David Super’s Oct. 15 Sermon: Service on Christ and the Challenges of Society

This sermon was the second part of a two-part address titled “Challenges of Community.”

READINGS

 Matthew 6:19-24

19 “Don’t save treasures for yourselves here on earth. Moths and rust will destroy them. And thieves can break into your house and steal them. 20 Instead, save your treasures in heaven, where they cannot be destroyed by moths or rust and where thieves cannot break in and steal them. 21 Your heart will be where your treasure is.

22 “The only source of light for the body is the eye. If you look at people and want to help them, you will be full of light. 23 But if you look at people in a selfish way, you will be full of darkness. And if the only light you have is really darkness, you have the worst kind of darkness.[a]

24 “You cannot serve two masters at the same time. You will hate one and love the other, or you will be loyal to one and not care about the other. You cannot serve God and Money[b] at the same time.

 

John 11:45-54

The Jewish Leaders Plan to Kill Jesus

45 There were many Jews who came to visit Mary. When they saw what Jesus did, many of them believed in him. 46 But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what Jesus did. 47 Then the leading priests and Pharisees called a meeting of the high council. They said, “What should we do? This man is doing many miraculous signs. 48 If we let him continue doing these things, everyone will believe in him. Then the Romans will come and take away our Temple and our nation.”

49 One of the men there was Caiaphas. He was the high priest that year. He said, “You people know nothing! 50 It is better for one man to die for the people than for the whole nation to be destroyed. But you don’t realize this.”

51 Caiaphas did not think of this himself. As that year’s high priest, he was really prophesying that Jesus would die for the Jewish people. 52 Yes, he would die for the Jewish people. But he would also die for God’s other children scattered all over the world. He would die to bring them all together and make them one people.

53 That day the Jewish leaders began planning to kill Jesus. 54 So Jesus stopped traveling around openly among the Jews. He went away to a town called Ephraim in an

a region near the wilderness, to a village called Ephraim, where he stayed with his disciples.

 Service on Christ and the Challenges of Society 

Sermon

May my words be pleasing to you, oh God.

As I explained when I preached here two weeks ago, I have been spending a great deal of my time as a scholar exploring the sociological concepts of Community and Society.  Rosabeth Moss Kanter succinctly explained the difference between these two very different ways in which humans relate to one another:

Community relations include the nonrational, affective, emotional, traditional, and expressive components of social action, as in a family; Society relations comprise the rational, con­trac­tual, instrumental, and task-oriented actions, as in a business corporation.  In Community re­la­tions, actors are said to interact as whole persons; in Society relations, as specific parts of their personalities, interacting for specific and limited purposes.[1]

As I went deeper into these concepts, it struck me increasingly that Jesus has a great deal to teach us about each of them.  Almost all of us must divide our time between Community and Society, and each of these two worlds holds distinct perils for us.  As Jesus came to help us with the challenges we face in this world, we should not be surprised that He offered guidance of enduring value about how we should understand and respond to the opportunities and challenges that Community and Society present.

Two weeks ago, I focused on His teachings concerning Community.  Most of us start out with warm feelings about Community.  The greatest challenge, then, often is resisting the urge to elevate our loyalty to Community above our fidelity to God.

With Society, the challenge is reversed:  even those of us that function most successfully in Society hold little affection for it and recognize it as a realm of unpleasantness, disappointments and threats.  This causes us to turn away from Society or to caricature it as entirely evil.  Jesus’s message about Society, although certainly recognizing its dangers, is far more nuanced.

When discussing Jesus’s relationship with Society, we must start with the most obvious point:  that He was tortured and murdered by the most powerful organ of Society in the ancient world:  the Roman Empire.

And, indeed, Jesus recognized that this was far from an isolated incident.  Mary and Joseph had to take the infant Jesus out of their country, to make their family refugees, to escape murderous repression from Herod.  Matthew chapter 2, verses 14-15.

Matthew chapter 14, verses 1-10, tells us that when John the Baptist criticized Herod the tetrarch for adultery, Herod had him imprisoned.  Herod subsequently killed John on the whim of his daughter and wife.  The absolute, unaccountable power of its elites is a major part of what makes Society so dangerous and so feared, in Jesus’s time and our own.

Jesus prophesizes that His disciples will face more violence from thuggish organs of Society, going well beyond those of Rome.  Matthew chapter 24, verse 9, warns that “you will be handed over to be persecuted and put to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of me.”  The hatred of nations is not a personal thing:  whole nations cannot get to know us.  But hatred in Society does not have to rest on any real knowledge of the person being hated, just as internet trolls today vilify and ostracize people they have never met.

