“Who are We?”
November 5th, 2023
Rev. Rebecca Migliore
We have rounded the last turn and can now see the finish line of the church year. And so, we have come to the part of the gospel of Matthew where Jesus is talking to the disciples, (to us really) about what we have come to call “the end times.” Judgement Day. And I think he does this not as a scare technique, but as a question: Who are you? Who are we? What do we stand for? What do we stand against? Will we be ready to be face to face with God when that time comes?
And what I hear Jesus saying is “Actions speak louder than words.” You cannot think that you can just say you believe, or passively claim to be a follower, and not live life in a different way. And sometimes I think we hide behind the simple greatest commandment—Love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself. Now that sounds like it could be a somewhat private thing.
I mean, our love of God is something that we show here in worship, and do in the privacy of our own homes. (Remember Jesus’ words from the sermon on the mount about not practicing our piety before others—Jesus said, “So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you…do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret, and your Father who sees in secret will reward you…And whenever you pray, …go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matthew 6:1. 3-4, 6).
The church universal has listened to these words year after year and some have taken them to mean that our love of God and our love of neighbor has nothing to do with our life outside of worship. This is where it is important to read the whole of Scripture, to read both the beginning and the end of the gospels.
For today, Jesus sounds very different. Or maybe he wants to revisit what he was saying in his sermon on that mount. Maybe people had heard the “in secret” part, and had elevated that to the most important message.
In the arc of the gospel, Jesus foresees an end to his ministry. He knows that he has made powerful enemies—in the Jewish hierarchy and in the ruling Roman power structure. He is talking frankly to his disciples, trying to gird them for what might come. And so he talks of the end of times.
So often, Jesus uses parables, and he will do so in the coming weeks—the parables of the ten bridesmaids, the giving of talents, and the sheep and the goats. But here, Jesus is plainly putting his cards on the table. Who are you to be? How are you to act? What does loving God and loving neighbor look like in the real world? So, let’s listen and talk about what Jesus says.
Jesus starts in a surprising way, by acknowledging the scribes’ and Pharisees’ position of honor. They sit on Moses’ seat. Moses the preeminent leader of the Jewish people. Moses the one who talked with God on Mount Sinai, and was given the privilege to glimpse the glory of God’s passing by. Moses who argued with God, who conversed with God, who stood as the spokesperson of God to the people, and of the people to God. The scribes and Pharisees, in so far as they teach the Torah, in so far as they talk about the prophets, about the writings (the totality of what we call the Old Testament), listen to them—says Jesus. Well, that is a change from the usual condemnation.
This nod to their status doesn’t last long. “Do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach.” You can understand why I think Jesus is saying “Actions speak louder than words,” especially if your actions don’t mirror what you are saying, what you are professing to believe.
What does Jesus think these leaders are doing? They are asking people to do more than is possible—tying up heavy burdens, hard to bear, laying them on the shoulders of others, while they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to remove them. This is talking about the letter of the law, all those 613 commandments that stem from the original 10. Now in the current climate I feel I need to say that Jesus was not condemning Jews or the Jewish religion. Jesus was a Jew. Most of his disciples were Jews. Jesus had no earthly idea that his ideas, which were intended to reform Judaism, would create a separate sect eventually called Christianity, which in an evil twist would spawn anti-semitism throughout the world by insisting that it was “the Jews” who killed Jesus.
Jesus is focused on the leaders, on those who wielded power over others, especially those who were the least of these, the least able to pay the temple taxes or buy the necessary altar offerings or follow the dietary and cleanliness laws. Don’t be like them, Jesus says. Don’t aspire to be powerful like them. They have lost the spirit of what God was trying to do with the law of love.
And here we get to the overlap of the sermon on the mount and this passage. Jesus is still concerned with the public display of holiness. “They do all their deeds to be seen by others; they make their religious clothing over the top, they love being at the front of the line, having the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplace, and to have people call them rabbi, teacher.”
What’s so wrong with that? We wonder. I mean we still idolize people who are in the forefront of various industries, even the church. Who gets talked about? Who is lifted up as an example? Isn’t it the people who make the most money? Those who get the most likes on social media? Those who are elevated to high positions, who are paid big fees for talks to groups, who are quoted in the newspaper, or online, who we can recognize.
