Led by the Master

Tuesday in the Second Week of Lent: Isaiah 1:10, 16-20, Matthew 23:1-12.

Today’s readings reveal much about the Master, that is, Christ, as well as how He wants His people to live in His Spirit. The Word of God spoken by Isaiah makes clear that religious customs won’t save the Jews, instead they must cleanse their souls and perform acts of mercy. Jesus repeats this refrain in the flesh when contrasting his teachings with the Pharisees. 

The “Vision of Isaiah” concerning Judah and Jerusalem was taken down in the early 700s BC, during a low point for Judah. King Ahaz (r. 732-715 BC) had cozied up to the Assyrians, brought their tastes and religious idolatry not just into the country but into the Temple itself. How wicked was he? He also offered his son by fire to Moloch, the Canaanite god associated with child sacrifice. His wickedness did not stop despite many trials, and he even closed schools and houses of worship so religious instruction had to go underground.

Isaiah (1838), Jean Louis Ernest Meissonier | Creative Commons, courtesy The Wallace Collection/ArtUK.

Given the king’s significant turning away from God, we can start to understand the dire warnings in Isaiah. For me, one of the signs that the Word of God is truly speaking through Isaiah is that he did not focus on the form of worship, which constitutes the core of Jewish priestly concerns and to this day characterizes the ultra-Orthodox strain of Judaism. In verses 11-14 (omitted from today’s reading), he is clear that these are no longer pleasing to the Lord: 

I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams
    and the fat of fed beasts;
I do not delight in the blood of bulls,
    or of lambs, or of goats. …

    Trample my courts no more;
bringing offerings is futile;
    incense is an abomination to me. …

Your new moons and your appointed festivals
    my soul hates;
they have become a burden to me,
    I am weary of bearing them.

You could imagine that the priestly class would be calling for more sacrifices, more incense, more religious festivals. But Isaiah points out that the problem is the people themselves. His encouragement is for them to “Wash yourselves clean! Put away your misdeeds from before my eyes; cease doing evil; learn to do good.” And in a verse that could come from the mouth of Jesus some 700 years later, he urges them to establish their goodness through works of mercy: “Make justice your aim: redress the wronged, hear the orphan’s plea, defend the widow.”

What strikes me in this reading is the eternal patience of God and His refusal to abandon those with whom he has made his covenant, even after they abandon Him: “Come now, let us set things right, says the LORD: Though your sins be like scarlet, they may become white as snow.” These are sweet words, like a parent cajoling a naughty child to make up with them after some misbehavior. Even the imagery is soothing — taking a blood-red sin and making it “white as snow.” Who would not want this Master? He gives us the opportunity to make amends where so many other masters would not.

In the reading from Matthew, Jesus has some harsh words for the Pharisees and scribes. He enjoins the crowds to listen to their words because they have law-giving authority in their society (they sit on “the chair of Moses”). But he tells them flat-out not to ” follow their example. For they preach but they do not practice.” Ouch! To be called out by Christ!

Their problem, Jesus says, is that they glory in their power, they have too much pride in their station. “All their works are performed to be seen,” he says, “They love places of honor at banquets, seats of honor in synagogues, greetings in marketplaces, and the salutation ‘Rabbi.’” When preaching the Word of God, fundamentally concerned with putting others before yourself, this makes them hypocrites. Jesus tells them they have only one teacher (you know who).

He adds two more equivalent sayings, one for God the Father and one for himself. There is only one Father, who is our Creator, this seems obvious. But note who the master is: “Do not be called ‘Master’; you have but one master, the Christ.” And here we get to see for ourselves the most exceptional aspect of our Master, still hidden in Isaiah’s time. Our Master leads by the ultimate example. He is the opposite of the Pharisees who don’t practice what they preach. He leads us with love and dies on the cross Himself, as an example and encouragement for us all to not fear death, but retain absolute devotion to our Father in all circumstances.

To solidify his message about subduing pride and, instead, serving others, he ends today’s reading with: “The greatest among you must be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled; but whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” We must note his authority over the abstract moral terms “greatest” and “exalted.” He, the Lord, is the definition and the definer of what is known as “great” and what will be “exalted.” There is no debate or wiggle room where we could somehow insert our own understanding of what it means to be great. This is precisely his point: we keep getting ourselves in this pickle, this distancing ourselves from God, because we try to be the definer of moral terms. We think that we have mastered life (or ethics, or morality) and can teach others. We have the audacity to feel “exalted” above others if we do something our earthly jobs/politics/society feels is “great.” These terms are not for us to play with; they have very definite meanings established by the source of morality: God. This is why humility is his example and is so important to our lives as Christians.

