“Who taught you that?” When it follows an impressive feat or display of skill, such as a delicious home cooked meal, the tone is quite positive and full of admiration. “Who taught you that?” It can also be skeptical, with an eyebrow raised, questioning the accuracy of a teaching or method. Sometimes it comes when a parent discovers a mischievous child’s surprise (good or bad) – then it manifests as humorous denial. Regardless of tones, this question beckons the rest of the story. It invites us into explanation for our actions and to provide rationale for our skills. It’s like putting a citation in a paper for a class. As teachers are known to say, it is important to “give credit where credit is due.”
In today’s text, it seems the scribes and Pharisees were overly anticipating such a question; and they wanted to be the answer. After all, it was their role to teach and instruct the people on God’s will. They are the experts, and have spent countless encounters with Jesus in Matthew’s gospel, quizzing him on his knowledge of scriptures, perhaps trying to corner him into a moment where the second tone of disapproval might raise the question “who taught you that?” Our opening verses indicate that they have gotten so caught up in their status within the community that they merely spout off their knowledge and righteous answers without actually living in a way that reflects them. Here, of course, is where Jesus takes issue. He is quick to call out those who have become lazy in their ivory towers of religious authority. While their teaching may indeed be sound, they have missed the point.
It is tempting for us to read these passages of conflict between Jesus and the religious leaders of his day and make them out to be the villains of the gospels. We gleefully join in hisses and boos when they enter the scene, and smile all too knowingly when they are rightfully called “hypocrites” and “brood of vipers.” In this text, we hear Matthew’s detailed descriptions of their ostentatious display of religiosity and pat ourselves on the back to be on the side of Jesus, knowing just how awful these people are. But, what if, these same tendencies of the first century religions leaders aren’t so far removed from our own? Perhaps the vanity, hypocrisy, and arrogance that trouble Jesus are more universal human characteristics that we all embody more than we’d like to admit.
The lure of power is great for us, too. We all have things we yearn for in life: success, money, status, or simply being liked by others. And in those moments when we accomplish steps towards them on any level, we feel pretty special. We must have done something right to deserve this, right? God must be smiling on us, rewarding us for our goodness. Patrick Gray says:
“It is so easy to confuse our interests with God’s purposes, our power with God’s sovereignty, our standing with God’s glory[i].”
“human beings like to matter, to be important, to be honored. We all want to be known and loved; this is what it means to be human . . . How important is it for all of us to feel as if we matter and are appreciated! We want promotions, raises, bonuses, good grades. We are the “they” – the finger points back to us, because we are all human[ii].”
To these authorities in the first century, and to us, it is as if Jesus saying, “who taught you that?”
This passage calls us beyond ourselves. For the Pharisees, Jesus is pointing them to the heart of their faith, and reminding them that they are not God. In our own day to day lives, we sometimes need those reminders, too. We get caught up in the excitement of our own accomplishments and are blinded to others as we beam with our own pride. This passage, though, calls us off of our pedestals to consider that it’s really not about us. For behind any of our accomplishments are a host of individuals who have loved us, nurtured us, taught us, and supported us along the way.
Who taught you that? It’s the question answered in acceptance speeches for awards, as actors and athletes thank their parents, coaches, teachers, friends, and other important people in their lives. As we reflect on our own lives and accomplishments, I imagine we also come up with a list of others to thank. It is particularly appropriate on this All Saints Sunday of the year to reflect on those who have made us the people that we are. One simple definition of a saint is someone who has shown us the way, often by example, and usually in a way that helps us be better people. Today we give thanks to God for them in our lives. We will lift them in prayer this morning during our worship service – if you have not already, write down their name on a prayer card or scrap of paper and give to an usher during the next hymn. You can also say their names out loud during the prayer as well.
After a death, I have the privilege of being with families as they grieve, and love hearing stories about their loved one. Almost without fail, the stories are not about “stuff” or even “power”; they revolve around how much of an impact the individual had on others, his or her positive example of how to live, and of his or her self-giving spirit. This humility is a common trait among saints, who gave of themselves in big and small ways that taught us more about love and life, and did not put themselves above others in doing so. Saints model how Jesus calls us to be at the end of this passage – the greatest among us who have been servants. On this day especially, we remember that even though they are no longer here with us, they have been exalted in heaven, rejoicing as saints in God’s presence forever. This is the image the Bible gives us over and over again of saints: endless praise at the throne of God. For you see, it isn’t really about the saints either. Saints point us to an even greater “who”– God.
As we honor and remember the saints in our lives, we really are giving thanks to God for the gifts and abilities God gave each of them, and for putting them in our lives. We acknowledge that God is the master creator, ruler of heaven and earth, and proclaim that in life and in death we belong to this amazing God. This is what Jesus is getting at, I think, in his insistence that there is only one father, God in heaven. Everything begins and ends with God. This is the message we proclaim at every memorial service or funeral. We hold our loved ones close to us, yes, but more than anything else, we remind ourselves of the heart of our faith as we gather for worship services that witness to the resurrection – the power God has beyond life on this earth to be in loving relationship with us forever.
Who taught us this? The one instructor and rabbi, Jesus Christ. Through Christ, the power of death is shattered. Because of Christ, we have eternal life, and can be bold enough to say that the saints who have gone before us, our loved ones, are indeed with God. This hope extends to us on earth as well, as we join them in the communion of saints, believers united in every time and place. It is part of what we celebrate every time we gather around the communion table. Our celebration of the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper is our rehearsal for that time when we are united with all the saints at Christ’s table, our glimpse of what it might be like. Our preparation for this, though, should extend beyond a small cube of bread and cup of juice. It should be modeled in every moment of our lives. As the Saint Theophane Vernard says, “the life of a Christian should be a perpetual jubilee, a prelude to the festivals of eternity.”
This is what All Saints Sunday is truly about: a celebration of the communion of the saints – all people of faith here today, those who have gone before us, and even those who will come after us, connected together by the one who taught us what God’s love was all about, and who led us by his example, and who continues to teach us through his Word. So let us give thanks for the ones who have gone before us, and then humbly take our seats as students of the one true God. Because we still have a lot more to learn. Amen.
~Rev. Elizabeth Lovell Milford
November 5, 2017
[i] Patrick Gray, “Exegetical Perspective: Matthew 23:1-13,” David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors. Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 4 (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011).
[ii] Jacqueline J. Lewis, “Homilectical Perspective: Matthew 23:1-12”, Feasting on the Gospels: Matthew, Volume 2 Chapters 14-28, Cynthia A. Jarvis and E. Elizabeth Johnson, editors. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013).