If someone were to come up to you and ask, “Do you consider yourself concentric or eccentric,” what would you say? This question might take us a little by surprise and I somehow imagine most of us would reply, “Come again?” I don’t imagine any of us would expect this question upon meeting someone for the first time or that we would see it on an eHarmony dating questionnaire. We know that a person who is eccentric is someone who is perhaps a little unique or odd, someone who marches to the beat of a different drummer, and not necessarily in a way that we want to emulate. I doubt any of my brothers would ever characterize me that way. I’m completely normal in that aspect. But am I concentric? Merriam Webster defines concentric as: having a common center or axis. To be honest that definition does not really help me in identifying with any certitude if I am a concentric person. Perhaps a better question would be: am I egocentric? Most of us would probably not admit to being egocentric, although we all have an ego and personally, truth be told, my ego can on occasion get me into trouble! Perhaps you can relate. But could any of us really be defined as egocentric? In our gospel lesson today, Jesus is teaching his disciples and the crowds surrounding them about relationship, especially in regards to centricity: the center. He is in effect asking them “Who or what is at the center of your life? Where is your focus?”
For the past few Sundays we have been listening to Jesus teaching the crowds and being openly challenged by the Pharisees, Sadducees, and temple authorities. We’ve heard parables such as the parable of the two sons[i], the parable of the wicked tenets[ii], and the parable of the wedding banquet[iii]. Jesus has been tested by temple leaders on subjects such as authority[iv], resurrection[v], taxes[vi], and the Law[vii], especially in regards to his opinion on the greatest of all the commandments. And Jesus is on top of his game and shows no sign of wearing down. After all this testimony, he begins to teach those around him about focus. He says: “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it.” After all of Jesus’ persistent challenging of the temple authorities, this statement must have come as surprise, especially to them! Jesus after all is affirming that these learned men, who have come from upstanding families, with impeccable educations, who have been duly elevated to their positions as scholars, theologians, and priests, are in fact legitimate and their teachings, sound. But he then immediately pulls the chair out from under them saying: “But….do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach!”
This reminds me of an incident I witnessed as a kid. I was at my friend Sam’s house and we were working on a school project together. At one point we were goofing off, and thinking we were out of earshot, Sam blurted out an expletive in the course of our conversation. Immediately, Sam’s mom was at the door of his room and she asked him pointedly to repeat what he had just said, threatening to ‘wash his mouth out with soap!’ Sam protested, “But I’ve heard you say that word before.” Sam’s mom replied with the age old adage: “Do as I say, not as I do,” with which Sam wanted to argue that that was in fact exactly what he had done, but not wanting to test his mom about her culinary soap fixation, he instead replied “Yes ma’am.” Sam understood that dropping the ‘F-bomb’ was unacceptable on paper. Yet, the letter of the law had not been followed with the best integrity in his family and Sam’s action simply reflected this. I recall that theologian Frederick Buechner once wrote: “If you want to know what someone believes, watch their feet.[viii]” In other words, right belief has to be confirmed by right action or else it remains simply a theory.
Jesus then begins to make an example of the Pharisees and scribes by pointing out the incongrency of their orthodoxy. He continues: “They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, and to be greeted with respect in the market-places, and to have people call them rabbi.” The word rabbi comes from the Hebrew for “teacher,” but had evolved into a title of respect and distinction by the time the gospel of Matthew was written, some 15-20 years after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. Jesus viewed the seat of Moses as an iconic symbol. An icon is a symbol that is tactile, yet points to something deeper, something beyond its tangible properties. The role of the religious authorities, who were given the authority to sit on the seat of Moses, was to point to a reality greater than themselves, and that reality was God. But their legalistic interpretation of the Law placed a heavy burden on those who did not have the means or fortitude to live up to their standard. And instead of making it easier for the people to nurture a relationship with their creator, the religious authorities were in actuality creating an obstacle by making themselves and their standards the focus, instead of the life, light, and love that God desired for all His children.
