Our Reflection this week comes to us from Rev. John Dacey (Chaplain at Macquarie Uni)
After a tense conversation with the Scribes and Pharisees, Jesus is talking to his crowd, conveying to them just how hypocritical the Scribes and Pharisees are, in vs.1-5. In vs. 6-7, Jesus also criticises them for lording it over others, abusing the power of their position.
But at v.8, still talking to the crowd, Jesus’ tone of voice changes – he shifts his focus to the (potential?) hypocrisy of the crowd itself. He does this because of the human tendency to blame others and not recognise our own complicity in a problem or injustice. We tend to be blind to our own hypocrisy. Jesus was pointing out that the crowd and his own followers should not participate in this propensity for lording it over others. We can easily fall into doing the very thing we criticise others for doing.
But what about the prohibition of calling people ‘Father’ or ‘Teacher’? Is this just Jewish hyperbole (exaggeration), or is there something more to it? Understanding Jesus’ intention here requires understanding that, in ancient times, titles and labels had much more meaning and power than they do today. Though, even today, titles still can carry a sense of superiority.
The clue to Jesus’ intention is in his words: “yet all of you are brothers (and sisters).”(v.8) The patriarchal language of his day notwithstanding, Jesus’ concern is for equality, fraternity, egalitarianism, but titles such as Rabbi and Father tended to prohibit that in his day. Power was vested in a title. Titles can have their place, but not to convey superiority. They can convey a role or position, but superiority is not intrinsic to the said role or title.
Jesus follows his statement that all are brothers and sisters with statements that are clearly aimed at challenging expectations of power associated with title and position: “the greatest of you will be your servant.” And “whoever will exalt himself will be humbled and whoever will humble himself will be exalted.” Jesus is seeking the recognition of all people as equally valued and valuable, and that any titles do not imply either superiority or inferiority. But what replaces titles and the superiority they attract? Jesus gives a hint in his words: Service & humility are key to what replaces superiority.
I regularly hear people lament the loss of respect in society. Especially things like, “Young people – they’ve got no respect anymore.” Or “nobody respects the elderly, … the police, … the church, … teachers, … (insert name of group who traditionally had power) anymore.” And I tend to agree; but I think it’s a good thing. Why? Because society is in a time of transition (and unfortunately transitions feel chaotic and uncomfortable). We are slowly doing away with the old titles of superiority and the power and respect that went with them. But we haven’t yet fully replaced respect based on superiority with what Jesus was suggesting: respect based on shared humanity and the intrinsic value of all. We have begun, but it’ll take more time before the process is complete. And like most change that is worthwhile – it’ll get worse before it gets better.
Beyond the social implications of Jesus’ call for greater equality there are theological implications, too. For around 30 years, I’ve bristled at the idea of calling God ‘Father’, not primarily because of feminism or inclusive language, nor due to not having a positive father role model in my life, but because I didn’t like the idea of being a ‘child’ of God. I wanted, and still want to think of myself as grown up, mature, an ‘adult’ of God, if you like. I know we are all still children of our parents, even when we are adults, but, with my own children, who are now adults, I more highly value the equal ‘partner’ or friend relationship I have with them now, than any sense that they are my children. Similarly, I see myself as a ‘partner’ with God, a friend of God, not a child of God.
Theologian Don Cupitt says “It is preposterous that our daily practices in prayer and worship should so flagrantly contradict the concern for human dignity and freedom that church leaders sincerely profess …” And “The fact is that if modern humanitarian Christianity is ever to become established and to assert itself consistently, then it must sooner or later purge itself of cosmic feudalism.” Kingdom Come in Everyday Speech (SCM Press, 2000. p.109) By ‘cosmic feudalism’, Cupitt means the language and symbols of ‘king’ and ‘lord’ (and ‘kingdom’ and ‘dominion’) as commonly ascribed and attributed to God and Jesus.
If we want to join with Jesus’ desire for more equal societies, and we want the church to be taken seriously in advocating for them, then our God language and our practices of prayer and worship need to reflect our desire for the world to be a place of equality, reciprocity and mutuality.
I know this is a big call because it targets some ‘sacred cows’, if I can call them that, of the Christian tradition – the Lord’s Prayer or Our Father, to name one. But Jesus’ prayer recorded in Mtt. 6 & Lk. 11 was descriptive, not prescriptive; his disciples asked Jesus, ‘teach us to pray’ not ‘teach us a prayer’. I hear you ask: ‘Jesus refers to God as Father, so why shouldn’t we?’ Well, Jesus was stretching his audience a long way out of their comfort zone by referring to God as ‘Father’. It would have been a ‘bridge too far’ for him to call God, ‘Friend’ or ‘Partner’. Remember, Jews didn’t even vocalise their descriptive name for God, YHWH. They used generic terms Adonai (Lord) & Elohim (God), so calling God ‘Father’ was a stretch; calling God ‘friend’ would have been too much.
2000 years on, might we not follow Jesus’ intent rather than idolize his words and, while we’re relating to each other as equals, try some ‘egalitarian’ titles for God – Friend, Partner, ‘Maaaate’, Companion, Ally, or ‘I Am who I Am’ – remembering that all names for God fall short of the mark?
Jesus’ was very critical of the scribes and Pharisees because of the abuses they perpetrated in God’s name, but he was equally challenging to the ordinary people who were the victims of their abuse. He knew, like Gandhi, that even victims had to change their ways in order to not cooperate with abuse so that the total system of imbalance and injustice would come crashing down. This is what is needed to bring about God’s beloved community, as ML King Jr called ‘God’s reign’, here on earth.
Currently I’m the UCA Chaplain at Macquarie University, which I can tell you is a far from egalitarian place, with titles such as Vice Chancellor, professor and the like, carrying an awful lot of prestige. Against that reality, the socialist student groups rally weekly to protest cuts to funding and courses as well as other injustices; but they rarely garner much support from a student population which either don’t care a great deal, or more likely, don’t care for the kind of protest the socialist students get up to. In my first weeks on campus, I surreptitiously joined such a protest and I didn’t like it.
While religious student groups and chaplains wouldn’t normally be seen within ‘coo-ee’ of such a protest, I wanted to join in solidarity – my concerns echoing those of the socialists, though stopping short of calling the Vice Chancellor names!
So, as a chaplain, I found myself in a kind of no-man’s land – not fitting in with the conservative Christian and other religious groups, but not sharing the tactics of the activists despite sharing some of their concerns. Thinking that perhaps I share more in common with the bulk of the rest of the student community than I, and they, realise, I set out to discover how to ‘leverage’ some of the common ground. I realised the UCA Chaplaincy needed innovating, apart from COVID-19 impacts.
I’ve been surveying students about what they want out of their time at uni besides their academic degrees, i.e. their non-academic aspirations. The results indicate a strong desire for good friends (84%) and quality experiences (76%), to learn communication (85%) and motivational (75%) life-skills, to have a mentor (75%, compared to 25% wanting a life coach or personal trainer), and opportunities to ‘give back’ to society (85%). Even 50% said they want “opportunities to reflect, with others, on your experiences to explore values, meaning, purpose and nurture of the soul.”
There is plenty ‘common ground’ there for the UCA Chaplaincy to deliver both the church’s and Christian faith’s purpose, and provide students with what they desire. First ‘cab off the rank’ will be a student mentoring program for which I’ll be recruiting and training mentors from UCA churches from across the SCC Presbytery. Will you join me in being a positive influence in a student’s life?