by Robert Hamerton-Kelly
November 2, 2008
Scripture: 1 Thessalonians 2:9-13; Matthew 23 1-12
“He who is greatest among you shall be your servant; whoever exalts himself shall be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” — Matthew 23:11-12
Whoever wins on Tuesday will face a huge challenge and a daunting task. I do not need to remind you of the state we are in as a nation and as a community of nations. It is hard to realize that in the last year of the Clinton administration we had begun to repay the national debt; now our children and their children will be paying for our excesses. We are in the midst of a great transfer of wealth from the future to the present, from our grandchildren and their unborn children to us. Tom Friedman quoting Michael Mandelbaum, author of “Democracy’s Good Name,” and a very reputable middle-of-the-road academic, writes “We are all going to have to pay because this meltdown comes in the context of what has been ‘perhaps the greatest wealth transfer since the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia in 1917…It is not a wealth transfer from the rich to the poor that the Bush administration will be remembered for. It is a wealth transfer from the future to the present.’ ” (NYT 11/02/08 p. 10)
The challenge of leading this country at this time is so great, one can only be astonished that anyone could want the job. It is now that the term “public servant” comes to mind and one important aspect of Jesus’ saying, “He who is greatest among you shall be your servant,” registers with us. Now more than ever he who is greatest in the land must be the servant of all, not only of the rich, but of all, not only of the rednecks but of all.
One way of reading our foreign policy of recent years is in terms of the second part of this saying: we have exalted ourselves relentlessly and now are humbled, waiting for China and Japan to save us from the consequences of our shameless arrogance and greed. We have “defriended” ourselves as one columnist writes in today’s NYT (Kristof, p. 12). Judging ourselves to be so powerful that we could act internationally with out a “decent concern for the opinion of mankind” (I am paraphrasing the Declaration of Independence from memory, so please forgive if I have it wrong; the point is valid in any case), we have made ourselves contemptible around the world, and no leader can lead people who hold him in contempt. Therefore, we no longer lead the world, and the world misses us. Polls conducted by the BBC across 22 countries show that 4 out of 5 people want Obama to win; and hundreds of millions are covered by these polls (Timothy Garton Ash, New York Review, 11/06/08p.12). He comments. “The world may not have a vote but it has a candidate.”
So has Jesus anything worthwhile to say on the subject of leadership in times of crisis? Our passage, Matthew 23:1-11, contains a series of his remarks on the subject of leadership which is illuminating to say the least, and considering whose comments they are, mandatory in any case. There are two things that destroy the possibility of leadership, hypocrisy and arrogance, and so two things that make it possible, honesty and humility. I ask you, “When last did you see an honest, humble politician? When last did you hear one say, ‘We have real problems to solve and I don’t really know how to solve them but let’s think about it, together, and let’s try different policies until we find one the works’?” A politician who is honest and humble like that will be accused of “flip-flopping” and destroyed by the slander that changing your mind shows bad rather than good judgment.
Jesus gives as the example of hypocrisy and arrogance the politicians of his time. They are called ” the scribes and Pharisees” in the gospel, which may be translated, “the lawyers and the politicians,” and they give guidance that they do not themselves follow, presenting themselves as something they are not (e.g. omniscient), and exalting themselves as saviors of the people. Jesus says, that in this is particular case, we should do what they say and not what they do, follow their teaching not their example, because they do “sit in Moses’ seat,” that is, represent the truth of the divine revelation. However, since the do not act on that truth their example is to be ignored. These days, however, there is no one who represents divine revelation and so we should suspect what he or she says as well as what they do.
Now this is an indictment, that we do not practice what we preach, that covers all of us, especially us preachers. A bumptious nephew of mine once asked me how I could preach given the dubious character I am (He was an evangelical Christian at the time). I answered, ” Well, since I preach Christ and not myself I have a good conscience because I never exclude myself from the class of sinners he came to save and I live by his grace and kindness and not by my own merits and deserving.” And when people tell me that they don’t go to church because there are only hypocrites there, I say, ” That is exactly why I go, to be with my fellow hypocrites in the presence of the only true and humble man there has ever been, Jesus the incarnate God. Not my virtues but my vices take me to church, because there I meet my all-sufficient savior, and how much I, of all people, need him!”
I think such a take on hypocrisy can lead us to humility. Humility is not self-denigration and self-abuse, but rather self-knowledge of my total need of and dependence on Jesus Christ. It’s not my faith in God that counts, but God’s faith in me, not my hold on God but God’s hold on me, not my love for God but God’s love for me. Because God believes in me, holds me close and loves me, I am exalted and full of joyous self-confidence. Because of this I am free of a morbid concern for my own acceptability; think how often we have been haunted by the fear that somebody important to us, “does not like us,” how we have worked and fretted to make people love us, how our self-esteem goes up and down like a fever graph.
Here once again is the good news: God has exalted us because we have given up the effort to exalt ourselves. “Let go and let God” used to be a slogan for me, and it is still a thought I live by. In all our present perils, sleep soundly and leave things in the hands of the Savior; do what you can and trust God. Be humble, because you don’t even know the question never mind the answer. Be of good cheer because the God who created you out of nothing at the impulse of love alone, who wanted just you to be as you are, so he could love you and finally give you the Kingdom, because that same God holds us all in love, and will never forsake us. So whatever happens, live in this honesty and this humility of utter dependence on God and God will raise you up.
Thank you Lord Jesus for these words of truth and life!