New Testament scholar N.T. Wright tells about a man who went to a store to buy some equipment for a hiking and camping trip. A salesman took him around the store showing him everything he would need. The salesman recommended a good sleeping bag and a durable tent. He sold him a very good pair of hiking boots and convinced him that he needed a proper stove and cooking kit. He piled things at the counter that this potential outdoorsman would need, maps, a flashlight, a knife, a first-aid kit, packaged food. They went through the entire store. The last thing he sold him was a backpack to carry all the stuff in. At the counter, the salesperson placed all the things the customer had bought for the trip in the backpack. But the backpack was so heavy, the customer couldn’t even pick it up.
Finally, the customer backed up to the counter and put his arms through the straps. As he was staggering out the door, huffing and puffing, he asked the salesman, “By the way, what sort of vacations do you take? Where do you go?”
The salesman replied, “Oh, I just go to the beach. Bad back. I could never carry all that stuff.” (Rodney Buchanan, http://www.sermoncentral.com)
In today’s gospel reading, we see a similar situation happening in Jesus’ interaction with the temple leaders. The common people were not respected because they could not afford to follow so many heavy and expensive rules and regulations.
In Matthew 23, we read that after repeated confrontations with the scribes and Pharisees, Jesus has finally had enough, and he denounces their religious leadership.
The gospel of Matthew was written for a community alienated from and competing with the synagogue. However, the point of the passage concerns the true and humble nature of discipleship rather than a condemnation of a particular people or religion. The passage opens by recognizing the authority of the scribes and the Pharisees, acknowledging that they sit on “Moses’ seat” (verse 2). They are teachers and interpreters of the law in the line of Moses, the original law giver and the most important figure in Judaism.
First century Palestine was home to four main varieties of Judaism and by the time of this encounter with Jesus, only the Pharisees had prevailed. The Pharisees placed particular emphasis on the interpretation and adaptation of Mosaic Law to all areas of life. The Sadducees were closely associated with temple activities and the high priest was usually chosen from their ranks and were often seen to be over-friendly with the Roman overlords.
Additionally, there were the Essenes who were an austere community based in the desert at Qumran that had broken off from the other groups. And there were the Zealots aimed to overthrow the Romans by military means. Of these, only the Pharisees survived the Jewish revolt that ended with the destruction of the temple in 70 CE.
So, Matthew is writing after 70 AD, when the Pharisees are the primary rivals opposing his Christian community in their claim to represent fidelity to the Torah laws. Unfortunately, these teachers did not practice in daily life the themes they upheld in the interpretation of the meaning of the law. Their religious practice was ostentatious. They wore special leather pouches or boxes called Phylacteries containing scripture on their foreheads and left shoulder. Their clothing was decorated with long fringe – the longer the fringe, the greater the status. They prayed ostentatiously before every meal. Few people would had denied that Pharisees were great men, and they were all men, not a female in the lot. But Jesus is making the point that legitimate leadership involves humility and the willingness to be a servant. Genuine Christian leaders will imitate Jesus, who “came not to be served, but to serve”. He says, “The first shall be last” and “Whoever is greatest among you shall be your servant.” That must be remembered above all else. In Jesus’ evaluation, a disciple must be willing to serve even the lowest, and the measure of greatness is not the usual notion of success or achievement, it’s service and the humility of considering others before yourself. Jesus says the last will be first, the winners will be losers, the greatest are the servants. Those who exalt themselves will be humbled and those who humble themselves will be exalted.
There is no special treatment for the Pharisees or for us. We are to be God’s servants in the world. We know servant people like this, and we call them saints.
Matthew doesn’t give us a clue as to anyone else said a word. Maybe they were too embarrassed to speak. Sometimes an experience of truth has a way of rendering words unnecessary.
There is a story told of a college student who had a distinguished professor at a state school. His courses were very popular. The instructor lived near the school and frequently had his lunch in the school cafeterias. And like most school cafeterias it was full of activity and noise.
Did any of you ever work in the college cafeteria? One of my best friends was one of 13 kids and worked in the cafeteria bussing tables and washing dishes to help pay tuition and other expenses. Made conspicuous by their white jackets, they worked feverishly during the noon hour trying to deep up with the influx of students all wanting a clean table instantly.
Unfortunately, a crudely callous tradition had developed there in the dining hall. Any time one of the table servers would accidentally drop a tray or glass onto the floor, the students in the hall would bust into applause in a mocking gesture of recognition. Often a table server was seen cowering with embarrassment as he or she frantically tried to clear the broken china from the floor, while those enjoying their lunch clapped and laughed at them.
One particular noon time, the esteemed professor invited a couple of students to join him at his table for lunch. They quickly accepted the honor. While they were enjoying the student special and some pleasant conversation, they heard a tremendous crash just a few feet behind them. Sure enough, one of the servers had slipped in the rush to clear a table and had dropped an entire tray of dirty dishes.
Immediately the dining shall erupted with applause as the young man started to clean up the mess on the floor. He appeared to be on the verge of tears.
Then something happened that they will never forget. Without saying a word, the professor stood up, walked over to the server who was frantically scraping up the mess on the floor, stooped down to his knees to help collect the broken glass and scraps of food and put them back on the tray.
The clapping stopped. And the dining hall fell silent as a morgue. For a few seconds we watched in disbelief and felt, ourselves, ashamed.
The dining hall tradition of mock applause died a well-deserved death that day, and they were taught more about true greatness in that one action than we could have learned in a semester of words.
If anyone would be great; if anyone would be “somebody”, if anyone would succeed and deserve recognition, then let them look at the master teacher cleaning food from the cafeteria floor.
You are number one when you can embrace the lowest of the low and identify with their weakness and vulnerability. You’re the greatest when you can see the pain and trouble in another’s face and risk asking about it. You’re a success when you can stick up for someone who is treated unjustly. You’re really somebody when in silence you can sit by a bedside and hold a hand so another will not die alone. You’re first when you don’t mind being last for the sake of another.
And the church? Well, a church is great only to the extent that it serves the least and lowest of its community and world. It’s such a simple lesson Jesus taught. But somehow every time it’s acted out there falls a hush over all who see it.
Today, we celebrate All Saints Day, by remembering those who have gone to God before us in the past year. We honor their memories by trying to emulate the things we most admired in them, the saintly things, the fun times, the touching moments we had with them and we are grateful for getting to spend time on earth with them and look forward to our reunion with them someday in heaven.
Please pray with me.