If a road you travel is fraught with conflict and hostility, chances are someone’s going to have a bad outcome. Jesus is on such a road. He’s growing unpopular with religious leaders – headed toward a crash. Let’s just say he won’t be invited to give the keynote at the Society of Religious Elites’ this year. That doesn’t stop him from letting Pharisees, scribes and everyone know his thoughts.
Scribes and Pharisees are two different Jewish factions: both groups are religious elites, interpreters of the Law of Moses, political and religious advisors, vying for Moses’ endowed chair in Torah teaching. Unlike Moses they use their position to elevate themselves, not serve God’s people. Jesus respects their position and teachings, but thinks they are “empty suits.” You’ve heard the saying: “Do as I say, not as I do?” Jesus thinks it applies to them.
Jesus says, “The self-exalting will be humbled. The humbled will be exalted.” What would Jesus think about Facebook or Twitter? I’ve never seen anyone “like” Jesus’ words on self-restraint Facebook. I hope I don’t overstep here. I am humble you know, so humbly speaking, a friend and I started the photobombing craze ten years before it became popular. You know photobombing. You jump into someone’s picture as it’s being made – unlike a “Selfie,” when you make your picture on your iPhone with a celebrity beside you and then share it on your Facebook page. Here’s what we did. Someone asked one of us to make a group picture with their camera. We would, and then turn the camera around, stand next to each other, smile and make a picture of us. Maybe that’s why photobombing didn’t take off until the arrival of the digital age when idiots like us could be deleted. I guess they thought we’d wasted a picture.
Jesus has harsh words for religious leaders who burden others and exalt themselves. They make religious life hard and steep for others, and go easy on themselves. They wear broad phylacteries and extra-long fringes. Phylacteries are boxes containing verses of scripture attached on an arm or forehead. Jesus would rather we obey scripture than wear scripture. They demand seats of honor at banquets and in the synagogue, and insist on being properly addressed. Jesus warns not to call anyone “rabbi” or “father on earth, or even teacher. You have only one – in heaven.” After I was ordained an Episcopal priest, some started calling me, “Father Steve.” That made me feel a bit squirmy in light of Jesus’ words. And honestly, some reverends I’ve known love their titles more than their people – I hope I don’t. People ask me what I prefer to be called: “Whatever makes you most comfortable. Just call me something nice to my face.” Jesus doesn’t reject titles, just those who misuse them and hurt others. Regardless of titles, we’re alike – we are on an even playing field. We are all followers of Jesus, who depend on God’s grace and guidance. To separate and elevate ourselves above others, we separate ourselves from God. In disparaging others, we say something about ourselves, and honestly, it’s not flattering.
We carry titles – Episcopalians, Christians, Catholic-lite – but regardless of where we belong to church, this one, or in the process of joining St. Paul’s, or a member somewhere else, we are members of the Body of Christ. That makes us teachers – personally and as a church group. So Jesus speaks to us, too – maybe especially. Are we self-aware rather than self-exalting? People watch to see if we act like we love God, and “do” love for one another, and they watch to see if we’ll love them. Do we fully welcome and accept guests who visit here? Is our language inclusive and clear, or do we use “churchy” language that’s foreign to some. That can be rude and make others feel like outsiders. Do we help people worship – teach them how to balance at least three books with two hands? Do you ever notice someone struggling with the liturgy? Would you reseat yourself to help them feel we notice so they can feel they belong here? Too often church folks can seem more concerned with ourselves and our comfort zones, expecting guests to “fit in” with us. People today long to for a place to bring their questions and doubts, to be heard, respected, and explore faith questions openly and not be told what must think or believe to fit in. If they seek a church, they seek a community that cares, stands with and support them – and includes them without being pushy. What if we ask ourselves: “How can I be God’s blessing to those God sends my way today?”
As members of Christ’s Body, if we separate or elevate ourselves, get defensive, think we have the answers – we deny God’s very nature. Jesus humbled himself to bring God’s presence to us, within us and among us, taking the form of a servant. Thus we have every reason to be humble – to embody God’s grace and love for all. Yet we are also very human, and we won’t be getting over that soon. We mess up – we fail – we sin. God does not call us to perfection, but repentance and forgiveness. When we do this, we become authentic and honest, take ourselves lightly, even laugh at our screw ups and say, “I know better than I do. Jesus never rejects the exalted – just sends them to the back of the line.
A common theme of a Near Death Experience I am told, is a life review. Your life replays like a movie, and you experience the hurt and pain you caused another, whether you realized what you were doing or not. Some say that can be hell. I don’t know – I’ve never had such an experience. They return to consciousness here – more aware of their impact on others. That life review changes how they will treat others.
“You who are too full of yourself, surprise – it’s time to learn humility. And you who are humble, you nailed it.” Treat others as God treats you. I wonder when God seats us all at the Heavenly Banquet table, who gets humble pie for desert? Here or there – we’ll become humble so God can exalt and save us. Why not start practicing now?