November 9, 2014 - Matthew 23.1-12

“Being Humble Hurts”

Matthew 23.1-12

November 9, 2014

 

Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, 2 “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; 3 therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach. 4 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. 5 They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. 6 They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, 7 and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have people call them rabbi. 8 But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students. 9 And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father—the one in heaven. 10 Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah. 11 The greatest among you will be your servant. 12 All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.

 

We preachers are often in bad need of being humbled.  When it happens, it can hurt.

One Sunday, after the pastor of the church had just announced that God had called him to another congregation after several years at the church, the pastor was receiving people in line at the front door of the church.  Little Miss Mamie, one of the elderly patrons of the church, came through the line weeping. 

“Oh, pastor, pastor, pastor…why do you have to leave?”  She bawled.  “We will miss you so much!”

“Now there Miss Mamie…the Lord has called me to a new place of service,” the pastor said.  “His will is best.”

Mamie continued to weep, inconsolable.

“You know, Mamie, that God will provide you a new pastor that will probably be just as good of a pastor and probably a better preacher than I am,” the pastor said.

Mamie blurted out, “Oh that’s what they always say but its never the truth!”

 

Nothing is so fun to watch as it is when an arrogant person is brought down.  Nothing satisfies in quite the same way.  That’s one reason I love this chapter in Matthew. Jesus has been debating with the Pharisees and Scribes, but now the debate is over.  Now Jesus just lays into them.  Go…Jesus!

 

Oh humility, that bitter pill that all of us need so badly, that is so hard to take, but is so good for us.  This passage gets me all revved up, waiting to let the Pharisees have it.  Then I notice it.  In verse 8.  Did you notice it?  Jesus is no longer talking just to the Pharisees or the Scribes.  Jesus is talking to his disciples.  Jesus is talking to us.  Who’s getting humbled now?

 

Jesus is speaking in the vicinity of the temple in Jerusalem. It is a short time after his triumphal entry into the city perhaps a day or two. In this scene, Jesus is addressing his disciples and others who have gathered about him. Having silenced the Scribes and Pharisees, Jesus turns to the people and denounces Pharisaic practices as well as those of the scribes.

Specifically, Jesus denounces the scribes and the Pharisees for not acting according to their own teaching. The suggestion is that their teaching is fine and not to be criticized. Indeed he says, "do whatever they teach you and follow it" (23:3). Theirs would be the classic instruction in the Jewish faith and worthy of adherence. Sitting "on Moses' seat" is Jesus' way of saying that the scribes and Pharisees had the authority to teach and lead the faithful. But, as he goes on to suggest, they abused their power and went beyond their proper authority.  They did what they did in order to be seen by others.  They wanted to look good.  They really valued the opinions of others.  The scribes and Pharisees that Jesus is criticizing may be much like those of our own who do all their deeds to be seen by others.

After denouncing the leaders, Jesus turns to teaching those who stand about him.  Greatness in the realm of God comes through servanthood. Here is the biblical paradox: while it is natural and human to seek honor, those who do so will be humbled. And those who seek no honor other than to serve will be raised up.

 

It is a natural thing to seek honor, yet God calls us to humble service. It runs counter to our way of thinking, but without humility, there is no true greatness, and without faith, there is no real humility.

 

There are ample examples of how we like to puff up ourselves.  Senior Yearbook list of accomplishments.  Resume padding.  Political advertisements.

 

Jesus was not impressed with titles or false words. If the scribes and Pharisees would have practiced the humility and service they taught, they would not have been the targets of Jesus' rebuke. As this story continues in Matthew, Jesus goes on to rebuke these false teachers. "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees," he says repeatedly in a list of denouncements that parallel in style and passion the blessings of the Beatitudes that Matthew places in the Sermon on the Mount (5:1-2). But, for all their proper teaching, their behavior revealed the falseness of their hearts and the inappropriateness of honoring the scribes and Pharisees with the teacher's customary titles, "father" and "rabbi."

