6 Nov 2011
“‘The greatest among you must be your servant.’” (Matt. 23:11)
In the name …
A couple of weeks ago I had to go and get some dental work done, to actually have a crown put in on a chipped tooth. To do the work the dentist gave me a couple of shots of Novocain to numb the area. I don’t think I’ve had Novocain since I was a teenager with a cavity. I sort of forgot how weird it feels when that stuff kicks-in. Your tongue feels like it’s the size of your shoe. You wonder how it can still fit in your mouth, then the side of your face disappears. It’s not there anymore. And to make up for its disappearance your lips swell up like you got hit by a baseball. Well anyway, I’ve never had any crown work done before so I didn’t know what to expect, but they’ve got to take this impression of your tooth so that they can make a mold of it, and then fit it properly on top of your chipped tooth. They put the thing on and then the dentist asks me how it feels, do your top and bottom teeth come together like they’re supposed to. I look at him like you’ve got to be kidding. I can’t tell. I can’t feel my mouth. There could be cinderblocks in there for all I know, never mind do two of my teeth come together like they’re supposed to or not. I simply could not process what he was asking of me.
This happens a lot too with the words Jesus shares with us this morning. Sometimes we have a real hard time processing them. It’s like Jesus is the dentist. He’s asking us something that we’re just not prepared to answer. Jesus’ words today are definitely an historical condemnation of the ancient Scribes and Pharisees of His day and the earliest days of the church, but what He says is never tied to only one period of time. Jesus’ words are timeless. It then becomes our job as people of faith to hear again these words of long ago and try to listen to how they should be applied to our world today. In other words, this isn’t a timeless condemnation of the Jewish faith and her leaders. This would be too easy. Jesus is asking more of us, but it’s that “more” we often times find hard to process.
Jesus isn’t just attacking the practice of the scribes and Pharisees for making their religious adornments more noticeable. He’s attacking in general the notion of religious privilege. I’ve mentioned at Bible study that this is a reading that all of us priests should keep tacked up in our rectories. I remember my grandfather telling me about living in a small, poor village in Spain. The priest kept talking about sacrifice, but my grandfather said that while everyone else was supposed to fast and give to the church of what little they had, the priest kept getting larger and larger. Whatever that priest then spoke from the pulpit became meaningless to my grandfather. “They preach, but they do not practice,” says Jesus today, and my grandfather instinctively knew this to be true.
And the religious privilege that Jesus speaks out against doesn’t end there; it only begins, and it gets harder and harder to process. Jesus opposes the title of “Rabbi,” which means “teacher.” Now we can’t let that title block us from the meaning of Jesus’ words. This isn’t about the leaders of synagogues. This is about us. This is about the kind of religion that Jesus imagines. Jesus isn’t attacking a word; He’s undermining a whole way of thinking. When we get past the word “Rabbi,” we can hear what is timeless in Jesus’ statement. He opposes the title because we have only one teacher, God, and all of us have an equal relationship with this one divine teacher, so Jesus can then say, “You are all brothers and sisters.” This is a radical religious equality He’s talking about, one that we disavow only the great harm to Jesus’ proclamation. This is why we have to be a sincerely and thoroughly democratic church.
And it doesn’t yet stop. Jesus then says that we are to call no one “father” because all of us have but one Father in heaven. This prohibition isn’t about the religious title of “Father” because the title wasn’t even used at the time. Jesus couldn’t be condemning the title of “Father Randy” because no one had even imagined the priesthood yet. We’re moving beyond “Rabbi” here. It’s much more encompassing than this. This moves us from church to society, and this is why Jesus links the prohibition of “father” with that of “master.” Jesus is here attacking the whole social structure of His day. The whole system of social control and obedience is here being challenged by Jesus. The father in the ancient world stood at the top of the family pyramid. His word was law, not all that different than a master to a slave. His authority over the women in his household was all consuming, and it ended for daughters only when they passed on to the complete control of the husband. Jesus is attacking this whole system of privilege for one and subjugation for the other. Just as in the religious field all are brothers and sisters under the one divine teacher, so in the world outside of the synagogue, and now outside the church, that same equality is what Jesus is calling for and asking us to work for.
All of this is what is behind Jesus’ profoundly unique religious statement that the greatest will be the least, and the humble will be the exalted. One of the surest statements that we can trace back to Jesus is “The first shall be last, and the last shall be first.” Jesus’ challenge is to completely reorder religion and society. His world doesn’t stop at the doors of the church, nor can it be ignored within the church. In other words, it should not only be Occupy Wall Street protestors who are concerned when 70% of the wealth in this nation is controlled by 10% of the population, and 2% of the wealth by 70% of the population. It should also be the concern of those who follow Jesus.
The church should be the prophet to the world of Jesus’ gospel of radical equality. We should fight against inequality in all its social, economic, political and even religious forms. We should champion the cause of those in need around us. We should try to really process what it means when Jesus says the greatest among you will be the least, and the humble the exalted. That we may not only hear the words, but listen to the challenge, for this we pray as followers of Jesus. Amen. (+)
Fr. Randolph Calvo