We read earlier in Matthew that Jesus was asked which of the commandments was the greatest. You may recall Jesus’ answer: “’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment.” But then Jesus continues: “And the second is like unto it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” Jesus’ assertion is that first and foremost our attention, love, respect, awe, and fear be directed toward God, our creator: God, who is our primary focus, the concentric point of our existence. After this, there is another commandment that is like it and that is to focus our attention, love, respect, awe, and fear to our neighbors as we do ourselves. After we focus our attention on God in the vertical, then we will be able to see more clearly God Emmanuel, that is God ‘with us’ on the horizontal in the lives of our neighbors who mirror the greatest mystery of the incarnate God in whose image we reflect. God as our center; we as living tabernacles of the presence of God in our midst.
So what can we take away from our gospel this morning? Well first I would say that this is not a story about us versus them. Jesus point, and therefore Matthew’s point to his first century Christian community, was that this is everyone’s story. All of us at times have been egocentric and thus have been blind to our actual eccentricities. By bringing the focus to ourselves, we have played a part not only in denying God as our concentric center, but have in effect placed an obstacle to others in their understanding of God’s unconditional love for them. By focusing on our clothes, our jobs, our social status in our community, our money, and even our problems, we have stepped in the pathway of God and challenged others to live up to our standard, placing an unnecessary burden upon them.
Second, I would say that we should look for God in our midst through the lives of our neighbors. Later in chapter 25 of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus articulates in rather blunt terms that how you treat another child of God in this life is in actuality how you treat God.[ix] By seeing the infinite worth in our neighbor, we keep God as our concentric center and focus. In an article in Salon Magazine, Abercrombie and Fitch CEO Mike Jeffries stated, “In every school there are the cool and popular kids, and then there are the not-so-cool kids. Candidly, we go after the cool kids. We go after the attractive all-American kid with a great attitude and a lot of friends. A lot of people don’t belong [in our clothes], and they can’t belong. Are we exclusionary? Absolutely.” [x] Not long after that, Benjamen O’Keefe, a teen from Orlando, Florida created a petition on Change.org calling for A&F to begin carrying XL, XXL, and sizes above size 10 in their stores. The teen stated that this type of exclusionary practice was one of the contributing factors in an eating disorder he battled for several years, and that it only served to promote poor body image.[xi] By this protest, O’Keefe was essentially affirming his worth as a child created in the image of God. By his protest, he was able to change at least in a small way the focus of a company who had denied that worth, and now Abercrombie and Fitch has expanded their clothing lines to include those who don’t were once denied the reality of their God given beauty.
Jesus closes by saying that “The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.” And he had a pretty good role model for that himself, with Mary as his mother. Mary who in the gospel of Luke proclaimed to God in front of her cousin Elizabeth:
‘My soul magnifies the Lord,
47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,
48 for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
50 His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
51 He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
53 he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
54 He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants for ever.’[xii]
Who or what is the center of your life? Where is your focus?
[i] Matthew 21:28-32
[ii] Matthew 21:33-45
[iii] Matthew 22:1-14
[iv] Matthew 21:23-27
[v] Matthew 22:23-33
[vi] Matthew 22:15-22
[vii] Matthew 22:34-40
[viii] Quote paraphrased. Original quote reads: “If you want to know who you are, watch your fee. Because where your feet take you, that is who you are.” Frederick Buechner, The Alphabet of Grace (New York: Harper, 1970), 25.
[ix] Matthew 25:34-40
[x] Denizet-Lewis, Benoit. “The Man Behind Abercrombie and Fitch.” Salon. Salon Media Group, Inc. 24 Jan. 2006. Web. 10 May 2013
[xi] “The Abercrombie and Fitch Controversy: Developments and Reactions.” Center For Discovery, Center for Discovery, 25 May 2013, centerfordiscovery.com/blog/the-abercrombie-and-fitch-controversy-developments-and-reactions-2/.
[xii] Luke 1:46-55
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