The Downward Ascent

The Downward Ascent

by Robert Hamerton-Kelly

October 30, 2005

Scripture: Romans 1:16-17; 3; 22B-28; Matthew 7: 21-29

“He that is greatest among you shall be your servant; whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” –Matthew 23:12

The message of our Gospel for today is quite straight – forward. It warns against haughtiness and arrogance in religious practice and religious communities, a situation that it summarizes by the word “hypocrite!” Its targets are those who do not practice what they preach, who lay heavy burdens of moral obligation on others but do not themselves share the struggle to bear those burdens. They do their good deeds for the sake of public recognition, of their wealth as well as their righteousness, and they wear the symbols of piety ostentatiously. (After our service two weeks ago Rosemary and I saw barely a block from here, a very big Jewish man with a very big prayer shawl, black and white with long fringes – “they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long.” [Phylacteries are little boxes in which are placed tiny scrolls of sacred law, and then are bound on the forehead and upper arm of the worshipper during prayers]). In those days more than today, a public piety could be very impressive and inspire awe and admiration. Jesus saw such people in his day and warned that they were hypocrites who “love the place of honor at feasts and the best seat in the synagogue, and salutations in the market place, and being called rabbi by men.”

To this situation Jesus says, “But you are not to be called rabbi because you have one teacher and you are all brothers. And call no man your father on earth for you have one father who is in heaven. Neither be called masters, for you have one master, the Christ,” and then follows the quotation at the head of this sermon, “He who is greatest among you shall be your servant; and whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted. This whole passage (23:1-12) serves to introduce what are called the “Woes against the Pharisees,” which are perhaps the bitterest accusations hurled against anyone in the whole Bible, with the exception of that Psalm depicting God’s joy at the prospect that the babies of the infidel will have their little heads dashed to pulp against a stone.

Today political correctness forbids us from reading these woes as in any sense accurate or factual, as describing any member or class of Jesus’ own Jewish religious community. In historical fact there were no hypocrites, no arrogant flaneurs among those whom Jesus encountered in the synagogues and village squares of his time. These bitter accusations are the fictions of a sick anti-Semitism that arose in the Christian communities after the death of Jesus. Of course, this claim is nonsense, arrant nonsense. If there were not a large number of hypocrites and frauds, flamboyant or otherwise, in Jesus’ religious world he was not living in this world at all. The exaggeration of Jewish innocence then and now is of course a reactionary phenomenon, but to understand it cannot be to condone it, for the simple reason that it prevents us from understanding our own scriptures, which in the present passage teaches a precious lesson.

Those of you who know me will recognize this question. If you want to understand the spiritual message of scripture ask as your first question, “With whom do I identify in the cast of characters in this story?” I believe that all of us make the initial mistake of identifying with Jesus. He is the hero of the story, the one we care about, whose desires we share. We are not hypocrites! No way! We are with Jesus!

This matter of which characters in a story we identify with is central to the literary analysis of that story. We all know how unsatisfying it can be when reading a novel to find no character about whom we care, with whom we share feelings, for whom we desire a happy outcome. One of the signs of a bad novel is this absence of credible characters who engage our emotions. How much more powerful is this literary phenomenon when we are reading about Jesus? Of course we share his desires, want him to succeed, we identify with him. He is after all the Lord.

And so we make the morally and spiritually fatal mistake of joining Jesus in excoriating the hypocrites, his fellow Jewish hypocrites, when we should be joining the hypocrites and listening to Jesus with fear and trembling, excoriating us. Jesus is speaking to us, to me and to you, in our own present day alive and well hypocrisy. We however hear him speaking to distant hypocrites, long ago and far away, or to those of today who are just like them. Thus we deflect the light of his truth from our own guilty hearts onto those other truly guilty people. This is the scapegoat maneuver, which is a central part of our response mechanism. All human beings initially react by blaming others and only later as a result of teaching and grace, begin to take responsibility. Knowing this therefore let us try to imagine what here and now, a proper response to this passage might be.

Jesus tells us that any response must begin with humility. We must line up with the hypocrites and hear ourselves described in all our arrogance and self -love. We are those who are ostentatious in piety, in our case I daresay we mean our outspoken moral superiority to all those crooks and liars who are running the country right now. Our exaltation takes the form of elevation to the moral high ground. “He who exalts himself will be humbled and he who humbles himself will be exalted,” says Jesus. So let’s settle for this interpretation, that Jesus wants us to be humble and that he wants us to take our fair share of responsibility and not shift all the blame to others…and then in conclusion see what we can make of it in our lives today.

Does this reading entail that we stop our witness for what we believe to be morally and spiritually right because we cannot maintain such a witness without implying we are better than others, that is, without the scapegoat maneuver? I must say that I hope not. If nobody dares to tell the emperor that he is naked we shall all be stripped bare in a relatively short time. Perhaps the fact that in Andersen’s story the revealer is a child is essential, and that we should here take into account that other teaching of Jesus about the priority of children as candidates for heaven. Can they be morally superior without expecting the status that goes with superiority? I hope so. And if they can speak the truth without polluting it with their own arrogance perhaps we can also. At least Jesus invites us to become as children and if he invites us it must at least be possible. So it seems we can occupy the moral high ground humbly, like a child.

This maneuver would be the opposite of the scapegoat maneuver, to point out responsibility even as we share in it, and it is possible only in the power of what I recently called “Outrageous Grace,” (beyond, “Amazing Grace”), the grace that makes keeps us innocent like a child. Its phenomenology is something like this: I declare my moral witness first by acknowledging the log in my own eye, and only after that do I turn to the splinter in the eyes of my neighbors, that is I make myself an example of what is wrong with us all, and of the pungency of God’s grace. I gladly accept that I am a sinner, living by grace alone. I look ruefully on the obvious inadequacy of my life and witness when viewed in the light of Christ’s purity, or even by simple comparison with other good people I know who do so much more honest good than I do; but I do not despair, that is, I do not give up for shame, because His grace holds me up day by day as gradually I become less of a hypocrite and more of a child of God. And I believe that He will exalt me in the end as I humble myself in the present under the simple truth of my sin and His grace.

Today is Reformation Sunday, when we honor Martin Luther to whom God revealed by exegesis of Scripture (to a Professor of the Old Testament) that the divine righteousness is not the moral demand before which we are all trembling hypocrites but the divine love in which we are all forgiven sinners and sons and daughters of heaven – the righteousness of God by which God makes us righteous.