Sermon Seeds: Greatness
Sunday, November 5, 2023
Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost | Proper 26 | Year A
(Liturgical Color: Green)
Joshua 3:7-17 and Psalm 107:1-7, 33-37 • Micah 3:5-12 and Psalm 43 • 1 Thessalonians 2:9-13 • Matthew 23:1-12
Put to the Test (Click here for the series overview.)
By Cheryl A. Lindsay
How do we measure greatness? In the sports world, this seems to be a constant topic of sports talk radio and cable sports programming. I remember at the turn of the century, ESPN had a list of the greatest sports players of the previous century. There were names on the list who were familiar by reputation if not observation like Ty Cobb, Jim Thorpe, and Joe Louis. Part of the interest and controversy of the list was that the comparisons were made across sports disciplines. The list also had nearly as many horses as it honored women who excelled in their respective sports like Wilma Rudolph and Bonnie Blair.
One of the most memorable remarks at the unveiling of this list was that there were athletes that were considered higher in rank on that list than they had been in comparison on a similar list generated at the half-century mark. Our perspective changes based on proximity. If that list were generated today, nearly a quarter of a century later, many names would drop off and there would be overrepresentation of modern athletes. Because these programs need content, they rarely address the critical issue: is measuring greatness a legitimate exercise?
The gospel reading is not the account of the disciples engaging in that debate. That happens earlier in a section that precedes the exchanges between Jesus and the religious leaders. In that instance, Jesus asserts that to attain greatness in the kindom of God requires one to assume the posture of a child. The lesson of this week’s passage is consistent as a child would have held little stature or prominence in that culture even more than in contemporary society.
The stimuli raising Jesus’ concluding remark is his extended debate with the elders, Pharisees, Sadducees, and scribes–in other words, those who held religious power. His argument is not with Jewish people, it’s with those who cloaked themselves in religious hyper-piety and hyper-righteousness in order to lord over others without their position and power. Jesus is done talking to them and directs his remarks to the assembled crowd who may be influenced by them. Jesus distinguishes between what they preach and how they behave. The distance between the two marks their hypocrisy. Unsaid but inferred is the tragedy of choosing the power, position, and privilege of this world rather than receiving the invitation and inclusion of the kindom of God. These leaders did not start this way, and their descent into a false piety and righteousness serves as a cautionary tale:
The Pharisees were part of a “lay reform movement” within Judaism, and the scribes were leaders among them. Their good intention was to breathe new life into the practice of Judaism by extending into the life of the ordinary Jew the laws of purity usually reserved to the priests.” They attended to issues of cultic purity, tithing, and Sabbath observance. Their reforms “were intended to renew Jewish piety and to provide a stronger sense of Jewish identity in the face of incursions by Hellenistic culture.” Jesus shared the concerns of the Pharisees. He was closer to their thinking than to that of the Sadducees or the Essenes. However, he differed from Pharisees in his understanding of the relative importance of such things as ritual purity, tithing, Sabbath, and what he considered to be the “weightier matters of the law” (23:23).
Those differences were made apparent in the confrontations explored in the preceding chapters of Matthew. Jesus clarifies the basis of the similarities by evoking Moses, who represents the Law. As he asserted earlier in his ministry, Jesus does not come to abolish the Law but to fulfill it. Faithful adherence to these guidelines for right living in relationship to God, neighbor, and self is not the problem but is commendable when done with humility and devotion. The religious leaders who have consistently challenged him have lost their way. His words indict their behavior; it does not repudiate their religious tradition. Judaism is not the problem; after all, Jesus was a Jew. Hypocritical arrogance is the issue at hand.
Though none of the Jerusalem leadership “dared to ask him any more questions” (22:46), Jesus is not finished attacking them. In the notorious chapter 23, he curses them with seven woes, while differentiating the practices of the community of disciples (Carter 2000, 449–65). Three factors indicate that Jesus directs his attack not to all Israel but against its Jerusalem-based, Rome-allied leaders. First, the chapter continues conflict with Israel’s leaders evident since Jesus entered Jerusalem in chapter 21. He has tangled with “chief priests and scribes” (21:15), “chief priests and elders” (21:23), “the chief priests and Pharisees” (21:45), “Pharisees and Herodians” (22:15–16), Pharisees (22:34, 41), and Sadducees (22:23). This sequence parades Israel’s leaders in accord with Jesus’ passion predictions (16:21; 20:18–19). Second, this animosity is usually understood to reflect post-70 conflicts with leaders in a synagogue to which Matthew’s Jesus-followers belong. Chapter 23 details their unfaithfulness, and distinguishes Matthew’s supporters from them. It does not claim God’s rejection of all Israel. Third, the chapter employs common polemical language to identify these leaders as opponents. Just as modern political rhetoric conventionally paints opponents and their policies as too expensive, too late, and too little, ancient polemic had a standard lexicon. It was common to attack enemy groups as snakes, blind persons, hypocrites, sexual and socioeconomic offenders, deceivers, and murderers. We are not reading objective discourse about “all Jews,” but polemic against specific enemies.