The story of Jesus’s betrayal and murder also illustrates some of Society’s worst qualities.  For one, it was deeply manipulative.  In our second reading for today, John chapter 11, verses 48-49, tell us that much of the reason the priests of Jerusalem felt an urgent need to end Jesus’s ministry was that they believed that, if they did not, the Romans would find Him a threat to their rule and destroy the entire Jewish people.  Rome relied on fear to hide its hand in suppressing Jesus.  Powerful people in our own time, too, seek to exploit our fears to induce us to commit hateful acts that betray God.

Society also is adept at avoiding responsibility for its despicable acts.  Matthew chapter 27, verses 19-25, tells us how Pontius Pilate, who held absolute earthly power in Jerusalem and who admitted that Jesus was innocent, nonetheless managed to manipulate the Jewish mob into accepting responsibility for his act in condemning Jesus.

Society has contempt for our individuality, and so naturally it has contempt for our privacy.  When Society is interested in what we are doing, keeping secrets from it is very difficult.  Society routinely lures us into violating our obligations to preserve the confidence of those in our Community.  Thus, John chapter 11, verses 45-46, tells us that even though many of those exposed to Jesus’s ministry responded well and believed in Him, the authorities could always find a few informants to report on His activities.  Matthew chapter 12, verses 15-16 and 24 tells us that Jesus’s injunctions to his audience to keep His presence to themselves were of no avail, and the presence of informants forced Him to flee.  Indeed, John chapter 11, verse 54, tells us that this forced Jesus to retire from public preaching for a time.

Society speaks strategically rather than candidly.  Jesus demonstrates this in Matthew chapter 21, verses 23-27, when He asks the high priests whether John the Baptist’s baptisms were of divine or human origins.  Recognizing the political pitfalls of either response – and making not the slightest effort to determine what they really believe – the religious elites answer that they do not know.  Disgusted, Jesus ends the conversation.  We do just about as well today seeking direct answers from salespeople, politicians, and other representatives of Society.

While Community may abuse or disappoint our love, Society often scoffs at the very concept of love.  Under its influence, Matthew chapter 24, verses 9-12, tells us “many will turn away from the faith and will betray and hate each other, and many false prophets will appear and deceive many people. Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold.”  Sounds a bit familiar, does it not?  The lack of deep connections to one another in Society deprive us of the best tools for spotting these false prophets when they come to us with fake news, get-rich-quick schemes, and appeals to our insecurities.

This lack of connection is an ever-present threat in Society.  Matthew chapter 12, verse 25, warns that “Every kingdom divided against itself will be ruined, and every city or household divided against itself will not stand.”  The lines of division have changed over the ages, but the basic dynamic that Jesus warned us about continues to afflict Society.

Society has many ways of seducing us.  Like the devil trying to tempt Jesus in the wilderness with the thrones of many kingdoms, Society may dangle the perks of hierarchy before our eyes.  If we will go along with the misleading slogan, the manipulative sales pitch, or some heartless bureaucratic imperative – if we will suspend our consciences for a time – we can win promotions, power, and acclaim.

The priests, being better-educated and focused on religion, should have been among the best-equipped to receive Jesus’s message.  A few of them did.  But all too many were seduced by their high status and saw only danger to that status in what Jesus was preaching.

Jesus had little patience for earthly hierarchies.  In Matthew chapter 23, verses 5-8, He mocks the vanity of the upper classes:  “Everything they do is done for people to see: They make their phylacterieswide and the tassels on their garments long; they love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; they love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and to be called ‘Rabbi’ by others.”  In verse 23, He goes on to chastise them for allowing these things to become substitutes for “the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness.”

This is not God’s way.  In Matthew chapter 11, verse 25, He praises God “because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children.”  Children have not yet learned the ways of Society and thus can be more resistant to its blandishments.  We are imperiling that innocent wisdom by exposing children at a younger and younger age to the dishonesty, manipulations, and superficial, objectifying worldview of Society.

Because Society lacks interpersonal depth, it must place far too much emphasis on seductive appearances.  In Matthew chapter 23, verses 25-28, Jesus rather poetically describes this as “clean[ing] the outside of the cup and dish” while “inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. … You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.”

Particularly relevant to our time, Society seeks to seduce us with simplistic claims about economic efficiency and gain.  Another of the devil’s attempts to tempt Jesus in the wilderness was with food to relieve His fast, bringing the curt reply that “Man shall not live on bread alone.”  Luke chapter 4, verse 4.  Economics untethered from morality played a key part in Jesus’s persecution:  John chapter 11, verse 50, has one of Jesus’s persecutors performing cost-benefit analysis and concluding that Jesus’s murder is therefore desirable.

Jesus, a former refugee who had been born in a humble manger, repeatedly addressed the evil that single-minded obsession with economics can yield when unleavened by morality.  In our first reading for today, Matthew chapter 9, verses 19-24, Jesus warns us that our earthly treasures will be fleeting, forever vulnerable to moths, vermin, and thieves.  Frustrating the covetous throughout the ages, Jesus tells us flatly that “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.”

