Humility the Hard Way (Matthew 23:1–12)
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Humility the Hard Way
I remember one time I got told. My brother, Daren, who’s two years younger than I am, took me aside when I was 17 and laid it out for me.
I don’t recall why I was feeling especially put-upon, but I was going through our room declaiming about the injustice of some social slight or some bit of insensitivity I’d endured at the hands of somebody or other.
A little too full of myself, I wondered, “How could they do this to me? How could they say this about me? About me? I mean look at me. I’m one of the good guys., right? I do all this good stuff. I treat people fairly. Blah, blah, blah.”
Very difficult to be a martyr at 17, but I was giving it my best shot.
Like I say, I don’t really remember what prompted the conversation, but I do remember the part where my brother told me something I didn’t want to hear.
He’d been doing his homework on the bed, when he looked up and said, “You don’t suppose you’re a little too worked up about this, do you? It doesn’t sound to me like anybody was trying to offend you.”
“What’re you crazy? This is me we’re talking about here. I can’t believe someone would treat me that way.” Self-righteousness is never a virtue–especially in a seventeen year-old.
With a sort of calm, pastoral voice–he had this pastor-thing going on at 15 (I’m not kidding)–he shook his head and said, “You realize, don’t you, that at the heart of it, you’re a pretty selfish person? You tend to think of yourself first, and a bit too highly at that.”
Thunderstruck. Unbelievably, irremediably, jaw-droppingly … thunderstruck.
He was right, though. I was, and still am to this day, a selfish person.
I still think about my brother having the audacity to say that to me. It was one of the kindest, most loving things anybody’s ever said to me.
Surgery isn’t designed to feel good; it’s designed to heal you.
My brother told me the truth with surgical precision, blessed me with humility the hard way.
When I was a pastor down in Middlesboro, I went down to the west-end elementary school every Monday for a couple of years to read to second-graders. I was a part of a pilot literacy program called, “Real Men Read.”
The premise of the program rested on the sad fact that in Appalachia, a large percentage of the children grew up in homes where either there were no men, or no men who could read. That is to say, many of the kids in this second grade class had never heard a story read in a male voice.
We lived in the congressional district with the highest illiteracy rate in the country, so somebody thought it would be a good idea to teach kids who were learning to read that men–even though these children didn’t know many–could read.
Anyway, the first time I went, I was told to introduce myself–tell the kids a little something about what I did. Many of them didn’t go to church–had never gone to church. I was faced with a dilemma: How do I tell kids who don’t know what a minister is, what a minister does?
I did all kinds of stuff. I buried people, married their kids, taught, wrote, prayed, held hands with people who were dying, planned programs, talked to people who were mad or sad or afraid. You can see the problem, right? How do you boil all that down into a job?
At thirty years-old, I didn’t know how to adequately explain what I did to myself, much less to group of seven year-olds, who had no idea what the inside of a church even looked like.
Anxious about what I was going to say, something struck me on the way over to the school that first Monday.
It was simple (not easy, but simple). I still use it when I talk about what I do.
I said, “Hi. My name is Derek. I’m a minister. What does that mean? That means I get paid to tell the truth.”
I’m still convinced that that’s what ministers do. We tell the truth about where we come from and where we’re headed, about the world in which we live and how God relates to us, about what justice and mercy mean and what God expects from us.
We tell the truth … and not just with our words–with our lives.
Telling the truth is hard work, isn’t it? Especially in our culture, where we seem more comfortable with the casual lies we tell ourselves. People often don’t want to hear the truth.
And the truth is hard to tell, because we want people to think we’re nice. We want people to like us.
Jesus, it would appear from our Gospel this morning, doesn’t care nearly as much as most moderns do about whether or not people think he’s nice, or whether people like him. In fact, in today’s Gospel Jesus is only days away from being nailed to a tree because he’s gotten cross-ways with all the wrong people because he can’t keep the truth to himself. So on the “nice,” on the I-hope-people-will-like-me front … epic fail.
If you remember, Jesus has spent the last two chapters of the book of Matthew arguing with the religious authorities. Pretty much everybody’s been out to trip him up, try to make him look foolish. And he’s taken on all comers.
Finally, in today’s text Jesus has had enough. He turns away from the hoards of religious big shots who’ve been hounding him, and toward the crowds, and lets loose.
