Proper 26, Year A
St Michael’s Church, O’Fallon, IL
Proper: Micah 3:5-12; Psalm 43; 1 Thessalonians 2:9-13; Matthew 23:1-12
In the Name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
✠ ✠ ✠
When I was first ordained, I served in a large rural parish where there were lots of Anglicans, and lots more Roman Catholics. So clergy in collars was a pretty common sight in that area. And whenever I went to the hospital to visit, as I walked up the long covered walkway, I was warmly greeted by all the guys who were out there having a smoke: “Morning, Father,” “How’s she goin’, Father,” “How ya makin’ ‘er, Father.” It made me feel really good. My clerical collar got me instant respect. Then we moved to another parish just outside the capital city. And the first time I walked up to the hospital entrance there, I met with a couple of cold stares. I could see the eyes go from my collar to my face, and as they did, their facial expressions turned sour. You know how people can assume a particular posture that says, “Stay away from me!” That happened quite a bit over the next fourteen years that we lived in that area.
Then we moved here, where I get mostly friendly greetings when I wear my collar in public. One time a guy yelled across a parking lot, “God bless you, Pastor.” One time a woman pulled up beside me in traffic in Swansea and looked at me until the light turned green. Then she followed me through the streets of Belleville until I stopped and got out of the car, and she came up and asked me to pray for her. And one time when I went to the Greekfest at the Greek Orthodox church in Swansea, the church ladies started kissing my hands and giving me food. That stuff can go to your head! It feels good to be treated like that. But I think it’s probably good for my soul that I get at least as many cold stares and dirty looks as I do warm greetings and gifts of food (especially Mediterranean food).
What we read in the gospel today is just the opening of Jesus’ final public sermon. And for the religious leaders who were trying to find a way to shut him down it was the last straw. He really gives it to them in this sermon, and he hits them hard. “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat,” he says to the crowd, “so do what they say, but not what they do. For they preach, but don’t practice”– not they way I usually like to begin a sermon. What would y’all think if I started off one day by saying, “The bishops of the Episcopal Church sit on the seat of the apostles, so do what they say, but not what they do”?
That opening line raises the question of authority among the people of God, and how to honor it when those in authority are misusing it. The Old Testament religious hierarchy had developed from the time God first established it under the law of Moses until it ended with the destruction of the temple shortly after the death and resurrection of Jesus. The two high priests that are mentioned in the New Testament are Annas and Caiaphas. Annas was appointed by the Roman governor, and although he was succeeded by several of his sons, and his son-in-law Caiaphas, Annas still pulled the strings. So for decades he collaborated with the Roman authorities, and they supported him as long as he was able to keep things under control.
Also by the time of Jesus, the scribes and Pharisees, the experts and teachers of the law of Moses, had risen in status and authority. But they weren’t all bad. There were a number of faithful and humble people in their ranks, like Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea who took Jesus’ body down from the cross and buried it in Joseph’s own grave. But the hierarchy as a whole was inherently corrupt because it was ultimately under the control of the pagan governor. It was kind of like how the Nazis attempted to bring the various Protestant groups in Germany into the Reich Church. But it didn’t work as well because the guy they put in charge as the reichsbishop (Ludwig Müller) was far less competent than old Annas the high priest.
In spite of that inherent corruption, though, Jesus affirmed the authority of the religious leaders. “They sit on the seat of Moses,” he said, meaning that they are the ones authorized to teach the law of Moses to the people of God. We Anglicans, along with Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox, have a high regard for the Apostolic Succession, i.e. that the apostles, whom Jesus ordained by breathing on them, ordained their successors by the laying on of hands and calling them bishops (overseers). And the bishops continued the succession in the same way right up to the present time. Some of you might have attended our bishop’s consecration six years ago. All the bishops who were there gathered around Fr Dan and laid their hands on him and prayed over him. The same thing happened to them, and to the bishops who ordained them, going all the way back in unbroken succession to the apostles. That’s the Apostolic Succession. And the fact that there have been some very bad bishops in the Church– false teachers, heretics, apostates, immoral– doesn’t negate the fact that they are bishops, duly ordained in the tradition established by the apostles to lead and teach the Church. Martin Luther said that in spite of the fact that some ministers are evil, the Word and Sacraments that they minister are no less effective, because Christ instituted them (Augsburg Confession VIII.2).
But Jesus didn’t find fault with the teaching of the scribes and Pharisees. His criticism was that they had become full of themselves. They loved their status which they saw as setting them apart from ordinary people, and even exempt from the strict disciplines and burdens they imposed on the people. They made a great show of their position. They expected VIP treatment wherever they went, and loved being called Rabbi, which is usually translated as master or teacher, but literally means great one. I had a professor like that. He was an awesome preacher, but he was extremely arrogant and vindictive, so a lot of us didn’t like him or trust him. And he was a priest and our professor of evangelism!
