The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted. (Matthew 23.11-12)
Last week’s Gospel looked at The Great Commandment: Love God entirely and neighbors unconditionally. This week’s passage illuminates what we might call “The Great Contradiction.” It launches a three-chapter sermon that, in many ways, serves as the bookend for the Sermon on the Mount that Jesus delivers at the outset of His mission. What starts out as high-flown ideals in the first lesson looks a bit battered and sounds a whole lot grittier this time around. After three-and-a-half years of itinerant ministry, Jesus and the disciples may be a little worse for wear. Yet experience has definitely made them wiser and bolder.
Matthew presents Jesus in full-blown Messianic mode this time. Shades remain of the Philosopher Prince, Whose gentle voice inspired the masses with divine imperatives. Yet, without question, the Preacher in chapters 23-25 stands His ground as authoritative King and Prophet. If we were to imagine both sermons as movie sequences, the Sermon on the Mount would be shot in long, fluid takes underscored by swelling strings and French horns to amplify the virtues Jesus extols. This sermon, however, would be rendered in tight close-ups, reaction shots, and jarring jump cuts set to staccato brass flares, dissonant winds, and agitated percussion. We’d also note differences in Jesus’s audience. Pharisees and other religious types spotted in the first sequence don’t appear in the second. (Jesus sent them packing after He issued The Great Commandment and blew the doors off their myth that Messiah belonged exclusively to them.) The sick and troubled are also reduced. Jesus hasn’t done much in the way of healing and miracles lately. He’s focused on putting things in order, calling out wrongs where He finds them and prepping His followers to carry on when He’s gone. The absence of adversaries and needy folks who’ve come for His touch, not His words, frees Jesus to speak His mind. A detectable “between us” element in this sermon—which we don’t find in the Sermon on the Mount—charges every statement with inescapable urgency.
Enemies Make Everything Happen
This is the last sermon Jesus preaches, and ironies abound. The opposition’s disappearance by no means indicates it’s moved on. He’s very much top of mind for them, just as they’re top of mind for Him. While He spews a volcano of rage against them—climaxed by wrathful predictions of their destruction—they’re putting final touches on their conspiracy to crush Him and His movement. Thus, in a sense, Jesus is talking in the wind, since His listeners aren’t guilty of the evils He rails against. (We’ll get to them momentarily.) But, in every sense, His adversaries are spitting in the wind. Like previous schemes to unmask Him as a charlatan and heretic, their plot will backfire, this time on a scale they can’t possibly imagine. Their hatred and intolerance become levers God uses to exalt Jesus as the definitive example of love and forgiveness for all time.
In the process, Jesus’s foes set the stage for His demonstration of The Great Contradiction that prefaces His diatribe against their hypocrisy, spiritual laziness, and moral mediocrity. Three days from now, as His followers watch Jesus being lifted on a cross—unjustly accused and tortured as though He were the scum of the earth—these words will echo in their ears: “The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Matthew 23.11-12)
Jesus’s enemies make everything happen. By the time Matthew pens his Gospel (circa 70-80 CE, in the wake of Rome’s destruction of Jerusalem’s Temple), Jesus is widely proclaimed and worshiped as The Christ—God’s Anointed, the Promised Redeemer of humankind. The Great Contradiction is fervently taught and practiced as Christianity’s modus operandi. Prominent Pharisees like Nicodemus, Joseph of Arimathea, and Saul of Tarsus—along with thousands of rank-and-file members of the religious majority—have broken with tradition to follow Christ. Virtually every woe and prophecy Jesus declares in His final sermon is validated. At best, His adversaries are an afterthought. Their Roman allies will join other Jewish and pagan defectors; 200 years after Matthew writes his Gospel, Christianity will stand as the Roman Empire’s sanctioned faith. While many factors help bring this about, the Early Church arrives at its position for one reason. Ancient Christians—most never possessing and the rest surrendering any pretense to power and position—intuitively grasp The Great Contradiction’s core principle. In kneeling, we rise. In serving, we command. At our least, we are greatest.
Revolutionary Changes in Us
The Great Contradiction was never intended as a subversive, countercultural strategy. And it’s ludicrous to suggest otherwise, as nothing in apostolic or historical texts supports such an idea. Early Christians embrace the principle simply because Jesus told them to and showed them how to do it. No loss is ever too great—not even life itself—since greatness can only be found in loss. Paul’s sentiment in Ephesians 3.8 expresses their prevailing attitude: “I have suffered the loss of all things,” he writes, “and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ.” The Great Contradiction changes them, and submitting to its demands permits them to change the world.
Thus, The Great Contradiction presents us with two equally important questions: Am I willing to lower myself so that Christ’s greatness may arise from my losses? And, do pure motives drive my methods? The faintest hint of “what’s in it for me” negates the entire principle. Lowering ourselves to get the upper hand will never work. True sacrifice asks no reward. Real forgiveness wants nothing in return. Genuine humility seeks not to achieve greatness; it strains to allow greatness to come forth. Of course it makes no sense. It’s a contradiction.
Jesus introduces His principle by citing its Pharisaical opposite. “Don’t be like them,” He says. “They put on a terrific show, but their behavior is too transparent to hide their actual motives.” To embrace The Great Contradiction is to invite revolutionary changes in us. If we genuinely humble ourselves, allowing those changes to take root in our hearts and minds, the greatness they bring forth can, and ultimately will, change the world.
We have heard Your words, O Christ, and grasp their contradictory truth. We kneel to rise. We surrender to be saved. We count all we have as loss so that Your greatness may come forth in us. Now we pray Your strength to steel our resolve long after The Great Contradiction’s romance dissipates and daily life tests our commitment to follow Your teaching and example. Amen.
Of course, The Great Contradiction makes no sense. Yet Jesus’s accomplishment on the cross and what the Early Church achieved by following His example prove its power to change us is what ultimately permits us to change the world.