October 26, 2008
Read Matthew 23:1-12.
In today's text, Matthew returns to some of his favorite themes: living what you say you believe, humility, equality, and service. Today, instead of going deeply into the Jewish world again, we're going to tell stories of how this text gets lived out in our world.
You get to tell the first stories. In that last verse, Jesus said:
Those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted (NLT).
If you put yourself above others, you will be put down. But if you humble yourself, you will be honored. (CEV)
When has this happened to you? When have you been proud, but then humbled?
Get into groups of two or three and answer tell some stories. Answer these questions together.
Let's read the text again, this time from a modern paraphrase called The Message.
1-3 Now Jesus turned to address his disciples, along with the crowd that had gathered with them. "The religion scholars and Pharisees are competent teachers in God's Law. You won't go wrong in following their teachings on Moses. But be careful about following them. They talk a good line, but they don't live it. They don't take it into their hearts and live it out in their behavior. It's all spit-and-polish veneer.
4-7"Instead of giving you God's Law as food and drink by which you can banquet on God, they package it in bundles of rules, loading you down like pack animals. They seem to take pleasure in watching you stagger under these loads, and wouldn't think of lifting a finger to help. Their lives are perpetual fashion shows, embroidered prayer shawls one day and flowery prayers the next. They love to sit at the head table
at church dinners, basking in the most prominent positions, preening in the radiance of public flattery, receiving honorary degrees, and getting called 'Doctor' and 'Reverend.'
8-10"Don't let people do that to you, put you on a pedestal like that. You all have a single Teacher, and you are all classmates. Don't set people up as experts over your life, letting them tell you what to do. Save that authority for God; let him tell you what to do. No one else should carry the title of 'Father'; you have only one Father, and he's in heaven. And don't let people maneuver you into taking charge of them. There is only one Life-Leader for you and them—Christ.
11-12"Do you want to stand out? Then step down. Be a servant. If you puff yourself up, you'll get the wind knocked out of you. But if you're content to simply be yourself, your life will count for plenty.
Richard Paul Evans tells our second story in a little book called
The Tower. It's about a young man who lived long ago in China. Here's how the story starts:
There was once a young man who desired to be great. But he did not know how to become great. So he went to the oldest man in the small village where he lived, for all trusted the old man and considered him wise.
'What is it to be great?'” the young man asked.
'To be great is to be looked up to,' said the old man.
The young man considered his words. Then, he went home and built himself a platform to stand on. He took his platform to the center of the village and stood on it. 'Now everyone must look up to me.'
But not everyone did. That afternoon a very tall man walked by.
'I must build a taller platform,' he said. He sawed off a bamboo pole and added longer legs to his platform. Now he could see the top of the villagers' heads. 'Now I am greater than they,' he said, looking down on all the people. 'They all must look up to me.'”
'Not I,' said a small voice.
He glanced around. A little girl stared down at him from the window of a pagoda.1
As the story goes on, the young man gathered wood from all around town, and he built his platform into a tower that stood higher than any of the other buildings. He was higher than anyone else in his village, but he was also alone. There was no one to talk to. There was no one to laugh with. Eating every meal alone made him feel very lonely. But he told himself that loneliness is a small price to pay for greatness, and anyway, “Why would he want to associate with those so much lower than himself?"
He cheered himself up by saying, “Now I am so high that everyone must look up to me.”
He was surprised to hear a small voice say, “We don't,” and he saw the birds flying over his head.
The young man was devastated, “How can I ever be someone everyone looks up to?”
Then, the little bird said told him of a woman that even the birds look up to. The bird leads the young man down from his tower to meet a poor old woman who was bent over with age. She stood there, half bent over, feeding the birds all winter long. The bird explained that without this woman many of the birds would die during the cold winter, when there was not much food, so they all looked up to her as a great woman.
The young man and the woman began to talk, and the woman gave him some wise advise. "Being seen and being great are not the same thing.... To be great is not to be seen by, but to truly see, others." She went on to explain that a great person is not someone who is higher than other people. Instead, a great person is someone who helps to lift others higher.
The young man thought long and hard about this. As he walked the streets and the snow fell, he began to see that many of the people were cold in the dead of winter. They didn't have enough wood for their fires. The young man got an ax and went to his tower. He began chopping and tearing down his tower of greatness. He made stacks and stacks of fire wood, and he walked door to door around the town giving firewood to anyone who needed it.
Much to his surprise, everyone in the town begins to look up to him. He becomes known as a great man with a generous heart.
(Towers of pride make great firewood!)
Our third story is really a collection of stories about how God has used this text to work in my life. Humility is hard for us religious leaders, and we often mess it up. God has used this text to speak to me in a variety of different ways that might be helpful for us to talk about today.
First, look at verse 4, “Instead of giving you God's Law as food and drink by which you can banquet on God, they package it in bundles of rules, loading you down like pack animals.” This is a perpetual problem for us pastors. We clearly hear God's call to live a better life, and we try to communicate that to our people. However, far too often, we end up adding rules and burdens to people's already full lives instead of helping them experience God's freeing grace. If you've heard me preach or talked to me for very long, you know that care for the poor is one of my deep passions. But I can get going so strongly on care for the poor that I can help us all forget the grace of God for us here and now. Many times my sermons sounded like, “Work harder. Give more. Pray more. Serve more.”
One of the questions I'm asking myself lately is how can we help people have a living encounter with the Jesus who said, “Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you. Let me teach you, because I am humble and gentle at heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy to bear, and the burden I give you is light” (Matthew 11:28-30).
