You are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brethren. He who is greatest among you shall be your servant.
For whatever reason, those who organized our lectionary readings for Sunday mornings have too often cut a passage short, often resulting in making it impossible to truly understand what is happening. Today is another one of those occasions. Without hearing the continuation of today's Gospel in verses 13-39 of Matthew 23, we really do not get the full force of what Jesus is saying about the difference between practicing religion and what we might call "faithful living."
Further, we usually do not get to read Proper 26 in any year since it is often pre-empted by Sunday celebrations of All Saints Day. Which is ironic, since the lions share of the Saints we remember devoted themselves more to faithful living than to practicing religion.
As I hear Jesus exhorting the Pharisees to get beyond being professional religionists, I am reminded of one of the earliest lessons learned in seminary. At the General Theological Seminary, it used to be customary for first year students to go to different religious institutions all over Manhattan to get a look at traditions other than our own. One such trip took a group of us to a synagogue up near Central Park. The rabbi at the time was Rabbi Angel: Rabbi Marc Angel.
Someone asked him what the role of the rabbi was in the synagogue community. Quite simple, replied Rabbi Angel. The role of the rabbi was to teach Torah, the word of God, so that all members of the community would become so filled with God's Torah that they would live it day and night, and thus everyone would become a rabbi. Once everyone is a rabbi, there would be no need for rabbis. "So my role," concluded Rabbi Angel, "is to put myself out of a job!"
You are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brethren, says Jesus. I think he was getting at the same point. There is no great need for professional, well-done religion. There is, however, a tremendous need for faithful, merciful, people who seek justice for all. In fact in the "woes" which follow in verses 13-39 he says, "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law, justice and mercy and faith; these you ought to have done, without neglecting the others." That is, do not neglect the tithes. Even down to the tithing of mint and dill and cumin. But in being so scrupulous about religious practices, we are not to neglect the more important issues of striving for justice and peace for "all people," and respecting the dignity of every human being.
That last admonition, of course, comes from our Baptismal Covenant in the Book of Common Prayer. Since the introduction of the Prayer Book of 1979, we have, as a church, devoted much attention to constructing "good liturgy" to effectively communicate the rites of that book. Entire volumes are available on how to make the liturgies more effective, more relevant, more interesting for children, more traditional, more innovative and so forth. The new Prayer Book has led to the development of an entire cottage industry of liturgical sciences!
Yet, at the heart of these rites, Baptism, Eucharist and all the rest, is a call to faithful living. The rites themselves call us to follow Jesus and live out our lives with a commitment to God our Father in a way that promotes Justice, Mercy and Faith.
Even the pastoral offices seek such faithful living on our parts. The marriage service, for example, witnesses to the building a community of hope in a world where such hope is rarely justified. Our commitment to starting and growing families says that we believe that the travails, fears and pain of this world are finally bounded by a greater truth! So that Christian marriage is not about what processional music is "appropriate," or where everyone will sit and stand, but rather that we are taking time out of our otherwise busy lives to say, "Yes, God will be a part of this relationship. From here on out, we will fulfill our baptismal vows together rather than separately. We will reach out in love and concern for others. With God's will, we will bring little people into this world and nurture them to know and love and serve the Lord."
This is, after all, what faithful living is all about.
In her book, Holy The Firm (Harper & Row, New York: 1977), Annie Dillard writes how nothing can be more convincing of God's unending mercy than the continued existence of the church. "The higher Christian churches -- where, if anywhere, I belong -- come at God with an unwarranted air of professionalism, with authority and pomp, as though they knew what they were doing, as if people in themselves were an appropriate set of creatures to have dealings with God. I often think of the set pieces of liturgy as certain words which people have successfully addressed to God without their getting killed. In the high churches, they saunter through the liturgy like Mohawks, moving along a strand of scaffolding, who have long since forgotten their danger. If God were to blast such a service to bits, the congregation would be, I believe, genuinely shocked. But in the low churches, you expect it any minute. This is the beginning of wisdom (p.59)."
Having served in both Morning Prayer parishes and Anglo-Catholic parishes, there are as many sacred liturgical, and otherwise, religious cows in all corners of God's One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church. If ever there were a time to step back and examine what we are doing and why, it would be in response to this 23rd chapter of Matthew, at the end of one liturgical year, as we prepare ourselves to enter Advent and the beginning of a new liturgical year.
Our Lord seems to be calling us to a far simpler life, if at the same time a more challenging life.
Perhaps we can hear what Jesus is saying. In the hearing, we might at least hear a vision of a time when the ministers of the church will no longer be laypersons, bishops, priests, and deacons, but only Baptized. We will become a kingdom of rabbis, or, as our baptismal service puts it, we will become those who truly share in Christ's eternal priesthood. There will not be any need for titles and degrees, or any manner of professionalism in how we are the church. It will be evident to all others that we are those people who follow and obey Jesus as Lord and Savior by the things we say and do.
He who is greatest among us will be a servant.
Whoever exalts him or herself will be humbled, and whoever humbles him or herself will be exalted. Although, if we accept the call to faithful living as Jesus issues it today, the only one who shall be exalted will be the Lord God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Jesus. Blessed are they who come in the name of the Lord!