Vendimian of Bithynia, a miniature painting found in the Menologion of Basil II, an illuminated “lives of the saints,” 985 AD | Wikimedia Commons.

It’s fascinating to see how the Desert Fathers lived out Christ’s instructions from today’s gospel. The Desert Fathers (and Desert Mothers) were Christians who moved to the desert to live the life of seclusion and asceticism. The area especially known for this was the Scetes Desert south of Alexandria, Egypt (to get your bearings, this would be a 24-hour walk from Alexandria, or a 2-hour drive for us moderns), and the most well-known Desert Father, St. Anthony the Great, moved there about 270 AD. The Desert Fathers sought to be humble to the utmost. This meant always recognizing their own sinfulness, being gentle and subservient to others, and not judging others. It seems they fashioned their lives directly on Mt 23:11-12 from today’s reading: “The greatest among you must be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled; but whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”

For instance, Abba Matoes says “Be always mindful of your sins and do not judge others; rather become inferior to all … If somebody speaks to you about any matter whatsoever, do not argue with him; but [if he speaks well] say ‘yes’ and if he speaks badly, say: ‘You know what you are talking about’ and do not contend with him about how he spoke” (Matoes 11).

Over time the sayings from the great abbas (elders) of these monastic groups were written down and became the Sayings of the Desert Fathers (the Apophthegmata Patrum, originally written in Greek). These sayings contain wonderful anecdotes that display the depths of the humility these Christians took upon themselves. Lest we think they just preached humility, there are many examples of practice. “Someone once brought abba Hor and abba Athre a bit of fish, and Athre had already picked up the knife and started cutting it up when Hor called him. He left the knife in the fish and came at once. Sisoes was impressed and asked where the old man had learned such submission. Athre said he had learned it from Hor, and to prove it he took a bit of the fish and cooked it and deliberately spoiled it. Then he took it to abba Hor and said, ‘Isn’t it good, father?’ Hor said, ‘Yes, it’s excellent.’ Then he cooked another bit without spoiling it, and took it to Hor, saying, ‘I’ve spoiled it, father.’ And Hor replied, ‘Yes, you have spoiled it a bit'” (from Ways of Imperfection by Simon Tugwell, OP, p.19).

This type of humility was good for the soul of the one humbling himself and also a type of fraternal charity to uplift one’s brothers. There are countless stories of how humility and fraternal charity was lived by these Christians. Here’s another noteworthy one:

Now there was a tone statue there in the temple; Abba Anoub would get up early in the morning and throw stones at the face of the statue; in the evening he would say to it, “Forgive me,” and he spent the whole week behaving like that. On Saturday they met up with each other, and Abba Poemen said to Abba Anoub, “I saw you throwing stones at the face of the statue during the whole week, Abba, then making an apology to it too. Does a man of faith act like that?” “I did this deed on your account,” the elder replied. “When you saw me stoning the face of the statue, was it angry, or did it speak?” “No,” said Abba Poemen. “And then again, when I prostrated myself to it, was it troubled, and did it say, ‘I do not forgive you’?” “No,” said Abba Poemen. Abba Anoub said, “And here we are, seven brothers. If you want us to live with each other, let us become like this statue that is not troubled even if it is insulted. If you do not want to become like that, here there are four gates in this temple; let each one go where he will.” But they threw themselves to the ground saying to Abba Anoub, “We will do as you wish, father, and attend to what you say to us” (number 12 in the Humility section of the systematic collection of the Book of Elders).

Finally, one of my favorite (number 87): “The devil appeared to a brother in the disguise of an angel of light, saying to him, ‘I am the archangel Gabriel, and I was sent to you.’ ‘Make sure you were not sent to somebody else,’ said the brother to him, ‘for I am not worthy to see an angel,’ and the demon immediately disappeared. 

So here we have centuries of examples of how humility and charity can be lived as the core part of what makes us Christian. May we all learn from these examples and seek to bring the spirit of this teaching into our daily modern existence.

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