(Following persistent flooding that washed out crops in Honduras, seeds are delivered through the Moravian Church network to help grow the next crop of needed food)
It’s Different in God’s Kingdom
by Bishop Chris Giesler
Preaching Text: Matthew 23:1-14 and I Thessalonians 2:9-13
There is a danger with the Gospel text assigned for us this week. If we read it too narrowly, it is easy for us to lump all of Judaism in with Jesus’ criticism of some of the religious leaders of his day. This is the last thing that we should do with this text. This is an issue with religions and religious leaders of any time, place, and affiliation. The saying goes that absolute power corrupts absolutely. This is a human flaw, not a Jewish one. What Jesus is accusing these religious leaders of could easily be directed at any number of religious leaders today.
This teaching goes directly to the heart of what leadership should look like in the church today. Jesus is not concerned about the content of the leaders’ teaching, saying, “Do what they say,” but he condemns them for not living the life their words are calling for. As folks today would say, “They can talk the talk, but they cannot walk the walk.”
Jesus’ main complaint is that daily living had been reduced to a long list of do’s and don’ts drawn from an even longer list of rules. If you followed the rules, you were in. If you did not follow the rules, then you were out. This covered things like what you could or could not eat, who you could or could not touch, and what you could and could not do to keep the Sabbath holy. Since the church leadership controlled the enforcement of these rules and the grounds for forgiveness, they wielded a significant influence on daily life for the Jews. They were oppressive and, at the same time, self-serving.
As I see it, Jesus’ entire ministry was about liberating people from this bondage. Just in the last chapter of Matthew, Jesus boiled all of the laws down to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. And the second is like it: you shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (Matthew 22:36-39) All of those laws are fine and dandy, but if they don’t move you to love God and to love not only yourself but others, then this religion is dead. In Jesus’ estimation, even the devoted religious leaders could not live up to the expectations that they had laid on others. As such, they made life out to be little more than a tally sheet of gains and losses, making salvation something that was earned.
And as the ones who were the scorekeepers, these same religious leaders gave way to the notion that they were quite above everybody else. This is why we see Jesus accuse them of seeking to be at the best table at the banquet, the best seats at the synagogues, and to be greeted with respect out on the streets.
It is sad indeed when the leaders of any church make the practice of faith such a burden and, at the same time, seek to take full advantage of their place of power and prestige. This is where Jesus found himself just days before his arrest.
For Jesus, the message has been consistent: in God’s kingdom, things are different. The last shall be first, and the first shall be last. In God’s kingdom, those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted. The kingdom of God is different!
We are fooling ourselves today if we don’t see how upward mobility and the importance of wealth play such a massive role in our society. Mass media and the advertisement establishment make it clear that more is better, richer is superior, and the more you have, the better you will be. It is in our very nature.
But we do have a choice. A choice to use what we have been blessed with not to make ourselves happy, but to meet the needs of others who don’t enjoy as much. The communal villages that some 17th century Moravians lived in are far closer to God’s intent for us than any other standard we might hold up. Recently, the PowerBall lottery jackpot went over one billion dollars. During the week of that drawing, I heard countless conversations about what folks would do with all of that money. There were lots of cars to be purchased, vacation homes to buy, cruises to take, and destinations to enjoy. Jesus would be sad.
I think Paul said it best in our Epistle lesson for this week: “10You are witnesses, and God also, how pure, upright, and blameless our conduct was toward you believers. 11As you know, we dealt with each one of you like a father with his children,12urging and encouraging you and pleading that you lead a life worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory.” (First Thessalonians 2:10-12)
The kingdom of God is very different from our world. So, let us take to our knees, pray for humility, and gladly serve the needs of those around us. Imagine what the world would look like if we all did that.