Second, my Dad was a great salesman. He could sell anyone almost anything. One of his supervisors joked that when Dad's clients said “No,” then Dad just turned his hearing aids down and kept going.
My Dad was convinced that wearing the right clothes was essential for business. He was a firm believer in the Dress for Success philosophy. My Dad passed on to me his knowledge of exactly what kind of clothes powerful and trustworthy leaders are supposed to wear. I knew exactly how long a shirt sleeve is supposed to be (to the base of your thumbs when your arms are straight), how long a suit coat is supposed to be (It should sit just so in your cupped hands), how to know if a coat fits right all the way around (The rear “vent” should lay flat even when buttoned), and what kind of ties are appropriate (stripes, dots, and simple patterns – no flowers or pictures, and definitely nothing shiny!).
When I first came to this church, about four years ago, I kept my Dad's philosophy of dressing for success. I knew that Koreans usually dress up, and I wanted people to respect me, so every Sunday, and almost every day that I taught classes, I wore a suit and tie. I know that may be hard for some of you to believe now, but I really went all out.
However, after a while, it all began to feel hollow for me, and I began to think of verse 5: “Everything they do is for show. On their arms they wear extra wide prayer boxes with Scripture verses inside, and they wear robes with extra long tassels.” The prayer boxes and tassels were actually good things that the Jews were supposed to wear to help them remember God and his saving work in Israel's history. However, some people wanted to show off their religious commitment, so the prayer boxes got bigger and the tassels got longer.
For me, the suits and ties began to feel the same way. It all began to feel like something for show. What is the point of wearing a suit in the middle of the summer? It's not to keep you warm! It's just to show that you are a powerful person. The point is exactly to separate you from the “common” people. And what is the point of a tie? It has no function. You can't use it as a napkin or do anything good with it. It's just for show. It just says, “I'm important. Look at me.”
For me, following Jesus' way of simple humility, meant ditching the suits and ties. I'll still wear a suit for a wedding or a funeral, but that's about it. The rest of the time, I just want to be a simple guy like everyone else. I'm not saying everyone needs to do this, but this is one way I'm trying to follow Jesus.
Here's another one. When I first came here, I always introduced myself as Pastor Josh. I signed my emails as Pastor Josh. It was like “Pastor” became my first name. I thought that using the title of “Pastor” was important because I was so young. I though it would help people respect me and see me as a pastor. (I don't think it did. I think it just made me look stuck up.)
After a while, God began to talk to me about this, too. I began to think about Jesus' words in verses 8 and 10: “Don't let anyone call you 'Rabbi,' for you have only one teacher, and all of you are equal as brothers and sisters. … And don't let anyone call you 'Teacher,' for you have only one teacher, the Messiah.” I stopped signing my emails as Pastor Josh. Recently, I've stopped putting “pastor” by my name on the sermons.
If you feel more comfortable calling me, “Pastor Josh,” I don't think that's such a big deal. It does help differentiate me from “the other Josh.” But I don't think you should give me special treatment. I'm just another member of this church trying to do my part to help us be faithful to God's calling. My prayers aren't any stronger because I'm a pastor. My thoughts or opinions aren't necessarily right because I'm a pastor. I hope you'll treat me just like any other person trying to follow Jesus here.
The last way that God has used this passage to work in my life is the most personal. It's kind of ironic, or perhaps God's timing, that we are talking about this text today. Last week, our Advisory Council affirmed the Planning Team's recommendation that our church hire me as a full-time pastor near the beginning of 2009. I'm really excited about this, but this is not the first time that our Advisory Council has been through this process.
In 2006, I strongly pushed the Advisory Council to make the same decision. It wasn't a bad decision. It was just too early and handled in all the wrong ways. Unfortunately, I didn't have a good attitude about it. I came into the meeting with specific demands about income and housing. As the leader of the meeting, I was impatient and not a good listener. I didn't allow enough time for discussion and thinking and praying, and I pushed for a quick decision. In America, we would say, I “railroaded” the decision through. I thought I was doing the best thing for the church, but as I look back, I was more concerned about getting my way.
Well, like Jesus says, “Those who exalt themselves will be humbled.” When my leadership mistakes began to add up, some of the church leaders put on the brakes. I had to “eat some humble pie” and relearn how to be a faithful leader. We spent about 3 months just sorting through conflict and cultural misunderstandings. We tossed aside the decision to make me full-time, and we spent the rest of the year just learning how to work better together.
Then, about a year ago, we called together a team of people to rework our vision and to suggest some long term plans for our church. At one point this summer, we gathered together some additional leaders of the church to discuss the issue of pastoring. We considered the alternatives of full-time pastoring and a combination of several part-time pastors. Everyone at the meeting agreed that the best thing for our church would be to have a full-time pastor as soon as we could afford it.
This summer, after my Dad died, I began to reevaluate some things. When I got back to Korea, I called a meeting of those same leaders. I reminded them that everyone agreed we should have a full-time pastor as soon as we could afford it, and I explained that I'm ready to be a full-time pastor here no matter what the pay is – even if it's only the 300,000 won a month stipend I'm getting now. The Planning Team is now recommending that the church hire me as a full-time pastor for a salary of 2,000,000 won a month. “If you put yourself above others, you will be put down. But if you humble yourself, you will be honored” (CEV).
OK, you get to tell the last story. But first we're going to read our Epistle Lesson from James 3:13-18.
Now, get back into your groups and answer this question:
Imagine your life with more true humility. What would it look like?
1Richard Paul Evans, The Tower: A Story of Humility, (Simon and Schuster, 2001). The portion in italics is a direct quote. However, the remaining portions are personal elaborations based on summaries in online book reviews.