Yet honor and respect them for the very fact that they are the teachers of God’s people, Jesus says, and listen to them insofar as they’re faithful to the Word of the Lord. But don’t follow their bad examples. For good or ill, they’re the ones in authority. They’ll be gone sooner or later, but the Word of the Lord will endure for ever (1Pt 1:25). So don’t lose faith. And don’t quit the Church because of a bad leader. Go somewhere else if you have to, but don’t quit.
Then Jesus makes that declaration that has confused lots of Christians in the modern era, and caused a certain amount of tension between various Christian groups, all because we don’t know how to read Scripture the way the wider Church has always understood it. “But you are not to be called rabbi,” Jesus says, “for you have one teacher, and you are all brothers. And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven. Neither be called masters/instructors, for you have one master, the Christ.” I’m sure some of you have been rebuked by a brother/ sister in Christ for calling your priest Father. Well the fact is that the spiritual leaders of God’s people have been addressed as teacher, father and master for as long as God’s people has existed. Abraham is not only the biological father, the ancestor, of all Jewish people, he’s also the spiritual father of whoever worships the living God. And it’s in both of those respects that Jesus refers to him as Father Abraham in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Lk 16:19-31).
There’s a bunch of references throughout the Bible to “the sons of the prophets.” Those were the disciples of the various prophets who referred to their particular master as father. When the prophet Elijah was carried up into heaven in a flaming chariot, his disciple Elisha cried out, “My father, my father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!” (2Kgs 2:12). St Peter says that all we who proclaims Jesus are sons of the prophets since we have inherited their gift of prophecy (Acts 3:25). And long after Jesus preached his last sermon in the temple, St Paul said, “though you have countless guides in Christ, you do not have many fathers. For I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (1Cor 4:15)– Father Paul.
So Jesus’ warning against calling hypocritical religious leaders father and teacher is not an across-the-board prohibition, as some think. What he’s saying is that these scribes and Pharisees don’t deserve to be called by the titles they so dearly love. They’ve demonstrated by their arrogance and lack of charity that they’re unworthy of them. But since the earliest days of the Church, bishops and priests have been called father, not because they take the place of God, but because in their fatherly care for their people, they lead them to God. That has also always extended to the leaders of women’s religious orders, who are addressed as mother superior, and more recently to female clergy whom we call mother. All these fathers and mothers are charged with exercising parental authority within the Church. And in that role they stand as visible icons of the Fatherhood of God. And because the example of a leader can be so influential, leaders who don’t love God, or who aren’t faithful in teaching the things of God can actually prevent others from finding God as well (Orthodox Study Bible). Which is why St James teaches that the leaders of God’s people will be severely judged above all others (Jas 3:1).
Jesus wraps up this first part of his last sermon by saying that greatness in the Church is expressed in humble servanthood. “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.” The first part of that last statement is illustrated in today’s first lesson, and the second part is illustrated in today’s second lesson. The problem of bad leadership among God’s people goes back way beyond the time of Jesus. Micah prophesied over 700 years before Jesus. And what God was saying through him was that a lot of the prophets in those days were misleading his people. Bear in mind that there were a lot more prophets at any particular time that the ones who made it into the books of the Old Testament. Lots of them were called by God to proclaim his word to his people, but some weren’t. And some that were called for whatever reason didn’t do their job. Maybe they were more afraid of the people than God, or afraid that they’d be run out of the country, or killed.
“Therefore,” God says through Micah, “it shall be night to you, without vision, and darkness to you, without divination.” Then Micah delivers the warning to the leaders of God’s people that those other prophets failed, or were afraid, to deliver: that corruption is widespread and justice is nowhere to be found. Therefore God intends to remove his favor from them.
Paul on the other hand has gone in the opposite direction. He was one of those arrogant Pharisees, but was humbled by God and then raised up to become one of the greatest of the apostles. He became a proper father to his children in the churches in his care, loving and caring for them, and faithfully teaching the things of God, all the things the scribes and Pharisees that Jesus targeted weren’t doing. And even though we don’t tend to think of Paul as humble because his brashness is what really stands out, he actually was quite humble. Boldness and humility are not mutually exclusive. In fact boldness is often most effectively expressed by those who are extremely humble. So when Paul talks about how hard he worked so as not to be a burden to his people, and how his conduct was holy and blameless, he’s not bragging. He’s just trying to impress on them that he’s not in it for the money or the respect of his people. He’s simply doing what a father does for his children. It’s not about him at all. It’s all about the Word of God, and about training the children of God to walk in a manner worthy of our heavenly Father, which results from the Word working in the hearts of believers, as Paul says at the end of that reading.
So the takeaway from all this is humble leadership in the Church. Jesus humbled himself in becoming one of us. And he humbled himself even further by suffering death on a cross. And he expects the same kind of loving humility from the people he has ordained to preach and teach, and to lead his people to himself. “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus” (Phil 2:5) Paul says elsewhere, for that’s the attitude that every one of his ministers ought to have toward the work he has ordained them to do. In the Name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
a.m.d.g. Ian C. Wetmore+