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Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses' seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach. 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. They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have people call them rabbi. But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students. And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father--the one in heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah. The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted. Matthew 23: 1-12
Jesus sure takes all the fun out of being a sanctimonious hypocrite. The priests and scribes were living the high life: strutting and preening, soaking up honors, decked out in splendor. The servants of the Lord had become the masters of the people.
Sure they were scriptural whiz-kids. But where was the love? They were star performers of ritual. But their praise was hollow. They were arbiters of right and wrong. But their real job was extortion and self-aggrandizement. They had the brains, but not the heart. They used their offices to coerce, not to serve.
Jesus enters Jerusalem in triumph and finds the seat of Moses has become the epicenter of sacrilege. The gentle Jesus, who loved the lowly and sought out sinners, despises corruption with a wrath God reserves for grotesque abuse of priestly privilege. Calling them: fools…hypocrites…blind guides…vipers…whited sepulchers, Jesus rips into the filth that fouls God’s house.
But Jesus did not come to carp and to scold. He came to save. So he clearly points out the path to healing repentance, instructing all who have the will to hear that: …he that is the greatest among you shall be your servant…whosoever shall exalt himself shall be abased and he that shall humble himself shall be exalted.
Matthew’s gospel is known as a gospel of instruction. And repetition is the essence of instruction. From the Sermon on the Mount all the way to Calvary, Jesus repeats the lesson of this Sunday’s gospel, sometimes in beatitudes, sometimes in parables and finally in blunt straight talk: Whoever wants to be first, must first become a servant…the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve.
Jesus defines greatness as servanthood. Reflecting on this essential Christian contradiction, Henri Nouwen writes: “Our God is a servant God…we are liberated by someone who became powerless…we are strengthened by someone who became weak…we find a leader in someone who became a servant.”
It’s that simple. To follow Jesus, to become a Christian, is to become a servant. But unlike the proud priests and scribes in this gospel, becoming a true servant means purging ourselves of vanity, resentments, jealousies…all the self-centered junk that crowds out the peace and joy of Christ’s love. God will send no one away empty except those who remain so full of themselves that they leave no room for grace.
Faithfully yours in Christ’s love,
Detail from the mural of Jesus washing the disciples' feet, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=54318 [retrieved October 25, 2011].