A Provocation: Twenty-Second Sunday After Pentecost: November 5, 2017: Matthew 23:1-12

Matthew 23:1-12
23:1 Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples,

23:2 “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat;

23:3 therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach.

23:4 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.

23:5 They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long.

23:6 They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues,

23:7 and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have people call them rabbi.

23:8 But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students.

23:9 And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father–the one in heaven.

23:10 Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah.

23:11 The greatest among you will be your servant.

23:12 All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.

A Question or Two:

  • If we are not to be called instructors, what are we supposed to call kindergarten teachers, or chemistry professors, or drill instructors?
  • What does it mean that Messiah is our instructor?  Think about this question slowly.

Some Longer Reflections:

It is so easy to think of people who “do all their deeds to be seen by others.”  It is easy to convince myself that this is because they so obviously intended their deeds to be easily seen.

You see it all the time.

Of course, I do find myself wishing, briefly perhaps, that they would have noticed what I was doing, but I also notice the creepy irony of this development.

But then I notice how people at the mall or on the streets or at public seem to have no ability to walk in crowds.  No one makes room for anyone.

But only then do I remember that the crowds I walk in, for the most part, are on the campus where I teach.  People on campus respect professors, and crowds part like the Red Sea for us.

Even if I don’t wear a broad phylactery or long fringes.

Jesus’ words in this little scene hold up a mirror that I keep wanting to transform into a window.  I want to look through this window and see how other people are doing it wrong.

Whatever “it” is.

But every time I try to look through the window, I see my own face looking back at me.

It would be simple to use this scene to support a theology that spends its energy discovering, over and over and over (and over), that we are inescapably sinful.  That is a simple enough truth.  If “sin” means “missing the mark,” then that is something that we all do.  Some of this “mark-missing” is dull and ordinary, the sort of thing that everyone does everyday.  Some theologies spend their energy requiring us to lament our “most grievous sin” when all they are talking about is our ordinary failings and common clumsiness.  Martin Luther was afflicted by a theology that saw such failings as the cause of divine hatred.  God, he believed, hated every sin, and burned with anger at our faults and failings.  His contribution to the Reformation was built on a rejection of this self-hating theology.

And some of the “mark-missing” that we face is much more serious.  Recently, I was talking with a friend, a physician.  He was describing the skill of one of his colleagues.  A procedure required this physician to insert a large gauge needle into a growth dangerously near to a major artery.  “He was fast.  He was sure.  He was exactly on the mark,” said my friend.  “That’s courage.  That’s real skill.  If he had missed the mark, the patient would have bled out right there on the table.”

Not all serious “missing of the mark” involves needles.  But some does.  And life often hangs in the balance.

This sort of “mark-missing” requires a different sort of theological reflection.  While it is true that our small acts are organically connected to our large acts, to equate everyday failings with life-and-death errors trivializes both the crimes we commit and (from a very different angle) the risks we require people to take for our sake.

Trivializing crimes leads to demands that we forgive them as easily as we dismiss slights and insults.  This leads us to deep misunderstandings of our life together.  We harm each other in big and small ways, and imagining that it is all the same to God leads to the (I think, inevitable) conclusion that God is too far away to understand our life.

And imagining that it is the same thing for me to make a mistake while teaching a class as it is for a physician to make a mistake with a large gauge needle is simply foolish.  We ask physicians to dare to hold life in their hands.  We ask people in the armed forces to learn to kill, and to learn not to.  We ask firefighters and people in law enforcement to run toward danger, not away from it.  All of this comes with a cost, to the individual person and to society.  And when such people “miss the mark,” the outcomes are sometimes terrible.  A physician who handles life carelessly commits a great wrong, as does a military leader who wastes the lives of those under his command.  And a police officer who brutally beats a citizen during a traffic stop destroys our ability to live together and trust each other.

Any decent theology will shine light both on the fearsome responsibilities we ask people to take on and on the ways small sins and large crimes grow out of the same root (when they, in fact, do).

And any decent theology will train us to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with the God who loves the whole of Creation, us included.  This may be what the Messiah is instructing us to discover.



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