Titles and Perks - Matthew 23:8-12
In Bill Hybels excellent book, “Descending into Greatness” he writes,
Take ten chickens. Any ten. Put them in a pen together, and spread a little chicken feed. In short order, you will witness an amazing phenomenon. In a matter of minutes, the chickens, previously strangers, will form a hierarchy based on dominance; or, in everyday language, they will establish a Pecking Order. Instinctively, they will determine, through a series of skirmishes, who the Number One Chicken will be; then the Number Two; the Number Three and all the way down to the unlucky Number Ten Chicken.
Much is at stake in this dance of domination. Chicken Number One pecks at and intimidates Chicken Number Two, without experiencing any kind of retribution from Chicken Number Two. Chicken Number Two will take it from Chicken Number One but will turn around and peck away at Chicken Number Three, who will in turn, take out its frustration on Chicken Number Four. The Pecking Order continues all the way down to Chicken Number Ten, who needless to say, has a pretty miserable life: pecked, but no one to peck. (p. 115-116)
Every one of us knows that the pecking order is not confined to chickens. Everywhere we turn, people are looking to establish a pecking order. You are ranked on the basis of your education, your job title, your income, your ability, and your possessions. You will be ranked by the kind of car your drive, the label on the clothes you wear, the status of your last name.
We see it in schools. Children who have not even matured yet are labeled good or bad based on the speed of their development in athletics, their test scores, and their appearance. They are welcomed or dismissed based on family name, acne, or income level. The child with a learning or physical disability doesn’t stand a chance!
Any gathering of professionals will feature a jockeying for position in the Pecking Order. If you sit back and listen you will hear people talking about the range of their experience, the size of their responsibility, the degrees they have secured, the people with whom they are friends and the awards they have won. It is all geared to the same thing . . . determining the pecking order.
Wouldn’t it be nice if we could say this kind of thing doesn’t happen in the church? It would be nice, but it wouldn’t be true. If you get a group of Pastors together you will hear questions such as: How big is your church? How many ministers are on your staff? Do you have a worship team? Do you use multimedia? How big is your youth program? What is your rate of growth? There is one purpose to these questions: to establish a Pecking Order.
In Matthew 23:8-11 Jesus speaks directly to this desire to rank ourselves in relation to others. In these words He confronts the notion of the pecking order.
PROHIBITION: RESIST THE TITLES
Jesus gives this direction to His disciples,
8 “But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have only one Master and you are all brothers. 9 And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. 10 Nor are you to be called ‘teacher,’ for you have one Teacher, the Christ. 11 The greatest among you will be your servant. 12 For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.
It is important to see that Jesus is contrasting the disciples with the way of the Pharisees and the Teachers of the Law. He said of them,
They love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; 7 they love to be greeted in the marketplaces and to have men call them ‘Rabbi.’
The Pharisees and teachers of the Law wanted to be seen. They wanted to be known and to stake their place at the top of the pecking order. Jesus tells His disciples, “Don’t be like them!”
Jesus is not saying you should never call someone Rabbi, Father, or Teacher. He was saying that we shouldn’t be seeking or demanding these titles. We shouldn’t be focused on a person’s title . . . we should focus on their personhood! He is also saying we shouldn’t exalt people to positions that should be reserved for God.
There are three reasons I see for avoiding the mentality of the Pecking Order. First The pursuit of titles and perks is the wrong goal. Our goal is to pursue faithfulness to the Lord. We should be seeking to amass character rather than perks.
We see this pursuit manifested in various ways: There is the drive for position. We want to be recognized, deferred to, and honored. We want to be on the “A” list of the social crowd. We want people to respect us and honor us.
I heard James MacDonald talking about a time when he was visiting a church where the Pastor insisted that everyone refer to him as Pastor. Even the staff called Him Pastor so-and-so. They were all in a van and the Pastor exited. His wife (!) said, “The Pastor will be back in a moment.” MacDonald said his wife made it a point to call this guy Steve whenever she could. This frustrated the Pastor because he wanted “respect”. He wanted everyone to know who he was. Truth is, everyone did know who he was, they just didn’t care!
I am all for giving people proper respect but we need to get over ourselves! We are not as significant as we’d like to think. I support advancing your education. However, if the goal is simply to get a title, you are pursuing the wrong goal!
People run after power. The goal is simple: get to the top! People want control and they will run over whoever they need to run over to get it. I sense there are some people don’t want to serve on Boards and committees, they want to RUN THINGS. This is the kind of thing Jesus is trying to curtail.
A dangerous trend in the church is the rise of CEO pastors. More and more we are seeing Pastors who insist on running the church! They want all the control and they demand that the people submit to “their authority”. When you hear those kinds of words, I think you are right to be concerned. You may be dealing with a power hungry individual.