Oh, he begins innocently enough: “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; therefore, do whatever they teach, and follow it.”
But then he starts warming to the subject. “Do what they say … for sure. They know the stuff backwards and forwards–just don’t do what they do, for they don’t practice what they teach.”
Ouch! Oh, he’s just getting started: “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.”
Know anybody like that? Religious leaders and politicians are famous for this one. Do as I say … not as I do (or fail to do).
Then Jesus gets downright personal: “They do all their deeds to be seen by others”–after which he lists a few of their shortcomings in this regard–showy religious finery, sitting at the places of honor at banquets and synagogues, seeking to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, wanting to be referred to with honorifics–rabbi, father, instructor.
Finally, Jesus caps the whole thing off with this bell-ringer: “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.” In other words, humility’s coming … in a few short days, even for him.
Let me be quick to recognize that this passage (and what follows) has been used by Christians over the years to indulge a penchant for anti-semitism. Christians have mistakenly attributed the acts of the Pharisees to all Jews.
We should be clear, though. Jesus is a Jew, speaking to Jews. That he’s speaking about a particular group of Jewish leaders and not all Jews is something we need to keep very much in mind. The law, as delivered on Mt. Sinai, was never intended to be a heavy burden, but a source of moral identity. Jesus, in this passage, isn’t taking off on the law, but on a particular kind of misuse of the law by those who get caught up in the finer points of its demands, instead of in the beauty of being set apart as God’s people.
Even so, this is difficult to listen to if what you think Jesus came to do was to inflict niceness on an otherwise testy Near East. Jesus sounds so irascible, so cranky.
Couldn’t we get the nice Jesus–the one who loves children and little old ladies? This whole fire-breathing itinerant prophet thing is tough to witness.
I think it’s because that kind of honesty makes people uncomfortable, and our culture tells us that our responsibilities lie in lubricating the social gears rather than throwing sand in them. But sand is sometimes exactly what’s needed.
Remember why it is that Jesus has been in this marathon cat-and-mouse game with the religious leaders? We’ve talked about this a lot recently, working our way through these past few chapters of Matthew. The reason Jesus has been so severely set upon by those in power goes all the way back to his clearing of the temple at the beginning of chapter 21. Remember?
Jesus, after calling out the caretakers of God’s house for making it into a den of robbers, presses home the point by immediately receiving into that house the blind and the lame–those who’ve been denied access by those in power–the religious leaders who’ve mistakenly thought their job was gatekeeper instead of welcoming committee. Jesus welcomes the unwanted into God’s freshly cleaned house, and heals them.
For the rest of chapters 21 and 22, Jesus has had to take on the religious establishment, who feel threatened by his condemnation of their failure to keep in mind that the law is there not to preserve personal privilege, but to extend the bounty of God’s grace to those who’ve been systematically put out, shoved aside, made to sit in the back of the bus.
Sometimes justice has been forgotten, or misplaced, or ignored. If we claim to follow Jesus, we have a responsibility in those cases to speak the uncomfortable truth that God desires a world in which the lame and the blind get to sit at the front of the bus.
A world in which the forgotten and cast aside are remembered and brought back into the fold.
A world in which those who’ve been downsized, those without healthcare, those who’ve graduated from college but have a difficult time seeing a future that holds a place for them … are no longer afterthoughts in our political life, but children of God on whose behalf we need to find our voices.
A world in which the color of one’s skin or the country of one’s birth or the gender of one’s love interests aren’t the characteristics by which people are excluded, but are the very things we lift up and celebrate as God’s gifts to us.
This isn’t optional behavior to get sorted out after we get the right bumper-stickers; it’s the very purpose of the life to which Jesus calls us.
Jesus speaks the truth to those in power, not because he’s mean or disagreeable or because he temperamentally disposed to raining on other people’s parades … but because he loves us so much he can’t bear for us not to know the truth about the way things are ordered in the reign of God.
It’s a hard word Jesus delivers. Honesty can be difficut to hear. But telling the truth about God’s vision of the way things ought to be is the kindest most loving thing we have to say.
We who follow the one executed as a criminal are under no illusions about what telling the truth can cost.
On the other hand, we also know that finding humility the hard way can be the best gift we ever receive.