Jesus offers another way rooted in humility. The way of the cross is humiliation. The root of both these words is derived from the Latin word “humus”, meaning “earth, ground.” In humiliation, we are brought low. In humility, we choose to lower ourselves. The difference between the two would seem to be agency. And yet, for Jesus the cross was a choice to endure humiliation because of commitment to solidarity with humanity and the human condition even unto death. In fact, for the Son of God, birth is a submission to humiliation. Jesus, in his humility, submits to humiliation. The One who enjoys the ultimate position at the right hand of the throne is brought to the lowly status of a helpless infant through the birth canal. His birth would have been as jarring as his death with both water and blood breaking forth.
At the same time, the way of the incarnation and the cross is exaltation. As Jesus comes into the world, Matthew accounts for the visitation of the wise people who recognize the birth of royalty and greet him with tribute and gifts. In his death, the sign atop his cross identifies him as sovereign. It attempted to mock him yet revealed the truth of him. And as he breathes his last, the temple’s curtain breaks open, the earth shakes, and the centurion proclaims Jesus as the Son of God. At the lowest moment of his humanity, his divinity becomes apparent.
For the Christian church that has too often compromised and even conspired with empire, we are all too vulnerable to the hypocritical position of the religious leaders who so responded to the message and ministry of Jesus with animosity and antipathy. We become the ones who exploit those outside the closed circles of hyper-piety and hyper-righteousness of our own creation.
In other words, as we rush to expose and stamp out the hypocrites in our midst, we become the new wave of phonies. In our war against violence, at times we merely shed more blood. So based on Jesus’ words I have to critique myself on a regular basis. As I condemn hypocrisy, do I hunger and thirst for righteousness? Jesus came to restore all things; is that my passionate desire for everyone—even the hypocrites? As I confront distorted spirituality, do I confront it with tears in my eyes and a lump in my throat? As I critique others, do I allow my heavenly Father to critique me for my unhelpful attitudes and words?
“The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.” (vv. 11-12) This is not just a promise from Jesus; it is his testimony and his teaching. Jesus reminds his disciples, then and now, that the way to the kindom does not come through power, prestige and privilege; it’s the road of love, service, and humility. That’s greatness.
Reflection from Voices of People of African Descent
The 33rd General Synod adopted a Resolution to Recognize the United Nations International Decade for People of African Descent (2015-2024). As part of its implementation, Sermon and Weekly Seeds offers Reflection from Voices of People of African Descent related to the season or overall theme for additional consideration in sermon preparation and for individual and congregational study.
Plum on the rim of a warm light sleep was still chuckling. Mamma. She sure was somethin’. He felt twilight. Now there seemed to be some kind of wet light traveling over his legs and stomach with a deeply attractive smell. It wound itself–this wet light–all about him, splashing and running into his skin. He opened his eyes and saw what he imagined was the great wing of an eagle pouring a wet lightness over him
–Toni Morrison, Sula
For Further Reflection
“Be careful not to mistake insecurity and inadequacy for humility! Humility has nothing to do with the insecure and inadequate! Just like arrogance has nothing to do with greatness!” ― C. JoyBell C.
“Wherever you find a great man, you will find a great mother or a great wife standing behind him — or so they used to say. It would be interesting to know how many great women have had great fathers and husbands behind them.” ― Dorothy L. Sayers
“Is it so bad, then, to be misunderstood? Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther, and Copernicus, and Galileo, and Newton, and every pure and wise spirit that ever took flesh. To be great is to be misunderstood.” ― Ralph Waldo Emerson
Carter, Warren. “Matthew.” Gale A. Yee, Ed. Fortress Commentary on the Bible: Two Volume Set. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014.
Case-Winters, Anna. Matthew: A Theological Commentary on the Bible (Belief: a Theological Commentary on the Bible. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2015.
Woodley, Matt. The Gospel of Matthew: God with Us. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2010.
Suggested Congregational Response to the Reflection
Do an inventory of and reflect upon the service rendered by your faith community–internally and externally.
The Rev. Dr. Cheryl A. Lindsay, Minister for Worship and Theology (email@example.com), also serves a local church pastor and worship scholar-practitioner with a particular interest in the proclamation of the word in gathered communities. You’re invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.
A Bible study version of this reflection is at Weekly Seeds.
Joshua 3:7-17 and Psalm 107:1-7, 33-37 • Micah 3:5-12 and Psalm 43 • 1 Thessalonians 2:9-13 • Matthew 23:1-12
Find the full text here: https://lectionary.library.vanderbilt.edu/texts.php?id=167