But Jesus’s cautions about Society’s overly monetized view of life were by no means reserved for the rich.  Matthew chapter 20, verses 1-16, tells the story of a group of workers who were infuriated when their employer gave the same wage to those that had worked for only a few hours that he did for those that had toiled in the sun all day long.  Competition is a prime value of Society, but it is deeply myopic and continually eats away at our ties with our sisters and brothers – and with our God.

Seeing this danger, Jesus sought to enforce a strict separation between faith and commerce, even when that meant making enemies by chasing merchants out of the temple in Matthew chapter 21, verses 12-13.  Similarly, Jesus in Matthew chapter 10, verse 9, enjoins His disciples not to carry money with them as they go on their ministries.

People whose understanding of human relations Community has shaped fall easy prey to those hardened by the ruthless economic excesses of Society.  Matthew chapter 21, verses 33-46, tells the tale of a vineyard owner who naively believes that his irresponsible tenants will respect his son sent to collect the rent, only to have that son killed.  In our own time, we are constantly bombarded with huge corporations trying to put on the face of small Community businesses and with crass politicians pretending to be just “one of the guys”.

Along with economics, legalism is one of Society’s favorite dodges.  As I can well testify, Society places great weight in its supposedly efficient and fair laws, effectively elevating them above our moral duties to God and to our fellow people.  Jesus repeatedly scoffed at hyper-technical interpretations of the law that ignored its substantive meaning.  For example, in Matthew chapter 15, verses 3-9, Jesus criticizes those who honor their parents in word but make excuses for not helping them in deed.

Yet although Society constantly, and often insidiously, tests our moral character, we need not give in.  Matthew chapter 24, verse 13, assures us that “the one who stands firm to the end will be saved.”

Indeed, despite all its destructive tendencies, Jesus saw much value in Society.  For one thing, many good people who could readily respond to His message are involved in Society.  Jesus was not preaching only to those engaged in traditional, small-town Community.  He did not limit His efforts to reaching out to what these days might be called “the Real Israel”.  Matthew chapter 9, verses 9-12, shows that Jesus was not only willing but quite eager to reach those within organs of Society.  He recruited a tax collector to follow him and dined with many “tax collectors and sinners.”  Luke chapter 5, verses 31 and 32, gives Jesus’s terse response to those criticizing Him for the company He was keeping: “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.  I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.”

Jesus never had any interest in taking the easy way out, and He meets us where we are.  Inside the organs of Society, just as much as within a tight-knit Community, is a good place to find sinners in need of His message.  In Matthew chapter 9, verse 36, we see that Jesus recognizes that we do not want to be cogs in Society and wants to us become much more:  “When he saw the crowds, He had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.”

When Jesus found a person of faith inside one of Society’s most notorious machines, He was generous in His actions and in His expressions of appreciation.  Luke chapter 7, verses 1-10, tells the story of a Roman centurion, a high military commander.  The centurion had sent servants to make a request of Jesus, rather than coming himself.  At first, that sounds like an action of privilege and arrogance, but the centurion explains that it was because he felt that he did “not deserve to have [Jesus] come under [his] roof.”  When Jesus heard this explanation from such a powerful man, “He was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd following Him, He said, ‘I tell you, I have not found such great faith even in Israel.’”  When we find a good person present and true to her or his convictions inside a large, heartless corporation or bureaucracy, we have found something very special and worthy of celebration.   

Although He could easily look into any person’s heart, Jesus studied Society and often spoke of people collectively rather than treating them as individuals.  The beatitudes in Matthew chapter 5, verses 1-11, are comments about classes of people, not individuals.  The parable of the sower in Matthew chapter 13, verses 1-9, predicts the types of responses people in the aggregate will give to the Word of God without any attempt to analyze this or that person’s particular thinking.  In Luke chapter 7, verses 31-35, Jesus tries to understand the failings of a whole generation.  We need to understand the strengths and weaknesses of particular individuals, but we also need to understand the strengths and weaknesses of types of Societal arrangements.

Jesus recognized that reaching out to strangers in Society was crucial to propagating the faith and refused to give it up despite its perils.  Indeed, His ministries through Community faced great difficulty, leading Jesus to lament in Luke chapter 4, verse 22, that “no prophet is accepted in his hometown.”  Even when a community would try to make Him their own and beg Him to stay, as in Luke chapter 4, verses 42-44, Jesus would tell them that He must keep moving, keep appealing to more strangers.  So, too, in the trouble state of our country today, we cannot be satisfied with speaking out minds in the comfortable confines of our Community but must do the hard work of reaching out to those in Society who think and believe very differently from us and who may greet us with great suspicion.

