“The Greatest Among You”

“The Greatest Among You”
A Sermon on Matthew 23:1-12
Rev. Dr. Bobby Hulme-Lippert
November 1, 2020 

My freshman year of high school I decided to try out for the school play. I had never acted in a play. I had never shown much interest at all in doing anything like that, but that fall the school play was “It’s a Wonderful Life.” And one of my very favorite characters in the world was George Bailey played by Jimmy Stewart in that 1946 Christmas classic. 

George Bailey, you may recall, is this affable, aw-shucks, hard-working, do-the-right-thing kind of husband, father, and business person in the little town of Bedford Falls. At one very low, despairing point in his life an angel stands alongside him and gives him a glimpse into what that town would look like had he never been born…and he sees just how much his steady kindness, sacrifice, and integrity really changed everything in that town – and for the good. 

Well, I wanted to play George Bailey. That’s just such a great character. And while I would not have put it this way at that time, the truth is I wanted other people to think of me and see me as a George Bailey. I was a shy, awkward, extremely anxious high schooler – and what if I just said the great lines and wore the right attire- what if I just acted as George Bailey? Would I be seen, could I be seen as someone like him, with his attributes? 

“Umm…so are you trying out for just George Bailey?” The director asked me as I came into the auction room. “Are you open to reading some lines for other parts?” 

“Just George Bailey.” 

“That’s the lead role. Now I have that you have not acted previously, correct?” 

“No. I haven’t acted before.” 

Which was a complete lie. 

If you have lived through middle school and high school – you know how to act. To put on a persona or certain clothing or certain grades or certain music tastes or certain 

friends even if those things are not really us – because it matters a great deal how others see you. 

And one could argue that the same concern often goes far beyond those formative years. 

“They do all their deeds to be seen by others.” 

This is the basic critique Jesus makes of these religious leaders in our passage. 

Another translation states Jesus ’critique this way: “They live their whole lives in order to be noticed by other people.” It’s a translation that is trying to bring out the Greek word for “to be seen” or “to be noticed” which also means “to make theater.” 

They live their whole lives doing an act in order to be seen in a certain way. Or, more concisely, all show, no substance. 

The people Jesus is talking about in our passage are “the scribes and the Pharisees”, or as Dale Bruner notes in his commentary, a faithful translation for this group of people would be “The Bible teachers and the Serious.” Jesus’ critique is for those who teach from the Scriptures as well as those who are serious about learning from them and following. 

Specifically, Jesus makes mention of their phylacteries and fringes – (phylacteries) their prayer boxes attached on the arm and the forehead which contained portions of the Torah and were worn during the three times of daily prayer and then (fringes) the blue-and-white tassels at the corner of their prayer shawl. 

Both were meant to be regular, visible reminders of God’s law…but these religious leaders have made their prayer boxes a little bigger and their tassels a little longer. They have been taking care to ensure their fidelity to God is especially visible. 

Or again, we hear how they seek the most respected, visible seats of honor at banquets and delight in the audile respect given in the marketplace when others call them ‘Rabbi.’ 

These teachers and serious believers – they had become particularly attentive to ensuring they had the external markers of faithfulness, of goodness, of success – the attire, the seat, the title. 

How does it happen that the ones supposedly closest to God can get so far away? Can become consumed with looking the part and not being the part? 

Thomas Merton, the 20th century Trappist Monk, he once wrote: “If I had a message to my contemporaries it is surely this: Be anything you like, be madmen, drunks, and bastards of every shape and form, but at all costs avoid one thing: success . . . If you are too obsessed with success, you will forget to live. If you have learned only how to be a success, your life has probably been wasted.” 

I do imagine these religious leaders – at some point in their lives – cared deeply about the interior aspects of their heart and faithfulness, and they probably even found ‘success’ in that. They probably were commended for their prayerfulness, their hard work in support of God and the Temple, their generosity, their great teaching, their gifts. 

But as Merton points out, the great challenge of actually finding success is that, ironically, you can all-too-easily forget how to live. 

Because what often happens when we have some measure of success is that we feel this need to keep up the affirmation success has granted us, the status and stature a measure of success has granted. 

And so slowly but surely it can become more important to ensure we keep all of that by chasing the things that signify success rather than pursuing the substance of success. 

  • More important to get the title or credential than actually lead. 
  • More important to hit the metric or attain so many followers than actually provide service.
  • More important to keep the GPA than actually learn.
  • More important to get votes than to do justice.
  • More important to get members than follow Jesus.
  • More important to appear good and kind and right and just…than actually be so.

Have we ever known ourselves to pay more attention to how others see us and our church than we do to actually pursuing Jesus’ way regardless of what happens or how it is seen? Has ‘success’ ever blinded us from pursuing “life” who is, Jesus? 

And yet those who exalt themselves, they will be humbled…That is the grace of Jesus intervening to save us from ourselves, much as Jesus is intervening with these religious leaders in our passage. 

In my case, I did not get the part. 

But the director did come to me with an offer: 

“Look…are you open to another part? We have a couple of these smaller parts in the play. I think they’d be a great chance for you to learn more about acting and grow into other roles in future productions. How about one of these smaller roles?” 

When Jesus intervenes it can break our pride because he usually offers smaller roles. He is, as he reminds the disciples, their one teacher and they all are the students. 

And as the Teacher, his homework assignments rarely involve us going out to be amazingly successful, super-faithful, heroic people. The homework is often far more pedestrian. 

Things like what we looked at three weeks ago in Romans chapter 12: 

“honor one another above yourselves…” “be joyful in hope and patient in affliction” “be faithful in prayer.” “Share with those in need.” 

“be hospitable.” 

“rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn” 

Are you remembering some of these? Or how about… 

“Bless those who persecute you…do not take revenge…if your enemy is hungry, get them a meal; thirsty – give them a drink.” 

Small roles, some difficult even if small roles. Critical roles – all of them. 

I wonder if the Teacher has cut through some layers among us even this morning and has before us a smaller role for such a time as this. A relevant role the times we are in. 

And which one is it? What is the action? What are the lines? What is the way Jesus has for such a time as this….and importantly – will we take the part? 

I told the director “no” I was not interested in telling a truly great story regardless of my part. I was more interested in how others saw me, and I did not like the idea that not only would I not be George Bailey but I’d be some small part and what would others think, and that hardly even matters to the story in the same way. 

I fear sometimes we turn these roles down because they do not strike us as the big endeavor that this world, this nation, our marriage, our lives, our church needs. Or it’s not the big endeavor someone with our training and education and all the rest should really be about. 

But ours is a teacher whose homework is usually smaller, recurring roles…and sometimes in time those are faithful in the small things will be faithful in the big things…but only because they have become the kind of person who does seek the big thing or need the big thing. They’ve realized that life and life abundant is found in keeping step with the One teacher come what may. 

And even if our whole life long it is a string of smaller roles I do believe we can take heart that when our day comes to join alongside God’s angels in the company of all of God’s saints throughout all time we will be given to see clearly the way the smaller roles of love forever and significantly altered this world and those around us – for good. 

For it is as the Teacher declares, “Those who humble themselves will be exalted.” 

Will we accept the next role at hand? Amen. 

About Dr. Bobby Hulme-Lippert