Jesus sure takes all the fun out of being a sanctimonious hypocrite. The priests and scribes were living the high life: strutting and preening, soaking up honors, decked out in splendor. The servants of the Lord had become the masters of the people.
Sure they were scriptural whiz-kids. But where was the love? They were star performers of ritual. But their praise was hollow. They were arbiters of right and wrong. But their real job was extortion and self-aggrandizement. They had the brains, but not the heart. They used their offices to coerce, not to serve.
Jesus enters Jerusalem in triumph and finds the seat of Moses has become the epicenter of sacrilege. The gentle Jesus, who loved the lowly and sought out sinners, despises corruption with a wrath God reserves for grotesque abuse of priestly privilege. Calling them: fools…hypocrites…blind guides…vipers…whited sepulchers, Jesus rips into the filth that fouls God’s house.
But Jesus did not come to carp and to scold. He came to save. So he clearly points out the path to healing repentance, instructing all who have the will to hear that: …he that is the greatest among you shall be your servant…whosoever shall exalt himself shall be abased and he that shall humble himself shall be exalted.
Matthew’s gospel is known as a gospel of instruction. And repetition is the essence of instruction. From the Sermon on the Mount all the way to Calvary, Jesus repeats the lesson of this Sunday’s gospel, sometimes in beatitudes, sometimes in parables and finally in blunt straight talk: Whoever wants to be first, must first become a servant…the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve.
In all the coverage of the current Ebola outbreak, a major piece of the story is missing. Why? What compels our fellow Americans to travel half-way round the world to put their lives in danger working in hellish conditions? How do we explain this behavior by folks who are supposed to be part of the “Me-Generation?” It’s certainly not for the pay. And it’s not to pad their resumes. This week’s gospel offers the answer. The first two US cases were medical missionaries serving in the Samaritan’s Purse ministry. The love of Christ called them to where they were needed most. Subsequent cases have been among other medical professionals who accepted the risk of contagion to serve strangers suffering in deadly peril. Whether they are professing Christians or not, their conduct is clearly Christ-like.
In defining greatness as servant-hood, Jesus turns the whole social order on its head. The first become last. The last are suddenly first. Reflecting on this revolution at the heart of Christianity, Henri Nouwen writes: “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.”
It’s that simple. To follow Jesus, to become a Christian, is to become a servant. Unlike the proud priests and scribes in this gospel, becoming a true servant means purging ourselves of vanity, resentments, jealousies…all the self-centered junk that crowds out peace and excludes serenity. 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… for all of God’s beloved. It’s the closest thing to heaven on earth.
The Reverend David Sellery, Episcopal Priest, Author, and Coach. Fr. Sellery presently serves as Priest-in-Charge, St. John’s Salisbury, CT. Fr. Sellery has excelled at using new media to increase outreach beyond the Church doors via his website, blog posts, and podcasts.