself and other apostles as “fathers” to the Thessalonians in our epistle reading this morning. It’s still all right to be called “father” or “teacher,” or “pastor” or “doctor,” for that matter. What’s not all right is to desire it as a way to set yourself apart, to make yourself look better than other Christians.
In verse 8, Jesus said, “you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have only one Master and you are all brothers.” That’s the point, not avoiding every title, but not forgetting who our real Leader, Master, Teacher is, and that we are all brothers and sisters with God alone as our Father. We recognize how little our own titles mean when we put them in the perspective of the One who really deserves the honor of those titles.
Jesus did not teach us to become humble by putting ourselves down. You don’t generate humility by trying to make yourself less than you are. You become humble by measuring yourself against the One who is so much more than you are. And Jesus Christ is more in every regard, including more humble.
There is a wonderful irony in verse 11, “The greatest among you will be your servant.” It’s a simple prediction of the truth of the Gospel. The greatest One among them, Jesus Himself, had come for just that purpose, to be their Servant. By His own death on the Cross Jesus gave the best possible demonstration of what He was talking about. He didn’t come looking for a seat of honor in the synagogue or fancy titles or even much appreciation. He came to give Himself up in sacrificial service, thereby proving that He is truly the greatest.
Yet what Jesus demonstrated in His own life, is also the principle by which all spiritual life works. We become great by being servants. As verse 12 puts it, “Those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” It’s the amazing paradox at the heart of our faith. You rise up by sinking down. You grow by shrinking. You get honor by finding humiliation. It was true of Jesus and it’s true of all those who want to follow Jesus.
This summer we went blueberry picking. As the owner of the blueberry patch handed us buckets and sent us out, she said something I’ve heard before, “Look low. Get down on your knees. The lowest stems are often the ones with the most and biggest fruit.” If it’s true of blueberry bushes, it’s even more true of Christians. If you want to find the most fruitful ones, the happiest ones, the ones closest to Jesus, look low. Don’t look high for pastors and seminary professors, bishops and famous authors, look low for people who care for children in the nursery or who clean the bathrooms or who bring a meal to someone who is sick. That’s where the servants are. That’s where the spiritual giants are.
What Jesus is saying is not complex. He’s not telling us to always avoid being called a leader or a teacher or a father or mother. That would be silly. He’s telling us to take on those roles with the same heart He took them on, with the heart of a servant. It’s not complicated. It’s simply finding ways to put ourselves in the servant’s place, to take on tasks and positions that might seem beneath us, to put what others need before what we need.
As we celebrate All Saints Day, I’ve borrowed from Covenant pastor Eugene Cho’s blog the stories of three humble people he called “Heroes you will never hear about.” There was a 26 year old Christian Saudi woman named Fatima who in August had her tongue cut out and was burnt alive by her own brother because of her faith. There was the story you may have heard about Gayle Williams, a British Christian aid worker shot down last month in Afghanistan. And there was Akbar Digal, pastor of our own Hindustani Covenant Church who was hacked to death by Muslim extremists in August in the Orissa region of India. They didn’t seek any recognition, but now they’ve gained the greatest recognition of all by giving up their lives for Jesus.
But you and I don’t have to and probably won’t be martyrs. Living out the humble life Jesus calls us to is often simpler, quieter and even more unrecognized. I remember one great teacher I had in high school. Everyone loved Mr. Barton. He did an amazing job of getting bored kids excited about Milton and Shakespeare and John Donne. Discussions in his class were always lively and energetic. I think he won Teacher of the Year more than once.
Yet Mr. Barton was also a Christian. So one day I came into his classroom after school and found him all alone putting chairs up on the desks. I offered to help and asked him why we were doing this. He said he did it every afternoon, because it made things easier for the janitor to clean the floor. Then he took the chairs back down in the morning. He didn’t need to do it. He wasn’t responsible for the cleaning. He was a teacher. None of the other teachers did this. But Mr. Barton thought he could do this one small thing to help out a person with a different kind of job.
That day, Mr. Barton went up even more in my estimation. He was a fine teacher, but by humbling himself to serve the janitor, he became more than a teacher. He became an example to me of what it means to follow Christ.
“Those who humble themselves will be exalted.” Jesus said it to reassure us when we feel that need I talked about at the beginning. We vie for attention and honor and prestige and all the rest of it because, like children, we worry that we will go unnoticed, unappreciated. But Christ our Lord promises that we will be appreciated. We will be noticed when take a servant’s place, when we let others come before ourselves. We will be noticed and appreciated by our heavenly Father who exalts the humble.
So I invite you to the Table of our humble Lord this morning. Receive the bread and the cup in remembrance of how He served you, giving up His life so that you could be nourished here this morning. And as you eat and drink, take the life of Jesus Christ into you. Become what He is, a servant, so that you can enjoy what He enjoys, the everlasting favor and exaltation of being a child of God. And join the timeless company of humble saints who are forever blessed in His presence.
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2008 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj