I wonder if anyone of us knows the kind of people that Jesus is talking about today.
Clarence Jordan, in his Cotton Patch Gospel series, presents today’s reading from Matthew like this:
“Don’t let yourselves be called ‘Reverend,’ for you have the one pastor and you are all brothers. And don’t call any human being ‘father,’ for you have but one spiritual father; neither be called ‘Doctor,’ for you have one doctor – the Leader. Your top man shall be your houseboy. So who promotes himself gets bumped, and whoever bumps himself gets promoted.”
Clarence Jordan knew a little bit about these kinds of people; he even was one for time. Getting his Ph.D. in New Testament afforded Jordan with many of the honors that he, through the words of Jesus, finds troubling today. But Jordan did something unusual for his day, and it’s unusual today as well. He took the gospel seriously and formed an inter-racial Christian community. Now all this happened in the early 1940s, and it happened in South Georgia. “Dr. Jordan” became “farmer Clarence,” and all because of his devotion to his one teacher, Father, and Lord. Now, we are not all called to become farmers for Jesus, but we are all called to contend with what Jesus lays out for us today.
Today’s gospel reading comes from the long section in Matthew where Jesus is doing a lot of teaching. First, Jesus says that his followers ought to respect the authority of the Pharisees and the scribes. When Jesus says that they “sit on Moses’ seat,” he is, in effect, saying that these religious leaders have legitimate authority. Jesus never denounces the Law, the Torah, or the traditions of Israel. The original covenant, the first covenant, between God and Abraham, then through the life of Israel, was, and still is, in effect. Jesus is holding his listeners accountable to the Law. What Jesus is doing is lambasting these religious authorities for being too showy with the public expression of their faith. It is not that their phylacteries are wrong to wear; it’s that they have made a prayer shawl into an article of bragging.
After ridiculing the Pharisees and scribes for their showy spirituality, Jesus then goes on to say that we should recognize no rabbi, father, or teacher except Christ. This is not to be taken literally, but it is to be taken seriously. Of course, we all have fathers and teachers, but Jesus’ injunction is on our proper understanding of where we stand in the grand scheme of things. Here, Jesus is making a claim very much like the one that God made on Mount Sinai when he delivered the Ten Commandments to Moses. The first commandment was: you shall have no other gods before me. God expects us to trust him, solely and totally. God is reminding us that we all have the inclination within us to look around and try to make something complete us; this is the heart of idolatry. Things can never complete us, neither can people. It’s wrong on both counts, but it is especially unfair to make an idol of people. Why would we put such a burden on our spouses, our partners, our parents, our children? They cannot be God for us; only God can be God. It is God who is the source of our happiness, satisfaction, and hope.
This is precisely what Jesus is saying to us today. There’s only one father, there is only one rabbi, and there is only one teacher. There’s only one initiator of the Kingdom of God, and that is Jesus Christ. Of course, teachers and other mentors are good. We all have those special individuals who show us the path to approaching God, to deeper knowledge of ourselves and our Lord. But God is the goal, God is always the goal. And we never come to him but through his own bidding. God has made himself known to us first in the life of Israel, then through Jesus Christ, and now we know him through his Holy Spirit, which enables us to come to God.
Recognizing that there is only one God, one father, and one teacher is easier said than done. Usually, when we come to know something, we know it as fact and then proceed based on the facts. God has given us a peculiar commandment: to put all of our faith, hope, and trust in him and him alone. All the saints, sages, and scholars before us on our way to God have always put this kind of faith into terms dealing with trust. And the funny thing about it is that trust can only be built by extending it. When we trust someone, we don’t really know what’s going to happen. Trusting God is hard. If following God, completely and totally, were easy, everyone would be doing it.
It simply isn’t enough for us to be admirers of Christ, we need to be disciples. We become disciples by having one God, one teacher, and following him first. Our trust in God will cause His faithfulness to spring forward and drive us to deeper and deeper love for ourselves, our neighbors, and most importantly, for our God.