Matthew 23:1-12 (The Message) “Now Jesus turned to address his disciples, along with the crowd that had gathered with them. The religion scholars and Pharisees are competent teachers in God's Law. You won't go wrong in following their teachings on Moses. But be careful about following them. They talk a good line, but they don't live it. They don't take it into their hearts and live it out in their behavior. It's all spit-and-polish veneer.
Instead of giving you God's Law as food and drink by which you can banquet on God, they package it in bundles of rules, loading you down like pack animals. They seem to take pleasure in watching you stagger under these loads, and wouldn't think of lifting a finger to help. Their lives are perpetual fashion shows, embroidered prayer shawls one day and flowery prayers the next. They love to sit at the head table at church dinners, basking in the most prominent positions, preening in the radiance of public flattery, receiving honorary degrees, and getting called ‘Doctor' and ‘Reverend.'
Don't let people do that to you, put you on a pedestal like that. You all have a single Teacher, and you are all classmates. Don't set people up as experts over your life, letting them tell you what to do. Save that authority for God; let him tell you what to do. No one else should carry the title of "Father'; you have only one Father, and he's in heaven. And don't let people maneuver you into taking charge of them. There is only one Life-Leader for you and them--Christ.
Do you want to stand out? Then step down. Be a servant. If you puff yourself up, you'll get the wind knocked out of you. But if you're content to simply be yourself, your life will count for plenty.”
Jesus was not impressed with titles or false words. If the scribes and Pharisees would have practiced the humility and service they taught, they would not have been the targets of Jesus' rebuke. As this story continues in Matthew, Jesus goes on to excoriate these false teachers. "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees," he says repeatedly in a list of denouncements that parallel in style and passion the blessings of the Beatitudes that Matthew places in the Sermon on the Mount (5:1-2). But, for all their proper teaching, their behavior revealed the falseness of their hearts and the inappropriateness of honoring the scribes and Pharisees with the teacher's customary titles, "father" and "rabbi."
Jesus would not be impressed with the titles of our day either. And we have plenty of them. In the courtroom you can find yourself in contempt if you fail to address the bench as "Your Honor." Even pastors, are properly called "The Reverend" just as a mayor is called "The Honorable." We are invested with titles, we seek them, we earn them, and we use them to elevate one another and to create strata of influence and privilege. No matter how humble we may try to be, it is a natural and exhilarating thing to be honored, appreciated, and recognized. Still, Jesus is not impressed with our mutual admiration.
What Jesus does seem to appreciate is the humility displayed by those who genuinely seek to serve. In that other list of passionate pronouncements, the Beatitudes, Jesus declares "Blessed are the meek," and the "poor in spirit" and the "pure in heart." It is they who shall "see God," and be called "the children of God." This is a contrary notion to be sure. What good is servility to society? Leadership demands self-confidence and the ability to wield power. Yet, this is what Jesus teaches. If you would be great (and who wouldn't?), you must be a servant. If you choose to exalt yourself, you will find yourself brought to your knees. And, if you are humble you are to be known as an heir to the kingdom of God.
But humility is unnatural. Even those who serve happily behind the scenes yearn for a little recognition now and then. Humility is not to be found in the created order. Not even among humans. As Mark Twain recognized, the moment a person seems to have achieved real humility, it is destroyed by the pride at having accomplished it. Humility is not a natural thing. It is, rather, a gift of grace. Like patience and kindness, it comes as an endowment of the Spirit. When God gives faith, God empowers us to be what we are not and cannot be. Humility is not in the order of creation, but in the order of new creation. And, it is a renewable gift, for things lost in sin are regained in God's ceaseless outpouring of love.
Some will counter, of course, that they know of truly humble souls who are not of the faith. Is their humility also a gift from God? Indeed, it is so contrary a thing to set self aside, that even to individuals who lack the gift of faith, grace may come in other forms. To be selfless is in itself a kind of faith, as Matthew reports later in Jesus' parable of the sheep and the goats (25:31-46). Here, humility takes the form of serving the naked, the hungry, the thirsty, and the imprisoned.
Something similar is indicated in our present story as well: when humility is genuine, it has an active quality to it. "The greatest among you will be your servant," Jesus declares. Unavailing modesty is of little use. The servant is a worker. As a new creation, we are empowered, maybe even to do great things. It is for this active, effective servant humility that we should pray.