 

Martin Luther was a prolific writer and the collection of his works in English runs to 55 volumes. There are many more in the German edition. While his theology gave shape to the Protestant movement, he was modest as to its importance. When printers encouraged Luther to have his writings published, he replied with humility:

I'll never consent to this proposal of yours. I'd rather that all my books would disappear and the Holy Scriptures alone would be read. Otherwise we'll rely on such writings and let the Bible go. [John] Brenz wrote such a big commentary on twelve chapters of Luke that it disgusts the reader to look at it. The same is true of my commentary on Galatians. I wonder who encourages this mania for writing! Who wants to buy such stout tomes? And if they're bought, who'll read them? And if they're read, who'll be edified by them?[1]

 

“Good sermon, preacher.”  I wonder if you know how tempting it is for me to take those words far too seriously.  I know that I have no message if God is not in it.  There are times when I know that I have hit a home run, and then no one can tell you what I preached on after lunch is over.  And then there are other times when I know I have laid an egg; that the sermon is dead before I preach it and like a wingless dove it is dead before anyone hears it hit the ground…thud.  But God is the one that is present here.  The ability to preach at all is a gift from God, just as is the ability to teach a Sunday School class, or lead a committee, or pray.  It is God working through us that makes anything worth doing get done.  We must remember that.

 

I recently heard a preacher report a humbling conversation with his wife. It took place on the way home from church following what he took to be the delivery of a magnificent sermon:

"Tell me, dear," the preacher inquired, "how many truly great preachers do you think there are today?"

"I don't know," she replied, "but I am quite sure there is one less than you think."

 

When I have read this text in the past, I have wondered, Should I put my diplomas on the wall?  Will it seem like I’m bragging?  What a cop out.  If I read this text and start worrying about my diplomas on the wall of my office, I have missed the point!  Who do I make friends with?  Who am I available to?  Am I willing to rearrange my busy schedule to talk with someone or help them out because they need me?  Do I feed the hungry I see?  Do I clothe the naked I see?  Do I welcome the stranger I see?  THESE are the marks of whether I have acted as a Christ wants.

 

Dietrich Bonhoeffer captures the paradox of active humility in his book The Cost of Discipleship. He writes:

Our activity must be visible, but never be done for the sake of making it visible. "Let your light so shine before [others]" . . . and yet: Take care that you hide it! . . . That which is visible must also be hidden. The awareness on which Jesus insists is intended to prevent us from reflecting on our extraordinary position. We have to take heed that we do not take heed of our own righteousness. Otherwise the "extraordinary" which we achieve will not be that which comes from following Christ, but that which springs from our own will and desire.[2]

 

Something similar is indicated in our present story as well: when humility is genuine, it has an active quality to it. "The greatest among you will be your servant," Jesus declares. Unavailing modesty is of little use. The servant is a worker. Humility is not real humility unless you see it in action!  As a new creation, we are empowered, maybe even to do great things. It is for this active, effective servant humility that we should pray.

 

Jesus does seem to appreciate is the humility displayed by those who genuinely seek to serve.  (I see so many of you serving so faithfully – it makes me humble.)  In that other list of passionate pronouncements, the Beatitudes, Jesus declares "Blessed are the meek," and the "poor in spirit" and the "pure in heart." It is they who shall "see God," and be called "the children of God." This is a contrary notion to be sure. What good is servility to society? Leadership demands self-confidence and the ability to wield power. Yet, this is what Jesus teaches. If you would be great (and who wouldn't?), you must be a servant. If you choose to exalt yourself, you will find yourself brought to your knees. And, if you are humble you are to be known as an heir to the kingdom of God.

 

But humility is unnatural. Even those who serve happily behind the scenes yearn for a little recognition now and then. Humility is not to be found in the created order. Not even among humans. As Mark Twain recognized, the moment a person seems to have achieved real humility, it is destroyed by the pride at having accomplished it. Humility is not a natural thing. It is, rather, a gift of grace. Like patience and kindness, it comes as an endowment of the Spirit. When God gives faith, God empowers us to be what we are not and cannot be. Humility is not in the order of creation, but in the order of new creation. And, it is a renewable gift, for things lost in sin are regained in God's ceaseless outpouring of love.

 

Ego has no place among Christians.  We did not save ourselves, because we could not save ourselves.  We must be humble – because all that we have in this marvelous gift from God.  God’s grace overwhelms us and everything about us.  If we are not sufficiently humble, then we are an obstacle to that love getting beyond us to others. 

 

[1] Martin Luther, Luther's Works, Vol. 54, Theodore G. Tappert, ed. and trans., Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1967, p. 311.

[2] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, R. H. Fuller and Irmgard Both, trans. [New York: Touchstone Books, Simon and Schuster, 1995], p. 157.

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