TITLE: Great Pretending or Humble Serving SCRIPTURE: Matthew 23:1-12
" Oh yes, I'm the great pretender; Pretending that I'm doing well."
Remember that song by the Platters? I like that song -- It's one of my favorite oldies.
One of the lines in that song says, "My need is such that I pretend too much." I suppose that applies to all of us sometime. Our need is such that we pretend too much. We pretend to know what we're doing. We pretend to be having fun. We pretend not to be lonely. We pretend not to be afraid.
Sometimes pretending is O.K. When someone asks how we are doing, they expect us to say, "Fine! How about you?" Then they can say, "Fine, thanks!" and keep moving. Asking, "How are you?" is usually just a social convention. People expect us to pretend to be O.K. even if we're not -- and it is probably O.K. to say, "Fine! How about you?"
But sometimes it isn't O.K. to pretend. Sometimes when we pretend not to be lonely, we fail to reach out -- fail to take a chance -- fail to meet other people -- fail to find a friend. Then we find ourselves Stuck on Lonely.
And it can be a problem if we pretend to know what we are doing when we don't. I once read about a con artist who pretended to be a physician. He ended up on a hospital staff. He could have killed someone. That kind of pretending is against the law, because it is dangerous.
Or how would you like to have a pretend-electrician to wire your house? Or a pretend-plumber do your plumbing?
I read a young woman and her husband bought a new house -- a brand new house. They moved into it before it was finished. A plumber doing last minute work soldered some connections and left a spark that started a fire. The house burned to the ground -- their brand new house and all their possessions. They learned later that the same plumber had burned down two or three other houses. He was licensed, but he was really a pretend-plumber.
"Oh yes, I'm the great pretender!" Sometimes pretending isn't the best idea!
In our Gospel lesson, Jesus talked about the scribes and Pharisees -- religious leaders. Jesus said that they were pretenders -- pretending to be holy -- pretending to care about God -- pretending to help people.
Jesus didn't call the scribes and Pharisees pretenders, of course. He called them hypocrites, which is pretty much the same thing. The New Testament was written in Greek, and in Greece the word for a stage-actor was hypocritas. A hypocritas pretended to be someone else. It is O.K. for an actor to pretend, because that is what we expect. An actor knows that he or she is just pretending, and everyone else knows it too.
But the scribes and Pharisees weren't onstage. They were in the temple and on the streets and in the marketplace. They dressed in special clothing to let everyone know that they were holy. Their special clothes would have been O.K. if their purpose had been to let people know that they were available for pastoral service -- but that wasn't their purpose. They wore special clothes to be seen -- to be noticed. They wanted people to know that they were important -- to call them "sir" -- to invite them to the front of the line. They coveted the respect that they received as they moved through the marketplace.
But that wasn't the worst of it! The scribes and Pharisees spent their days thinking up religious rules -- rules that went far beyond what God required. They imposed those rules on people as if they were God's rules. In the process, they turned religion from joy to burden. They made people's lives more difficult than they needed to be -- worse than they needed to be.
But in our Gospel lesson, Jesus surprises us. We expect him to tell us how bad the scribes and Pharisees are, but instead he says:
"The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses' seat;
therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it."
"The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses' seat." Jesus acknowledges their role in teaching scripture, and tells the people to do what they TEACH. But then he says:
"But do not do as they DO,
for they do not practice what they teach.
They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear,
and lay them on the shoulders of others;
but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them.
They do all their deeds to be seen by others....
They love to have the place of honor at banquets....
and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces,
and to have people call them rabbi."
God called the scribes and Pharisees to be servants, but they wanted to be princes. God called them to help people, but they made people's lives more difficult. God called them to give God glory, but they sought glory for themselves.
Jesus knew the scribes and Pharisees. He knew their hearts. He knew that they didn't love God. He knew that they didn't love their neighbors. He knew that they just loved themselves. He knew that they were narcissists -- people focused on themselves -- selfish people rather than Godly people.
Jesus said, "Do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach." They taught scripture, but they didn't live according to the scriptures.
They didn't love God.
They didn't love their neighbors.
They just loved themselves.
Jesus went on to say:
"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).
The scribes and Pharisees were trying to be great in all the usual ways. They exercised power. They sought praise. They dressed well. They sat in the front row. They looked out for Number One.
But Jesus tells us that the truly great person doesn't look out for Number One. The truly great person looks out for his or her neighbor -- gives money to help flood victims -- provides food for the hungry -- wields a hammer to build a house for a needy family -- teaches a Sunday school class -- sponsors a youth group. Jesus says that a truly great person is a servant.
Of course, Jesus was not telling us how the world sees things. He was telling us how God sees things. He was not telling us the secret of getting rich. He was showing us what life is like in the kingdom of God. But if we are Christians, we already have one foot in the kingdom of God -- and this life prepares us for the kingdom of God.
A few months ago, Bobbi Zehner wrote a Mother's Day tribute to her mom that was published in Newsweek (May, 9, 2005, page 18). In that article, Bobbi talked about her mother opening her home to one needy person after another. One such person was a man that they called Grandpa Nylen.
When Bobbi asked her mother why she bothered, her mother told her about arriving in Chicago in 1947 with Bobbi, then two years old, in tow. She found that there was housing available for single women, but none for a woman with a baby. Bobbi's mother sought desperately for someone to take care of her baby. Someone finally referred her to a house down the street where the Nylens lived. The Nylens had two teenage sons. They had never taken in a foster child, let alone a baby -- but they were Christians, members of the Salvation Army. I am sure that they had never heard the phrase, "What would Jesus do?" -- but they did what Jesus would have done. They took the woman and her baby (Bobbi) initially for two weeks, but ultimately for two years.
The Nylens became Grandma and Grandpa to Bobbi. Mrs. Nylen died some years ago, but Mr. Nylen lived longer. Bobbi's mother and father took care of Mr. Nylen for the last six years of his life.
The thing that struck me about that story was its circular quality. The Nylens helped Bobbi at the beginning of her life because that was the right thing to do. Bobbi's mother then took care of Grandpa Nylen at the end of his life, because that was the right thing to do.
The other thing that struck me was how God showered blessings on all of them:
-- The Nylens helped Bobbi and her mother -- and in the process became surrogate grandparents for Bobbi -- and friends for life.
-- Bobbi, of course, was greatly blessed to have a safe and loving home at the most vulnerable time of her life.
-- Bobbi's mother was blessed by the knowledge that her baby was being well cared for. And, in the end, her mother was blessed again by the opportunity to return the favor.
-- And, of course, Grandpa Nylen was blessed by having a loving home for the last six years of his life.
"The greatest among you will be your servant.
All who exalt themselves will be humbled,
and all who humble themselves will be exalted."
He wasn't telling us how the world works, but how God works. We will see that fully revealed when we get to heaven, but by the grace of God we sometimes see it now as well.
There is something in us that wants to be like the Pharisees -- proud and selfish. But there is also something in us that wants to be like Bobbi's mom -- serving and selfless. Christ calls us to fight the selfish part and to nurture the selfless part. He said, "The greatest among you will be your servant." And he said, "All who humble themselves will be exalted." Try living a servant life, and you will find yourself both blessing and blessed.