Matthew 23:1-12 Margaret
Most of you will remember Simeon who was one of our guests at Dorothy’s Memory Café until his death in 2018. Simeon was an orthodox Jew who served the South Manchester Jewish community for the whole of his life. His rabbi had inscribed on his tombstone “Loyal servant of the south Manchester Jewish community. An honest and upright gentleman”. Simeon, like the Pharisees here in our reading, wore the tzitzits and in his prayer time put on phylacteries – leather straps with a box containing words from the Torah which he tied round his forehead and arms. The tzitzits are long fringes on four corners of a short garment. They were commanded by God in the books of the law to wear it “ to recall all the commandments of the LORD and observe them, so that you do not follow your heart and eyes in your lustful urges”. Simeon wore them under his clothes. In north Manchester you will see many ultra-orthodox Jewish men with tzitzits dangling outside. Simeon wasn’t like that – his relationship with God was such that only he and God needed to know he wore the garment. Unlike the pharisees who wore their fringes outside and extra-long to proclaim to the world how holy they were.
In the world of work Robert Greenleaf was a senior manager at AT&T, supposedly the greatest telephone company in the world. He knew a great deal about good leaders in the workplace. He once said, “the only person in authority deserving allegiance is the one where the servant status of that leader is apparent”. He was a Christian who knew that the idea of the leader as servant went back to Jesus. In today’s Gospel, we have an extended warning from Jesus about those who act as leaders but fail to be servants.
Such people weigh others down, rather than relieve them of burdens. In today’s language, they pursue their own agenda in defiance of what others need.
— They do good deeds to impress others for the sake of their image.
— They like the top table or front row where they are sure to be noticed.
They like to be called Teacher – Rabbi – Jesus has a strong warning here against the use of any titles. These can be seductive. What starts out as a term of respect can very easily become an expectation of honour or entitlement. That’s what the pharisees were doing – they were seeking glory – wanting the best seats at the top table. Instead they should have been giving the glory to God. This doesn’t go well with Jesus’ teaching and example of servant leadership. He says “Don’t ask to be called Rabbi – teacher” for you only have one teacher – Christ. He also says call no-one father (apart from your own and God). Call everyone brother or sister. I’m very much attracted to the Quakers who follow this teaching. They call everyone by their given name. If they don’t know a person well then they use both names. None of us needs a title – we are just brothers and sisters to one another in Christ.
Jesus told those people that they should honour the words of the pharisees as they learned them “at Moses seat” – they are guardians of the law; they’ve spent many years studying it. But what the disciples and the crowd he was teaching shouldn’t do is copy what the pharisees do. “Don’t copy their works” Jesus said.
In Jesus’ first address in the synagogue at Nazareth he plainly details what being a servant leader means for him. He says it is
To preach good news to the poor.
to heal the broken hearted,
to proclaim release to the captives,
recovery of sight to the blind,
to deliver those who are crushed.
But he doesn’t mean it’s just for him – it’s an example in servantship for us all to follow.
We sometimes sing that Graham Kendrick song:
“From heaven you came helpless babe,
Entered our world, your glory veiled.
Not to be served but to serve,
And give Your life that we might live.”
He gave his life that we might live to in order that we might emulate his example of service.
Henri Nouwen had been professor of theology at the highest universities. He gave up his position to work in L’Arche communities. L’Arche communities exist all over the world for people with and without learning disabilities, to share lives together. There’s one in Chorlton. They seek to be signs of hope within our societies. Henri Nouwen wrote: “Our God is a servant God…we are liberated by someone who became powerless…we are strengthened by someone who became weak…we find a leader in someone who became a servant.” This for me is the kernel of today’s gospel. I’ll say it again because it’s amazing. “Our God is a servant God…we are liberated by someone who became powerless…we are strengthened by someone who became weak…we find a leader in someone who became a servant.” especially when we look at leaders in many spheres of our lives and situations today.
It’s that simple. To follow Jesus, to become a Christian, is to become a servant. Unlike the proud pharisees and scribes in this gospel, becoming a true servant means getting rid of vanity, resentments, jealousies…all the self-centred stuff that destroys lives. God will send no one away empty, except those who remain so full of themselves that they leave no room for grace. To have a servant’s heart is to have a heart rich to overflowing… rich in grace… rich in hope… rich in the love of Jesus Christ. A servant’s heart… a happy heart… that’s what I pray for… for you… for me…. It’s the closest thing we’ll have to heaven on earth.
Whoever wants to be first, must first become a servant…the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve. Amen.