35 He turns a desert into pools of water, a parched land into springs of water. 36 And there he lets the hungry live, and they establish a town to live in;
37 they sow fields, and plant vineyards, and get a fruitful yield.
Matt 23:1–11 (combined NIV and NRSV)
Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, 2“The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; 3therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach. 4They 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. 5 “Everything they do is done for people to see. They make their phylacteries wide and their fringes long. 6They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, 7and to be greeted with respect in the market-places, and to have people call them ‘rabbi.’
8“But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all siblings. 9And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father—the one in heaven. 10Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah. 11The greatest among you will be your servant.”
I’m going to start with the Gospel reading and then move on to the Psalm. Jesus here starts out with a warning about the Pharisees. They say good things, but they don’t do them. Worse, they bind religious burdens upon others, while showing off their prayer shawls and robes. Go ahead and respect their right to sit in Moses’ seat, and do what they say to do, but don’t do what they actually do, for their actions reveal greed, arrogance, and hard-heartedness. These were not the first, and they won’t be the last hard-hearted religious authorities.
But your true leaders, Jesus is telling them, are God and the Messiah. He starts by saying don’t call anyone “rabbi,” for you are all brothers—siblings. I’ll come back to that.
His second mandate is that we should call no one father, which probably means the honorary and symbolic title of father, except our father in heaven. And, finally, call no one Instructor, but Christ himself, who is the only perfect instructor. Jesus’ teachings here, in common Protestant wording, are the brotherhood of man, the Fatherhood of God, and the primacy of the Messiah.
I want to expand a little bit on each one of these. The first one, don’t call anyone rabbi, is sometimes understood to mean “don’t call anyone ‘teacher,’” and that is one common translation of the word “rabbi,” but a more literal translation is “great one.” Therefore, don’t call anyone “great one,” for you are all brothers, or all siblings. You see, he is raising our status, getting us to stop thinking so highly of supposedly great people, but to realize our own dignity as children of God, and brothers and sisters to the whole human race. Now, does it say “brothers” or “siblings”? The word is adelphoi, which means brothers, but that implies sisters as well. The point is that we are all children of God, and therefore siblings of one other.
He reinforces this with the next teaching, that we have one father, who is the Father in heaven. It is the love of God that gives us dignity and value. The only possibility for a real brotherhood of man, is the recognition of the Fatherhood of God, the primacy of God, who will always be greater than our understanding of God. This should teach us humility, and so he says,“The greatest among you will be your servant” (Matt 23:11). All the religions of the world, including Christianity, need to learn this humility of submitting to the Supreme Father, and not being so sure that we know everything already.
We dohave one perfect Instructor, however, and that is the Messiah, Jesus himself. And this is truly a Protestant principle, the idea that the individual can be instructed by Jesus—or at least by the Bible and the Holy Spirit—without a priestly hierarchy telling us what we must think and believe. I have all respect for ministers who’ve had a theological education, and to their teaching role, but I think we need to return to the principle that our fundamental teacher is the Spirit within each one of us, and Jesus, who stands behind that Spirit. Jesus can help us in good times, but even more in hard times and times of transition. And that is where I segue into the psalm, for the psalm talks about a people on the move, on an exodus from an old place, in search of a new place of safety and nurturing.
In language that recalls some of the Eucharistic wording, it speaks of people coming from east and west, north and south. It says “some wandered in desert wastes . . . hungry and thirsty . . . . Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he delivered them from their distress” (Ps 107:4–6).
At the end of the wandering is a beautiful promise: God “turns a desert into pools of water, a parched land into springs of water. And there he lets the hungry live, and they establish a town to live in” (107:35–36).
I think the message is that God guides us through our exodus, or our transitions, helps us to survive, and then helps us to thrive, for which we are grateful. We should develop the habit of always giving thanks.
There’s another line from that psalm that I didn’t include in the reading. It’s verse 9, and I’m going to use a British translation known as the English Standard Version: “He satisfies the longing soul,and the hungry soul he fills with good things” (107:9 ESV; see KJV, too).
So I see this psalm as speaking to the condition of those who are in motion or in exodus, which includes many churches, which need to redefine themselves, to think of new ways to meet people’s spiritual needs, and how to reach a generation that does not seem to be listening.
Yet there are hungry souls out there. There are young people who have a chronic longing, but they have resigned themselves to seeing that longing remain permanently unsatisfied.
We who are biblically-minded can really hear this psalm talking to us. What about those who are not familiar with the Bible? We have to accept that some of the ancient metaphors, such as fields and vineyards, may not speak to them. Even the ideas of Messiah, Israel, and “salvation” may be alien to their thinking.
But the metaphor of being filled when you are thirsty, or fed when you are hungry, can still resonate with them. We all sometimes have parched throats, and need a pool of water, spiritually. Can we build on such simple metaphors, and say that God can fulfill the longing they feel in their hearts? Can we say it without sounding condescending?
I think we can. It is a test of our own genuineness. We can still tell them that they are children of God, and therefore brothers and sisters of all humanity, that God wants to help us overcome our fear, our greed, and our loneliness. This is a message of permanent validity, and doesn’t require familiarity with the Bible. Some people can be reached with simple truths that are delivered in a sincere and respectful way. And if they are ready, they can start learning about the Bible. Throughout the history of Christianity there have been newcomers who have had to learn about the Bible.
A lot of these young people can smell hypocrisy a mile away. They will be able to appreciate the stories of Jesus’ response to the Pharisees’ hypocrisy, long before they are ready to think of Jesus as the Son of God.
We’re all in motion, we’re all living in a time of change. It may be that we can reach those of other generations who are in motion or transition in their own ways. Spiritual principles are essential to making it through times of transition without suffering injury. As the psalm says “they cried to [God] in their trouble, and he delivered them from their distress” (107:6).
You and I have probably had that experience. But, of course, we cannot simply lay this experience upon another person.
But we can help by mentioning the good news that we all have the same Father in heaven, who opens up springs of spiritual water for the thirsty. There really is such a thing as spiritual thirst, and another thing: spiritual waters. Even though this is metaphorical language, it is not fantasy or unreality. The ancient Hebrews experienced it, the early Christians experienced it, we can experience it, and we can share that experience with others.