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 â€śSummer Missionâ€ť. 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, â€śReal Men Read.â€ť
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 menâ€“even though these children didnâ€™t know manyâ€“could read.
Anyway, the first time I went, I was told to introduce myselfâ€“tell the kids a little something about what I do. Many of them didnâ€™t go to churchâ€“hadÂ neverÂ gone to church. I was faced with a problem: How do I tell kids who donâ€™t know what a priest is, what a priestÂ 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, thenâ€¦ and, I didnâ€™t know how to explain what I did to evenÂ 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, â€śHi. My name is Javier. Iâ€™m a priest. And what does that mean? That means I get paid to tell the truth.â€ť
Iâ€™m still convinced that thatâ€™s what ministers do. We tell the truth about where we come from and where weâ€™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 â€¦ and not just with our wordsâ€“with our lives.
Telling the truth is hard work, isnâ€™t it? Especially in our culture, where we seem more comfortable with the casual lies we tell to ourselves. People often donâ€™t want to hear the truth.
And the truth is hard to tell, because we want people to think weâ€™re nice. We want people to like us.
Jesus, it would appear from our Gospel this morning, doesnâ€™t care nearly as much as todayâ€™s people do, about whether or not people think heâ€™s nice, or whether people like him. In fact, in todayâ€™s Gospel Jesus is only days away from being nailed to a tree because heâ€™s gotten in trouble with all the wrong people because he canâ€™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 everybodyâ€™s been out to trip him up, trying to make him look foolish. And heâ€™s taken on all comers.
Finally, in todayâ€™s text Jesus has had enough. He turns away from the crowds of religious big shots whoâ€™ve been harassing him. He begins innocent enough saying: â€śThe scribes and the Pharisees sit on Mosesâ€™ seat; therefore, do whatever they teach, and follow it.â€ť
But then he starts liking the subject. â€śDo what they say â€¦ for sure. They know their stuff backwards and forwardsâ€“just donâ€™t do what theyÂ do, for they do not practice what they teach.â€ť
Oh, heâ€™s just getting started: â€śThey 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.â€ť
Do you know anybody like that? Religious leaders and politicians are famous for this one. Do as I say â€¦ not as I do (or fail to do).
Then Jesus gets downright personal: â€śThey do all their deeds to be seen by othersâ€ťâ€“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 tittlesâ€“rabbi, father, instructor.
Finally, Jesus caps the whole thing off with this bell-ringer: â€śAll who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.â€ť In other words, humilityâ€™s coming â€¦ in a few short days, even forÂ him.
You know what? Couldnâ€™t we get the nice Jesusâ€“the one who loves children and little old ladies? This whole fire-breathing prophet thing is tough to witness.
I think itâ€™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 whatâ€™s needed.
Jesus, after calling out the caretakers of Godâ€™s house for making it into a den of robbers, goes to the point by immediately receiving into that house the blind and the lameâ€“those whoâ€™ve been denied access by those in powerâ€“the religious leaders whoâ€™ve mistakenly thought their job was gatekeepers instead of the welcoming committee. Jesus welcomes the unwanted into Godâ€™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 theÂ frontÂ 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 whoâ€™ve been put down, those without healthcare, those whoâ€™ve graduated from college but have a difficult time seeing a future that holds a place forÂ themÂ â€¦ 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 oneâ€™s skin or the country of oneâ€™s birth or the gender of oneâ€™s love interests, arenâ€™t the characteristics by which people areÂ excluded, but are the very things we lift up and celebrate as Godâ€™s gifts to us.
Jesus speaks the truth to those in power, not because heâ€™s mean or temperamentalâ€¦ but because he loves us so much he canâ€™t bear for usÂ notÂ to know the truth about the way things are ordered in the reign of God.
Itâ€™s a hard word Jesus delivers. Honesty can be difficult to hear. But telling the truth about Godâ€™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: â€śJesusâ€ť, 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.