Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church

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            Because, in his teachings, Jesus often is trying to reverse the religious and worldly assumptions of his audience, they just as often don’t get what he is trying to say. They are baffled and confused as he turns their world of common sense upside down. But in this morning’s lesson, surely, they would have understood right away his pointed and direct criticism of the Pharisees when he lights into them for being hypocrites. The Pharisees do not practice what they preach, he says. They lay heavy burdens on others but won’t shoulder them themselves. They love to be honored and to have everybody make a great fuss over them, especially for their great learning. The people would have understood this in a second, and, even if Jesus puts it in the strongest possible language, they would also have understood him when he teaches them that “the greatest among you will be your servant.”

            The reason that they would have understood him is because this was what they had always been taught made for great leadership. Who was the greatest king of Israel? Everybody knew. Everybody would have pointed to David. What was David like? He was a shepherd who loved God, who walked humbly with his God. He was loyal to others, even to his own hurt. Even when he messed up, such as when he dallied with Bathsheba, he was willing to admit his mistake and take his punishment. The few other kings of Israel and Judah who get good marks in the Bible are said explicitly to have followed in David’s footsteps. Even the greatest leader of all, Moses, was a leader like this. When he died, his obituary read that none “had ever arisen in Israel that was like Moses, who knew the Lord face to face, and who was unequaled in all the signs and wonders that he did.” (Dt.34:10) Yet, for all his accomplishments, and his singularity, the Book of Numbers says of him, that “the man Moses was very humble, more so than anyone else on earth.” (Numbers 12:3) That is the model of leadership that the Jewish people knew, even if not everybody lived up to it. Thus, they knew what Jesus was talking about when he criticized their current leaders. They understood the hypocrisy that he was talking about.

            But, when this message finally came to it, the pagan world would have had a much harder time understanding it. Kings in the ancient Middle East were splendid despots. The idea of the greatest being a servant would have been laughable. Even the Greeks and Romans, who had a more friendly and admirable model of civic justice and virtue, would have found what Jesus says about leadership to be difficult to comprehend. The man of virtue in Greece or Rome would have exemplified the great virtues of courage, justice, temperance, and practical wisdom, but, as a result, he would also have had the virtue of being a “great soul” as Aristotle named it. Now, a great soul is someone who knows his worth. Knowing it, he would know what was required of him, which was nothing less than magnificence. He would host great events and do great things for his city. In that sense, he would have served and would have been valuable to his community. But one of his virtues would have been pride. Because he had achieved all these human excellences -- and the word in Greek for “virtue” means “excellence” -- he should be proud, Aristotle thought. By that, Aristotle did not mean that he should just take inner satisfaction in his very worthwhile accomplishments; he meant that he really should be proud. He should act as a superior being. And why shouldn’t he? He was in every way better than everybody else. He needed to realize that and to act that way. It was actually somewhat disgusting to Greek and Roman aristocrats to find one of their number who had all the other virtues, but who was humble, who did not take explicit pride in the fact that he really was better than other people. In fact, Aristotle declared that humility was a great deficiency, opposed to ‘great souledness.’

            Now, to be sure, many of the ancient virtues of Greece and Rome were easily adopted into the Christian catalogue of virtues. Indeed, in the hands of an exceptional thinker like Plato, who was so concerned for justice that he believed that the just man would be willing to suffer for justice, even letting his reputation be falsely slandered, his conception of the virtue of justice is hardly different than the Christian one. But barring the exception, the virtues in the pagan world usually came with a self-regarding, not an “other”-regarding, factor. The virtues as they were practiced in the pagan world could be “splendid vices” as St. Augustine once declared them. 

            We are very sensitive about deriding other religions, and calling any one of them “pagan” or declaring their values to be “splendid vices” seems to be a bigoted dismissal of them. But, there really is something important at stake in talking about what is pagan and what is not. It lies at the heart of Jesus’ declaration that “the greatest among you is a servant.” Consider the difference: When Aristotle says that the humble man is deficient, the reason is because “[such a man] being worthy of good things, robs himself of what he deserves, and seems to have something bad about him from the fact that he does not think himself worthy of good things, and seems, also, not to know himself; otherwise, he would know he should have these things.” (NE IV.3) In the world of paganism, where the gods are little more than great natural forces and have no concern for the human world, all achievable worth for humans is located in the human world. What you achieve is therefore yours, and you deserve not only it, but the applause of all around you for getting it. So, when Aristotle says that a man who is worthy of good things robs himself of them by being humble, what he is robbing himself of is the applause and admiration of his fellow citizens. He has what they also want, but couldn’t get. He deserves their applause. There is absolutely nothing in paganism that tells him that he shouldn’t have it. So, in such a system, humility is a deficiency. In such a way of thinking, the Pharisees who seek the praise of the crowd would make perfect sense. One does, of course, have to deserve it, otherwise one would be vain, which is also a fault. So, to paraphrase Nathaniel Hawthorne in a similar context, pagans have lived their lives in consideration of the reward they would receive from others, and not of any reward in eternity. And if God doesn’t care, why not? What else is there?