Accordingly, He recruited His disciples from strangers.  In Matthew chapter 9, verses 37-38, He compares the faceless masses who must be approached as strangers in Society to grain in a field and the members of His Community to farmers:  “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few.  Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into His harvest field.”  And in Matthew chapter 10, verses 6-20 and 23-27, He describes an extremely arduous process of ministry in which His disciples will face constant rejection and considerable danger but will discover a few good hearts along the way.

For all its shortcomings, public opinion sometimes can aggregate the decent impulses of many people.  Jesus was able to minister on this earth as long as He did because of the partial protection His popularity with the masses afforded Him.  Matthew chapter 26, verses 3-5, tells us that worries about a riot were a major constraint on those that sought to kill Jesus.  Fears of mass negative reaction often provide important restraints on heartless political and business leaders.

Society produces things that we need, which Jesus made clear that He wants us to have.  Indeed, Luke chapter 8, verses 1-3, tell us that wealthy women of the day accompanied and financially supported Him.   Government programs and foundations started by some of the most ruthless industrialists fund a great deal of very important work in our communities.

The key to dealing successfully with Society is to compartmentalize.  Jesus recognized the relative unimportance of imperial taxes compared with what He was preaching and had no difficulty, in Matthew chapter 22, verses 15-22, to sanction paying them.  His point was that money was a creature of Society and so simply returning some of Caesar’s coinage to him did not broaden the Empire’s reach into spiritual matters.  It is a very different matter when Society demands not just our money but our embrace of its desiccated values.

An aspect of this compartmentalization is ensuring that Society does not dominate our lives completely.  Jesus conducted most of his ministry in Society and was deeply committed to it, yet even as He became ever more in demand Luke chapter 5, verses 15-16 tells us that He often withdrew from Society to be alone and pray.  We may spend a great deal of time in Society, but it will never be our true home.

If Society gives us power or status, we must remember that the only truly valuable status comes to us as servants of God.  Romans chapter 12, verses 2-8, tells us:

For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you. For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.  We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us. If your gift is prophesying, then prophesy in accordance with your faith; if it is serving, then serve; if it is teaching, then teach; if it is to encourage, then give encouragement; if it is giving, then give generously; if it is to lead, do it diligently; if it is to show mercy, do it cheerfully.

Just as we must not be seduced by Society, so too we must not be excessively intimidated by it.  In Matthew chapter 24, verses 6-8, Jesus warns us

You will hear of wars and rumors of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are the beginning of birth pains.

All too often today, political and business leaders tell us that we must accept this or that moral outrage – turning our backs on desperate refugees, continuing severe poverty, ruining the planet that was entrusted to us, ignoring the degradation of public life generally – because of frightening stories about the alternative being even worse.  We should heed Jesus’s warning to reject that fatalism.

We certainly must not internalize Society’s concerns and priorities to the point that they distract us from our own moral compasses.  Luke chapter 6, verses 6-11, describes Jesus healing a man with a withered hand as an act of open defiance against those seeking to enforce heartless rules against healing on the Sabbath.  Jesus cared more about a man in need than about affecting false pieties to fit Societal norms.  When Society forbids us from being kind and decent, we must evade it or, if necessary, defy it.

Thus, we must accept, and remember, that our roles within Society come with moral components.  In Luke chapter 3, verses 10-14, John the Baptist tells those that prosper in Society to share their good fortune and those that work in some of Society’s potentially oppressive arms to maintain their integrity and avoid being any harsher than is required.  In Luke chapter 6, verses 27-36, Jesus cautions us not to judge the creditworthiness of those in need who seek to borrow money nor our potential to gain in the future from those whom we might befriend.  Many people who started their lives poor or as refugees went on to make enormous contributions in science, business, or the arts, but that is not why we should help those in need.

More generally, Luke chapter 6, verses 46-49, teaches us that those that rely on status conferred by Society are building their houses on foundations of sand because Society entails constant change and will show us no loyalty.  It is only by pursuing a moral course that we may build a foundation that will be more solid when the winds and tides turn against us.  If we forget this, the fault is ours, not Society’s.

In Matthew chapter 12, verses 34-37, Jesus notes that those using Society’s moral emptiness, and often glib communications, to put a pretty face on its rottenness will nonetheless face an accounting for those actions after this life before God.  It is impossible to “spin” God.

Society does not really desire a broad relationship with us; we should not aspire to having a broad relationship with it.  In the wonderful movie A Bronx Tale, the adolescent boy who is the central character excitedly tells Sonny, his new mentor, about his great love for baseball star Mickey Mantle.  Sonny responds that he does not care a whit for Mickey Mantle because he is quite sure that Mickey Mantle does not care a whit about him.  In the same way, we may support a politician, or enjoy watching a sports team, or draw pleasure from the singing or acting of a celebrity, but we should not pretend that we know them and love them.  We should save our love for those in our Community, and for God.

 

[1]Rosabeth Moss Kanter, Commitment and Community:  Communes and Utopias in Sociological Perspective 148 (1972).