Summary: Jesus’ words about servanthood are a call for the church to offer freedom to those that are suffering with ’Heavy burdens, hard to bear’
Matthew 23:1-12 ‘Words of Wisdom’
1. In my study I have a pin-board on the wall, with notes of things I need to do (and should have done!) and with schedules for meetings, preaching rotas, lists of lectionary readings – and most importantly (amongst all the day-to-day things) my ‘Words of Wisdom’ gallery.
2. My ‘Words of Wisdom’ gallery comprises a selection of cards, some with printed images and verses, others with poems or items of short prose. They’re there to help me focus, to inspire me, and to remind me that, amid all the mundane day-to-day paperwork and administration and organisation associated with ministry, I am first and foremost a person called to share my faith, my faith in the reality of God’s love for all people, in what I ‘preach’ and pray at church, and in the way I live my life (and encourage others to live theirs) 24 / 7.
3. So it is that, having sat down at my computer, in the spirit of prayer and reflection on God’s love for all people, I begin to prepare for Sunday morning’s sermon, focussing upon the Gospel Matthew 23:1-12. And looking at my pin-board one little pale-blue card ‘jumps out’! A little pale blue card, which various pin-holes show it has been there some time and moved from place to place quite a bit. And what words of wisdom in the three verses of that little poem, which today, more than ever before, seem so relevant! (I’m afraid I do not know the author’s name or details, but I give them thanks for it).
4. ‘LESS THAN THE LEAST’ (based on Ephesians 3 verse 8)
“It isn’t to very special people
That God entrusts the spreading of the Good News.
Ordinary people are the very people
That God wants to use.
“Least of all the saints
Paul considered himself to be.
God wants to use ordinary people
Like you and me.
“What a tremendous comfort that is!
There is hope for us all.
The extra-special person he cannot use;
Only those who consider themselves small.”
5. And we remember that Jesus said, “The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.” (23:12 NRSV)
6. It is true, also, what Jesus says in verse 8, “You are all students.” As students of Jesus, the ‘Greatest of all Servants’, what does he teach us through these verses of Matthew today?
7. To begin with, perhaps the words of Jesus we hear from Matthew today prompts us to think of the people that lead our country and our churches! In the world of politics (in the UK) we certainly find the ‘top’ people having the title ‘minister’ or ‘servant’: we have the PRIME minister and CIVIL servants. Politicians often like to think of themselves as PUBLIC servants. In the church, the ‘clergy’ are often called ministers and referred to as ‘servants’. But in the political world (regardless of country) and in the church (regardless of denomination), somewhere along the way, a great deal of prestige and status has been acquired / attached to those that have leadership roles.
8. Yes, we do not have to look very far to find politicians who have taken prestige and status to heart, who just love all the trappings and power that comes with their title! Maybe we have known clergy / church leaders who act very much the same, with an air of superiority and self-importance, thinking themselves better to and different from the ‘common people’ they work and live among!
9. Jesus has a strong message for such leaders – in politics, but especially in the church. “Do not let yourself be called rabbi or teacher” he says, and points directly to the religious leaders of his day and how they ‘dressed to impress’, how they wanted everyone to know how different, how superior, how ‘holier than thou’ they were! By contrast, Jesus says, the greatest among you must be your servant.
10. On the face of it, Jesus’ words about his disciples not allowing themselves be called ‘rabbi’ may seem to have nothing to do with us as church. But the word ‘rabbi’ means (literally) ‘my great one’, very close (I am told!) to the root meaning of reverend (‘worthy of reverence’). Either way, neither title seems to have much to do with being the humble servant Jesus speaks of! What about the title ‘teacher’? In the early church, teachers were called ‘doctor’, as many teachers of higher education are today. Do we know any church leaders with the title ‘Reverend Doctor’? Does this title mean to embrace both our equivalent of ‘rabbi’ and ‘teacher’ that Jesus says his disciples should reject? What about ‘Very Reverend’; ‘Right Reverend’; or ‘Most Reverend’? Or even ‘The Very Reverend Doctor’? All seems to speak (for us today) about getting further and further away from the humble servant Jesus tells his disciples they should strive to be.