The 31st Sunday in Ordinary Time at St Mark the Evangelist Church in Norman, OK
November 03, 2002
Malachi 1:14-2:10 + 1 Thessalonians 2:7-13 + Matthew 23:1-12
The disputes are at an end. Jesus alone speaks, and now he speaks to his disciples: to you and to me. He is still in the Temple where he was confronted by first one group and then another. These groups: Pharisees, Scribes, Sadducees, are all part of the hierarchy that has too much to lose by his teaching. They have all been dismissed, and now, still in the Temple with all the authority the place itself can give, he speaks to his disciples, then at the end of this chapter he will leave the Temple. This is a kind of final instruction, a wrap up of all that has been said, and the last words of direction to set us on our mission.
As always, the focus and the issues reveal a great deal about the church of St. Matthew which was obviously beginning to struggle with internal disorder from what we would today call: “clericalism.” These words stand as a reminder to the church in every age that pride, privilege, and power are not tools for the building of the Kingdom, but tools of its destruction. There is danger in this text taken and clipped out of context as it is. It is the danger of standing back and thinking that it is all about them: all about those Scribes, Sadducees, and Pharisees, or all about that early church creeping into clericalism with abuses frequent enough that Matthew thought he should raise this warning. Buried in all the words and dimmed by the intensity of the moment, there is in these verses a piece of Matthew theology far more important than warnings about clericalism. There is a powerful reminder about who is the center of all faith and the source of all things: Christ Jesus.
As Matthew says, he is the only teacher, the only Rabbi, and father-like source of life. Verse eight in the passage ought to get the attention of everyone: “As for you….” he says. Suddenly it’s not about Scribes, Sadducees, and Pharisees; it is about us. It is not about titles and clothing it is about humility, the virtue found in the heart of every disciple of Christ Jesus. “The greatest among you will be the one who serves the rest. Whoever exalts himself shall be humbled, but whoever humbles himself shall be exalted.” Humility, not power is the only authority worthy of us. Humility is the only virtue that most clearly identifies us with Christ Jesus and gives us a share in the mystery of his power. That identity is the issue here.
Our likeness to Christ Jesus is the measure of our authority, not our power. That likeness comes from concern for the other, service, compassion, and commitment. That likeness comes from friendship with God, from the honest recognition that we are all children of God, made by God, called by God and redeemed by God. There is no one here who is better or worse, good or bad; this is the truth as humility sees it.
It springs out of the embracing love of God and the gift of Spirit that lets us see as God sees, and love as God loves. The true disciple imitates everything about the master. Disciples of Christ Jesus do nothing to call attention to themselves, but rather lose themselves in imitation of their master. They never address this world or any other person with the thought of what they can get for themselves, but only with wonder about what they can give. They have power that reduces every threat and fear to nothing. It is the power that comes from a humble heart, the power of kindness, the power of love, and the power of compassion. It is the power that quiets every rage, and stills all anger.
The humble have that power, for they are close to God, and they see as God sees. They see through the postures of offense and anger, through the costumes of pride and self-serving authority, through the arrogance of sin and presumptions of privilege. They know and they believe that the way of Jesus is the only way to peace, to the unity of the human family, and to a life of joy and holiness. This is what Jesus proposes there in the Temple that day, and it is how he suggests we find our way into the Kingdom.