Why shouldn’t people cash in on the status and power that they have achieved through whatever means?
And this is where the radical Jesus theology comes in contact with our idea that faith can be a private, personal only affair. For Jesus believes in Loving God, putting God first, following the law of love that connects us to God and to everyone else around us. And so, Jesus says, this idea that some are better than others has got to go.
You are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher and you are all students, all brothers and sisters equally. (I actually loved the old terms for pastors and elders as Teaching Elder and Ruling Elder, to make the point, that there should be no hierarchy, we come to the table as equals, being tasked with different functions, but being equal in status).
Jesus goes on: 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.
We see a physical example of this in John’s gospel telling of the Last Supper, where Jesus puts himself below the disciples, and asks to wash their feet. A menial job, one for the servants, not the master. And remember that Peter, who is always a stand in for us, balks at the idea that Jesus would wash his feet. This was too much. And we remember that it was the other two of the “inner circle,” James and John, who are arguing along the way who will be on his right and his left in the kingdom—certainly seats of honor.
Jesus knows our nature. It is hard to give up any privilege that we might have. It is hard to give up any power we think we possess. It is hard to look at our neighbors, all our neighbors, and see equals, to love them “as we love ourselves.” Jesus never said that following him was going to be easy.
John the Baptist warned everyone that you had to turn your life around, you had to change course, you had to be different than the culture, even what the religious culture might proclaim.
Jesus was preaching a kingdom, a kin-dom, that was almost unbelievable. Where lost sheep were more important than the rest of the flock. Where workers who worked only one hour were paid as much as workers who had worked all day. Where those who were invited to the great banquet didn’t bother to show up, but where you needed to be ready, even if you were swept up in the streets. Where good seed is sown, but only some of it is able to take root and grow and produce fruit. Where the kingdom is like a precious pearl, a hidden treasure, a mustard seed (all things that are small, or out of the way, or rare).
No wonder the disciples, even those closest to Jesus had trouble practicing what they were learning to preach. No wonder we, the disciples of today, have to be vigilant in our walk in the world. Let me just muse about what this might mean for us. It means that we see our work at the Holy Trinity/West Orange Food Pantry as our sharing of our abundance with those who are not so blessed, and trying to stand in their shoes when the response is not one of subservient gratitude. For we are all equal in Jesus’ eyes.
Or how do we approach the massive and expansive problems in our world today? Can we be horrified by the loss of Israeli life, and also horrified by the loss of innocent Palestinian life? Can we work towards a future where all the people of the Middle East can live securely and freely? As the acting stated clerk of our national PCUSA put it, “The Presbyterian Church (USA) stands firm in its support of the Palestinians and their right to live free in their land, without occupation, aggression, and bloodshed. We support and protect Israel’s right to exist as a free and sovereign nation.” How that gets worked out has yet to be seen—and we should be praying mightily that those who are talking about it might give priority to equality and God’s shalom.
Seeing others as equal, means listening to their ideas and beliefs even if we disagree with them. Seeing others as equal, means giving up our tribal need to be right in how we see the world. Seeing others as equal, means reimagining ourselves and our priorities. Seeing others as equal means going after the lost sheep, allowing those on the margins into the center of discussion, and if anyone is lifted up, it is to be those who Jesus calls “the least of these, our brothers and sisters.”
As we travel towards the end of the church year, we are going to be reminded to prepare ourselves, to be ready always, to be aware that each and every encounter with others is meeting Jesus in disguise. We will not always succeed. In fact, I know I daily fail in truly doing justice and loving mercy and walking humbly with my God. And that is why the cycle of church life brings us back to Advent, where we will hear the Baptist’s call once again. And we will move towards the story of how God came to be with us, to teach us, and show us, and love us into being in better relationship with God and neighbor and even ourselves.
What a gift we have been given.
To hear Jesus talking directly to us.
To be nudged into thinking about how what he said so many years
ago might have an effect on how we act today.
To be assured that as many times as we make mistakes, we will be
forgiven and freed to try, try again.
Thank you Jesus for your words. Thank you God for your love. Thank you Spirit for blowing through our lives and our world and urging us to move closer to what God wants us to be.
May it be so, Alleluia, Amen.