Humility the Hard Way: Matthew 23:1-12

When I was working in Mexico in my church, I went to another state, called Hidalgo State, as a part of a project that we called “Summer Mission”. We went to the elementary school every day for a couple of weeks to read to second-graders. I was a part of a pilot literacy program called, “Real Men Read.”

The premise of the program rested on the sad fact that in that little town called Nopala, a large amount of the children grew up in homes where either there were no men, or no men who could read. That is to say, many of the kids in this second grade class had never heard a story read in a male voice.

They were living in a town with the lowest education rate in the State, so somebody thought it would be a good idea to teach kids who were learning to read that men–even though these children didn’t know many–could read.

Anyway, the first time I went, I was told to introduce myself–tell the kids a little something about what I do. Many of them didn’t go to church–had never gone to church. I was faced with a problem: How do I tell kids who don’t know what a priest is, what a priest does?

I did all kinds of stuff. I buried people, married people, taught, wrote, prayed, held hands with people who were dying, planned programs, talked to people who were mad or sad or afraid. You can see the problem, right? How do you boil all that down into a job?

I was 28 years old, then… and, I didn’t know how to explain what I did to even myself, much less to group of seven year-olds, who had no idea what the inside of a church even looked like.

Anxious about what I was going to say, something struck me on the way over to the school that first Monday.

It was simple (not easy, but simple). I still use it when I talk about what I do.

I said, “Hi. My name is Javier. I’m a priest. And what does that mean? That means I get paid to tell the truth.”

I’m still convinced that that’s what ministers do. We tell the truth about where we come from and where we’re headed, about the world in which we live and how God relates to us, about what justice and mercy mean and what God expects from us.

We tell the truth … and not just with our words–with our lives.

Telling the truth is hard work, isn’t it? Especially in our culture, where we seem more comfortable with the casual lies we tell to ourselves. People often don’t want to hear the truth.

And the truth is hard to tell, because we want people to think we’re nice. We want people to like us.

Jesus, it would appear from our Gospel this morning, doesn’t care nearly as much as today’s people do, about whether or not people think he’s nice, or whether people like him. In fact, in today’s Gospel Jesus is only days away from being nailed to a tree because he’s gotten in trouble with all the wrong people because he can’t keep the truth to himself.

If you remember, Jesus has spent the last two chapters of the book of Matthew fighting with the religious authorities. Pretty much everybody’s been out to trip him up, trying to make him look foolish. And he’s taken on all comers.

Finally, in today’s text Jesus has had enough. He turns away from the crowds of religious big shots who’ve been harassing him. He begins innocent enough saying: “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; therefore, do whatever they teach, and follow it.”

But then he starts liking the subject. “Do what they say … for sure. They know their stuff backwards and forwards–just don’t do what they do, for they do not practice what they teach.”

Oh, he’s just getting started: “They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them.”

Do you know anybody like that? Religious leaders and politicians are famous for this one. Do as I say … not as I do (or fail to do).

Then Jesus gets downright personal: “They do all their deeds to be seen by others”–after which he lists a few of their shortcomings in this regard for example: showy religious outburst, sitting at the places of honor at banquets and synagogues, seeking to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, wanting to be referred to with great tittles–rabbi, father, instructor.

Finally, Jesus caps the whole thing off with this bell-ringer: “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.” In other words, humility’s coming … in a few short days, even for him.

You know what? Couldn’t we get the nice Jesus–the one who loves children and little old ladies? This whole fire-breathing prophet thing is tough to witness.

But why?

I think it’s because that kind of honesty makes people uncomfortable, and our culture tells us that our responsibilities lie in lubricating the social gears rather than throwing sand in them. But sand is sometimes exactly what’s needed.

Jesus, after calling out the caretakers of God’s house for making it into a den of robbers, goes to the point by immediately receiving into that house the blind and the lame–those who’ve been denied access by those in power–the religious leaders who’ve mistakenly thought their job was gatekeepers instead of the welcoming committee. Jesus welcomes the unwanted into God’s freshly cleaned house, and heals them.

Sometimes justice has been forgotten, or misplaced, or ignored. If we claim to follow Jesus, we have a responsibility in those cases to speak the uncomfortable truth that God desires a world in which the lame and the blind get to sit at the front of the bus.

A world in which the forgotten and cast aside are remembered and brought back into the fold.

A world in which those who’ve been put down, those without healthcare, those who’ve graduated from college but have a difficult time seeing a future that holds a place for them … are no longer afterthoughts in our political life, but children of God on whose behalf we need to find our voices.

A world in which the color of one’s skin or the country of one’s birth or the gender of one’s love interests, aren’t the characteristics by which people are excluded, but are the very things we lift up and celebrate as God’s gifts to us.

Jesus speaks the truth to those in power, not because he’s mean or temperamental… but because he loves us so much he can’t bear for us not to know the truth about the way things are ordered in the reign of God.

It’s a hard word Jesus delivers. Honesty can be difficult to hear. But telling the truth about God’s vision of the way things ought to be is the kindest most loving thing we have to say.

We who follow the one executed: “Jesus”, as a criminal are under no illusions about what telling the truth can cost.

On the other hand, we also know that finding humility the hard way can be the best gift we ever receive.


Javier Ocampo