In last week’s Old Testament text Jeremiah the prophet declares, “No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord.”
God will be made known to all—from the least to the greatest. No longer will people teach one another. No longer will we look at one another and say, “Know the Lord.”
And just why is that? Don’t we all need a teacher? Don’t we all need someone to help us get it all figured out?
And aren’t some of us teachers? Aren’t some us just better at knowing God than others—-less sinful, more spiritual, less interested in Newsweek and Time, more interested in Luther’s Small Catechism and the Bible?
Perhaps so, particularly if the relationship depends on us. But it DOES NOT DEPEND ON US for as Jeremiah continues to declare in the same prophecy, “I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.” Our learning obstacles are addressed by God— iniquity and sin. Wait—who addresses the obstacles—God? You betcha. That must make God the teacher. Now there’s a thought! And if God is teacher then this means that we are freed from having to be teachers! We have no obligation, no responsibility, no right to say to one another, “know the Lord.” We are not teachers—and this is really freeing if you think about it. We are released to be something else—-we are freed and released to be students!
And how does this happen? Let’s figure this out.
God was made known to humanity in the person of Jesus Christ. God made first contact—in the flesh. And this Jesus has been journeying through the pages of Matthew’s gospel, establishing identity as the sole teacher whose authority renders all others to be students.
We re-enter the journey of Jesus in Matthew, returning after last week’s warp to Reformation Sunday. For tons of verses Jesus has been addressing two questions posed to him by the teachers: 1) Who is this man?, and 2) By whose authority? The address of these questions has led him into deep conversation with the Pharisees and Scribes—the teachers and lawyers. These conversations have served to offer Jesus a chance to talk about what faithfulness looks like through highly provocative parables, parables that showcase his identity, now he lifts up the Pharisees and Scribes as examples of what-not-to-do.
Jesus never condemns what they teach in this text. he only speaks to what they do. I am afraid, it would seem, that the Pharisees and Scribes have joined many of us whose lives offer a do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do life pattern.
I’ll bet this Sunday will be “Trash the Pharisees Sunday” in some corner of the Church, but look closely in v. 3a “…do whatever they teach you and follow it.” Jesus said it. Right there the Pharisees and Scribes are held up as teachers whose lessons are worthy, and well-qualified. Jesus has no issue with what they teach–none whatsoever. So, perhaps we ought not to trash the teachers—-especially when Jesus praised their teaching and says to follow it. Perhaps this is just cause to rid the universe of that insipid “Sheep Song” that plagues Vacation Bible Schools and Sunday morning kiddie classes. “I don’t wanna be a Pharisee…’cause they’re not fair you see,” Really? That’s not what Jesus said. Jesus never said that ditty. Jesus praises their teaching and only “tisk tisks” their patterns of doing. At issue is not their “fairness,” but rather their lack of doing what they’ve taught.
At issue for Jesus is v. 3b,”…do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach.” It gets no plainer. The teaching is fine, but the living of the teaching is not done. In fact, those doing the teaching do not follow what they teach. And it seems that the issue is not that the teaching is too hard to follow, but rather that it is simply not done.
What really stinks is the net effect of teaching and not doing what one teaches. Why?
Because it “…ties up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay[s] them on the shoulders of others.” Isn’t this typical of people, then and now?
My granddaddy, a long-time smoker, used to shake his pack of Winstons at me and say, “Don’t you ever pick up these cigarettes!” And then, in the next raspy breath, he’d ask me to fetch his ashtray. He’d command me not to use cigarettes, but then demand an ashtray. Very confusing. And very burdensome, indeed, to me was this pattern which I would come to learn was not limited to Granddaddy. It’s part and parcel of the human condition. There is one whopping scandal in the lives we lead and the teachings we often teach. It really makes me not want to be a teacher of others, because I am human and therefore have the disease already. I could easily despair at my best efforts to follow what I teach when I consider how I am challenged to do those very things, or on the other hand, feel that I mightily do what I teach so well, that I am owed a band of followers.
This is why we need not say to one another—“Know the Lord.” We can easily slide into the “seat of Moses” and just as easily find that we are the examples of what not to do. And in so doing, we heap burdens on others, and might even discover that we’ve found ourselves deep within the ranks of the burden-heapers who, “…are unwilling to lift a finger to move,” the burdens we’ve heaped upon others. (v.4)
When this happens we become a sham. No teachers are we.
Oh, we love to be seen as the teachers. We are not so different from the Pharisees and Scribes who, “…do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long.They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have people call them rabbi.”
But are we much different?
Just yesterday I told a friend that I was severely challenged by an aspect of changing calls from the two parishes that I serve in FL to another parish that I shall serve in NC. The aspect that challenges me is this simple thing—–when I go into restaurants I hear, “Hello , Pr. Bryant, sit anywhere you like, I’ll have your half and half tea right out.” And when I enter hospitals I hear, “There’s the Lutheran pastor, I think he’s here to see Mrs. So-and-So, please get the room number for him and he can use the service elevator.” And, my personal favorite, when I am stopped by law officers for speeding, sometimes they see my clergy collar and say, “you must be going some place important, Reverend Father, please be safe and slow down!”
Look at all those perks that come your way when you are perceived to be a teacher! A 21st century rabbi am I. And, guess what…in your own ways, so are you. And yet we are at the very same time disciples to whom Jesus says, “But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students.” (v. 8) What!?!? Did Jesus really call us students? Yes, Jesus did.
But what about our perks—the forgiven tickets, the tea at the ready, the attentive hospital staff, etc? They are exchanged for other perks.
What other perks? The perks of being a student.
We are not responsible for the lesson plans. We are not responsible for creating the learning environment. We are not required to know all the answers. We are free to offer dumb looks. We are not required to be looked to by others as the source of all wisdom and information. We are not expected to get-it-all-right, not even on the 100th try. It’s assumed that we don’t have it all figured out. We are students. In v. 10b Jesus clarifies this by saying, “…you have one instructor, the Messiah.”
We are students. We already have a teacher—Jesus.
Our accolades are not to be had through our efforts to supplant the Messiah on the “seat of Moses,” or any other seat. occupied by Jesus the instructor. We’re woefully under-qualified. We get another role, a loving role that really models love in action—loving through doing.*
Remember, the issue for Jesus was not what the Pharisees and Scribes were teaching…it was what they were doing. And right here is where Jesus showcases the role of a student, “The greatest among you will be your servant.” (v. 11) The last thing this world needs is another person purportedly having all the answers. What our world needs is a group of “do-ers” who realize that by being freed from the responsibilities of being teachers, they have been made into students who are granted the gift of serving others. And what does that path look like?
I suspect that path looks like people bent on caring for others, perhaps enough, to eventually lose sight of the seat of Moses altogether. And in this way, to find themselves totally loved and cared for by their “Instructor” who has no shortage of lessons, and learning opportunities. I promise you that God’s universe has no shortage of lessons to offer, and is perfectly pleased to send the same lesson again, and again, ever how long it takes. And this is a lovely thing…for it keeps us humble. Of this sort of thing, Jesus has this to say, “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.” (v.12)
It just gets no plainer!
*for a humorous look at what not to do look here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zNOuVhn_yRw