We Are All Students
Matthew 23: 1- 12
Matthew 23: 1- 12
Jong Bok Kim at Glen Rhodes United, Oct 30, 2011
We are all students under one rabbi, Jesus Christ, O God. We are all students called to live out servant leadership in and through your body, the church. As your students, may we say less and live courageously the faith he lived, died for and lives today in each of us. Amen.
A few weeks ago, we celebrated Thanksgiving Sunday. In Korea, my native country, people celebrate Thanksgiving Day a month or so earlier, based on the lunar calendar. Like here, each family gathers in one place, usually in the rural ancestral home, where their grandparents live, and give thanks to their ancestors. One of the ways to give thanks is to go to the gravesites of their ancestors and bow deeply twice in front of each grave.
Before making the bows, the head of the household explains to younger generations who is buried in each grave, reading the inscription on the gravestone. The title the ancestor had in life is inscribed on each gravestone. The title usually refers to the various offices of the old dynasties. However, most ordinary people did not have such offices at all. The descendants of ordinary people, nevertheless, wish to address their ancestors by certain titles. So, they often use the title, “Haksaeng.” The literal meaning of this common title is “student.” As a result, most gravestones in Korea start with the same word, “student.” If I died in Korea, my children might inscribe my gravestone like this: “Student, Kim Jong Bok, Rest in Peace...”
I have no clue to why our ancestors chose the word, “student.” Perhaps, they wanted to say we were all life-long learners. This morning, it is interesting to see that Matthew chose a word with the same literal meaning to address all the members of his church.
To begin with, let us explore the meaning of some of the words in today’s Gospel. “Scribes” and “Pharisees” are distinct, but overlapping categories. Scribes were a professional class with formal training, somewhat like lawyers in contemporary society. They were schooled in the tradition. Pharisees were a group within Judaism defined by strictly religious rules, composed mostly of laypersons without formal theological training. Some scribes were also Pharisees, but few Pharisees were scribes. Together, they represent the Jewish leadership of Matthew’s time.
“Moses’ seat” is a metaphorical expression of the synagogue leadership - the Scribes and Pharisees. Matthew’s critique of their leadership is threefold: first, they say but do not do (23: 3a); secondly, they burden others while failing to act themselves (23: 4); thirdly, they act for the wrong reason: to make an impression on others (23: 5-7).
The Scribes and Pharisees were intent, above all else, on keeping the Law that God gave Moses. They strove to keep all God’s laws as carefully as possible. They applied the Priestly purity laws to the people as a whole. For Matthew, their efforts were an intolerable and misdirected burden for ordinary people. The alternative to the “burden” placed on people’s shoulders is Jesus’ own “yoke:” according to Matthew, Jesus said earlier, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light (11: 28-30).”
Furthermore, the synagogue leadership emphasized external signs of piety. Matthew was not happy with these practices either. “Phylacteries” refers to small leather boxes containing portions of the Torah strapped to the forehead and arm during the recitation of prayers (Deuteronomy 6: 8). The “fringes” are those commanded as part of the dress of every Israelite, later understood as the tassels attached to the prayer shawl (Deut 22: 12). The “best seats” in the synagogue refer to the place of honour at the front, facing the congregation, occupied by teachers and respected leaders.
In response to the practices of the synagogue leadership, Matthew stressed a strong egalitarian leadership. The word, “rabbi,” literally means “my great one.” So, Matthew forbids its use for Christian leaders, but allows it, or even encourages it, for Jesus alone. All members of the Christian community, as members of the family of God, are “students.” Matthew does not want to distinguish them by titles.
In addition, just as he restricts the title “rabbi” to Jesus, Matthew restricts the title “Father” to God. “Father” is Matthew’s favourite designation for deity. Matthew’s church did have a class of leaders, but Matthew regarded them from a more egalitarian perspective. For Matthew, leadership in the Christian community is to be servant leadership. The concept of servanthood comes from the word, “deacon,” which means literally “servant.”
Today’s passage sounds like a once-upon-a-time story. Some of us might well be wary of reading this text as a way of criticizing the hypocrisy of first-century Jews. At first reading, today’s text may seem to have little to do with us. However, when we read it more closely, it may address something central to our own lives, something that seems so human.
We all like to be acknowledged at social gatherings; we all like to be greeted in the marketplace. It is not a matter of being hypocritical, but of being human: we are social creatures, and we like to be known and liked. All of us live with the desire to be accepted by others. We all may be guilty of playing out our lives as responses to these pressures for recognition.
At the Community Dinner last Monday evening, I was pleased to see three boys doing dishes in the kitchen: Matthew, Tyler and Collin, three grade six students from the Boy Scouts. They came early and started their work, guided by Warner, as soon as the plates began to pile up. Collin cleaned the dishes at the sink and Tyler took them to the dishwasher grid while Matthew dried them. And Tyler joined Matthew in putting them back on the shelves. They did not say much, but worked together efficiently like a well-trained team.
As their work was almost finished, I couldn’t help but say thanks to each of them. When I approached Matthew, Warner made fun of me, saying, “This is Minister Pirate.” Then, I realized I was wearing a red bandana on my head. In spite of Warner’s joke, Matthew seemed to be shy and nervous of me. Asked if he had been here before, he said “No.” Asked how he felt about his work today, he said “Okay.” In response to my thanks, he said, “No problem.” That was it. The other two boys responded to me almost the same way, except that Collin had been here before. I wonder if these three boys may well teach us how to live out our words through our lives. They are students, but as well they are our teachers, doing things quietly, not worried about others’ recognition.
One of the joys I have at the Community Dinner is that I have many opportunities to share life stories with the volunteers. While delivering plates, Ellie told me that John and she had been nannies for a kitten her friend couldn’t take care of temporarily. It sounded to me that it was challenging to look after the untrained kitten. But she said that, as they had never had a cat before, the kitten had trained and taught them. I appreciated her perspective. I was reminded that learning was always a two-way interaction. What is missing from the lives of the Pharisees in Matthew is humility, an openness to be learners as well as teachers.
As all the clients were served, Ellie and I sat at the same table for a meal. Our conversation moved to the flowers she brought to church last Sunday. I wonder how many of you remember the dark blue flowers flanked by birch branches last Sunday. Ellie kindly taught me about it: it was Monk’s Hood. Isn’t that an interesting name? I was amazed with the depth of her knowledge of the plant. She went on talking about its scientific name and its characteristics, where it grew, when it bloomed, what kind of soil it needed - things like that. She is a student as well as teacher. Listening to her, I felt guilty because I had not said thank you enough to Ellie for her exceptional contribution to our Sunday service. She said she loved to do so, not thinking about others’ recognition of her contribution.
If we want to look for students living out the servant leadership Matthew is referring to today, we do not need to look far. We find plenty of them right here at Glen Rhodes, everyday of the week.
Today, Matthew proposes an alternative world, a world seen from the perspective of the kingdom of God, an alternative family where all are called students under one rabbi, Jesus Christ, and one Father, God. There is no need to “make our phylacteries broad and fringes long” or to be acknowledged by others. God acknowledges us all as members of one faith family. The acceptance of God removes the heavy yoke of self-justification. Thanks be to God that there are so many students who say little but live courageously in the faith here at Glen Rhodes. Amen.