Andie McDowell played a character named Rita and Bill Murray played a character named Phil in the movie Groundhog Day in 1993. It was one of those instant classic movies. It has all kinds of great scenes but one that I would like to reference today is when Phil has just asked Rita who is her perfect guy. Rita: Well first of all he is too humble to know he is perfect. Phil looks at her and says, “That’s me.” Rita: intelligent, supportive, funny Phil says, “Me, me, Me.” Rita: Romantic, courageous Phil: me also Rita: He’s got a good body but he doesn’t have to look in the mirror every two minutes. Phil: I have a great body and sometimes go for months without looking. Rita; He is kind, sensitive, gentle, not afraid to cry. Phil: This is a man we are talking about here right? Rita: He likes animals and children, he will change poopy diapers Phil: Does he have to use the word ‘poopy’? Rita: Oh and he plays an instrument and loves his mother.” Phil: Whew, I am close on this one, really, really close. What is funny about this scene is that we know Phil and he is NOT this man at least yet.
A few years back there was a poll on the Internet that asked this question, “Which one member of your family is the best looking?” You want to guess how respondents answered? The top rated answer in the poll was, “Me.” A majority of the respondents listed themselves as the best-looking member of their family. That corresponds with another public opinion poll which asked people which member of their family was the smartest. Once again, “Myself” or “Me” were the highest ranked answers. But when asked which family member was most likely to tell a lie, “Myself” or “Me” only ranked ninth out of ten possible answers. So most of us think that we are better-looking, smarter, and more honest than the rest of our family.
Who are you? Who do you think you are? How do you think other people view you? This is at the heart of today’s gospel lesson isn’t it? How do you think other people see you and think of you? Jesus did not have much of a problem with what the Pharisees taught the people. They were trying to teach what Moses and the prophets had written down. The problem Jesus had with the Pharisees was that they saw themselves as better than everyone else. They did not do what they taught. What they did was for show and they wanted others to be impressed.
This sort of self -important self-perception unfortunately is still with us today. It is certainly still within our religious community, but it is throughout our society as well. Most people tend to think of themselves as better looking, smarter and more honest than others around them.
Jesus teaches his disciples and us some important life lessons here. He tells his disciples that they are not to be called rabbi which means teacher, or father, or instructor. Does this mean that at school we should not call our teachers teacher or instructor or at home call our dads father? No, it is important to understand context in order to figure out what Jesus is teaching here. Those were specific terms within the group of Pharisees and had specific meanings for them. A rabbi in those days was one who began a new school of thought on how to understand the Scriptures. A Pharisee who was called a father was the rabbi with the authority to proclaim this is “how it is” and everyone else within that school had to obey and honor him. Instructors within this system were the ones who decided how all the scriptures should be understood within this school of thought. Jesus is telling his disciples, “You guys are not going to be doing this.” We are not simply setting up another system of Pharisee thought. You guys are not to be rabbis. You are not to start a new school of thought. The school of thought about how the scriptures need to be understood is how I am explaining it. I don’t want you to try to change it up. Further, none of you are to take the lead position. You are all students, you are all brothers here. And further, no one among you is the “Instructor” because I am the instructor and I am telling you how it all fits together—don’t change it.
Later on in the church the Apostle Paul calls himself a father, as we heard in our New Testament reading. He is not telling people that he is the one with the most authority—he is comparing himself to a dad in a family. He is like a spiritual father looking out for his family’s spiritual well-being. That is like what I am too. It is similar to being a pastor or shepherd. Some of you call me ‘father.’ I am not the authority within the church—Jesus Christ is the authority, then for us, Bishop Dabney Smith is our authority. But not even Bishop Smith is free to do or say whatever he wants because he is under the authority of Holy Scripture as well.
The point Jesus is making is in verses eleven and twelve. “The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
You see it is not about what titles one may have. It is not about what people think about you. It is not about how great you may think you are either. What is important in God’s kingdom is how well you serve. You see in the kingdom of God things are different than they are in the world in fact it is 180 degrees different than our world, our society. In our society it is important for others to know your name. In our society it is important for others to think highly of you. But it is not this way in the kingdom of God. Jesus said that if you want to be great you must be a servant. The lesson Jesus teaches us here is the same lesson Jesus teaches the disciples on the night of the last supper when he washes their feet. It is the lesson of serving. It is the lesson of helping others.
In the year 390, some 78 years after Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity a fellow by the name of Simeon was born. Christianity was not only legal at this time but it was the most popular religion in the empire. But Simeon felt like there was too much corruption in the society and even in the church. So Simeon separated himself from sinful society by choosing to live at the top of a narrow pillar many stories high. He became known as Simeon the Stylite. He spent thirty-seven years living at the top of various pillars as a sign of devotion. Other monks became jealous of Simeon’s religious devotion, so they began building their own pillars to live on. After a while, pillar-sitting became a full-blown competition.
And then there was a woman named Agnes de Rochier. She was the only daughter of a wealthy merchant who lived in the 1400s. After her father died when she was at the age of eighteen, according to records she did not want to be soiled by the world and she wanted to become a recluse. She asked to be entombed in a cell inside a church. Workmen built a brick cell around Agnes’ body, leaving only a small opening through which Agnes could breathe, hear the prayers and Masses performed, and receive food. She lived eighty years inside this self-imposed prison.
Jesus had nothing against spending time alone. He in fact spent 40 days by himself at one point and Scripture points out at many times Jesus goes off to lonely places to pray by himself. But our Christian lives are to be characterized by service. And we cannot serve others if we only hide out like Agnes or separate ourselves like Simeon.
Jesus wants us to have a clear perspective on who we are. We are not to think of ourselves more highly than we really are like Phil and the Pharisees did. We are not to hide out or separate ourselves like Agnes and Simeon did. Jesus challenges us to be great; be great in the kingdom of heaven. Let’s make our lives count for the kingdom of God. Let us learn to serve.