            But it is different in biblical religion. And it is different for two reasons. First, is that in biblical religion, and the same holds for Islam, there is one God, the creator of heaven and earth and all that is in them and that God cares about his people. That God deals with us, and that God brings us into the divine life. Before such a God, who, dwelling in light inaccessible, we stand in mystery and awe, we are all equal. There is no greatness that any human being can have that compares to God’s; in front of God we all need to be humble, really humble. But that also means that there is, therefore, no reason for any one of us to think that in the end he or she is better than anyone else. Second, with such a God, whatever good we have and do is a gift. This God cares and gives to God’s children generously and with love. In such a religion, we can serve, and we can be grateful for the opportunity to serve, and for the opportunity to give as we have received, but we cannot think, no matter what we do or have, that we are better than anybody else created in God’s image. We are loved, we are honored, we are cared for by God. But that is because of God’s grace, not because we are better than anyone else. God’s grace is not God’s applause for our worth. It is God’s love for us. Our worth is God’s gift, and gratitude and humility is its proper response.

            Which of those alternatives one believes makes a difference to the kind of communities one has. For a pagan like Aristotle it was not hard to believe that some people are natural slaves, or that some people are by nature worker bees and drones to be used by others, and other people, by right, are royalty who may use them. It may have taken Christian and Jewish communities awhile to do it, but eventually they did realize that slavery is incompatible with what they ultimately believed. For the peoples who now derive their ethics from biblical ethics, therefore, it means that, as in the Bible, our communities are made up of covenants and free agreements. God made covenants with us and we in turn make covenants with each other, with each side important to maintaining the covenant. So that means that our leaders are meant to serve, to serve the people, and not to eat up the people as one eats bread, as the psalmist puts it.

            Those ideals are still enshrined as a habit of the heart even in many a secular American. This was something that was underlined recently in a speech to the American Enterprise Institute by the former chief rabbi of Britain, Jonathan Sacks. He noted that, in the American social structure, there is a political realm, but, at its heart, are communities that are formed by covenants between people, “marriages, families, congregations, communities, charities, and voluntary associations.” So, how we understand these things has a lot to do with how we inherit our biblical heritage. How one acts within those communities and how one leads them should not be a matter of privilege and natural superiority or any sort of hierarchy. It should be a matter of humility, a matter of looking to a David or Moses, but especially to Jesus as the chief example of how one leads. We have been rightly suspicious of anyone who does not lead like this. Even when we have had leaders who didn’t practice it, they at least tried to look like they did.

            If that is the case with our communities in general, it ought to be all the more the case with the church. For we do more than distantly derive how we understand ourselves from the Bible; we above all should be the people where God’s Word really acts in human communities. We live as a community of God’s children, none and all of whom is his favorite. We share, and we respect the members of the community, the ones present and the ones who lived on earth in the past. When we talk about the communion of saints, as we do when we confess the creed, we are talking about a living community that has its life in God, a God who cares for all of us, and who leads us by his becoming a servant of all.

            But, even as we celebrate the communion of saints on All Saints Day, we need to recognize that we cannot take any of this for granted. For a long time, because of its roots in Judaism and Christianity we have lived in a society that has as a standard, in theory, if not always in practice, the assumption that we are all equal, that our communities are made up of covenants, and that our leaders are meant to serve, that the greatest among us is a servant. But, as Sacks, in his speech, went on to point out, “…half of America is losing all those covenantal institutions...It is losing e pluribus unum because everyone prefers pluribus to unum.” We are losing our sense of equality, because of our increasing sense of our own self-importance. We will lose it, too, should we ever start to accept the values of the leaders and thinkers who are the new pagans, whose paganism is not the civic-minded paganism of the ancient Greeks and Romans, but that of self-described haters of the biblical ethic such as Nietzsche and Ayn Rand who touted the superiority of the strong over the weak and who derided the idea that anyone great should ever serve someone weaker.

            That is a strong charge to make. If it is true, it requires us to stand against that new paganism. But understand, too, that the only really effective protest we can make against that new paganism is to be here a community of saints, one that thinks that the way that David and Moses did it was right and that the greatest leader of all is the God who himself gave up everything to be like one of us, and who taught us how to have a community of life by loving one another even as he has loved us. It is that community that we celebrate on All Saints’ Day, it is that community that you hope to have in choosing a new pastor, and it is the one we can give the world to help humans’ souls to thrive.