We are supposed to submit to the authority of Jesus! You can’t demand that someone respect you . . . you earn that respect. Jesus wanted his followers to understand that their authority is a derived authority. The Bible calls us to submit to leaders who first submit to the Word of God. A leader is only worth following when you know where they are leading you. A Biblical leader is urging people to follow the Lord, not them
People also run after prestige. They want to be known. They want to be considered among the “movers and shakers”. It’s the wrong goal! Our job is to make Christ known. John the Baptist had a great ministry before Jesus came along. When Jesus arrived people started to leave John to follow Christ. John’s disciples were concerned about the drop in their attendance. They were a little miffed at the competition. When they met with John for a strategy session, John said, “He must increase and I must decrease”. The same is true of the believer. Christ must become more prominent and we must become less. This leads me to the next observation.
Notice Second that A Pursuit of titles and perks puts us in the wrong position. Our ambition puts us where only the Lord should be. When we are trying to get all the attention, we are taking that attention away from where it should be, on the Lord! When we should be sharing what He has done, we are too busy talking about what we have done. When we should be bowing to His will we end up trying to bring about our will.
Third, A Pursuit of titles and perks divides what should not be divided. Our Lord tells us we should not let anyone call us rabbi because. . . we are all brothers. For the church to function as it was designed, there can’t be a Pecking Order. This is to be a place where people are valued equally. It is the place where the pauper is on equal footing with the King. No matter where we have come from or what we have accomplished we are all the same in this place, we are “Sinners who depend on God’s gracious act in Christ, for our salvation.”
Again, let me quote Hybels,
The Pecking Order, at it’s very skeleton, is built on pride and prejudice, on the belief that some of us are better than others. Humility is the wisdom to know that each of us, in the eyes of God, is the same: deeply flawed, yet precious. None of us, regardless of our titles and possessions, is worthy of more than hell. None of us can climb ourselves into a state of grace. God’s redeeming mercy is, by definition, totally undeserved. Yet it is offered freely to all. (p. 123
PRESCRIPTION: BECOME A SERVANT
Jesus doesn’t leave us simply with a prohibition. He tells us how to correct the problem. “The greatest among you will be your servant. 12 For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” (vv. 11,12) This is familiar counsel in the Bible. Several times He repeated this phrase in the gospels. This teaching is consistent with what is taught elsewhere.,
“Before downfall goes pride; and before stumbling, a haughty spirit” (Prov. 16:18)
23 A man’s pride brings him low, but a man of lowly spirit gains honor. [Prov. 29:23]
“God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” [Jas. 4:5-6]
There are a couple of key benefits to the servant heart. First, the servant heart sees hurting people. Think about it, how many times have you been walking through a store or a mall and you walked right by someone you knew and didn’t even see them until they called to you? How did that happen? You were preoccupied. You were thinking about something else and didn’t see anyone who wasn’t in your focus.
People who are focused on titles and perks don’t see people who can’t help them to their goal. This was the case with the Pharisees. They didn’t want to associate with the “little people”. Internally the question they ask of everyone is simple: “Can this person help me get to my goal?” If not, they dismiss them. Sometimes this decision takes a fraction of a second.
We see this in schools all the time. Kids that aren’t attractive, athletic or intellectually advanced are overlooked because everyone is trying to get close to the “stars” of the school. But it is not just in school. It is in every area of life.
Jesus was the example of what a servant was like. He set aside the power and privilege that was rightfully His and instead became a servant. Jesus attracted the people who were scorned by the Scribes and Pharisees. In the crowd following Jesus were common people, discarded people, and hurting people.
If Jesus had big meetings today the parking lot wouldn’t be filled with Lexuses, Cadillacs, and expensive SUV’s. There would be a few of those vehicles, but mostly it would be Ford’s, Chevy’s, and rusted out vehicles. Jesus drew the common folk to Him. He drew the people the Pharisees didn’t have time for.
So here’s a question for us: Who are we overlooking? Where have we become so intent on rising in the pecking order that we no longer see the person who is hurting? We are so focused on status that we don’t see the cleaning person, the new employee, the delivery person, the teen who stands in the corner or the cashier. We have no time for the elderly and don’t have time for children! If you see this in your life you need to develop a servant heart.
Second, The servant is willing to be used as God sees fit. The person who is focused on titles and perks always wants to know, “what’s in it for me?” The person with a servant heart is willing to do whatever needs to be done. They will take out garbage, sweep floors, change a diaper, hold a door, drive someone to a meeting, or pick up a scrap of paper. These are people who aren’t afraid of getting dirty or being inconvenienced. They see a job that needs to be done and see no reason why they shouldn’t be the one to do that job.
The servant will sacrifice present pleasure to invest in what will have eternal consequences. They aren’t bound by ego; they are set free by grace. They listen to others because they know God is listening to them. They have a humility that says, “I don’t have all the information.”
I hope you see what an important passage of Scripture this is. This is a very real battle that we all fight. We are constantly pushed to pursue titles and perks. This is how we are measured by the world. This pursuit is sometimes bold and at other times passive aggressive. The result is the same: we end up trying to build our Kingdom rather than His.
There are two different applications in this passage. The first is a rebuke. Jesus speaks plainly; If you are seeking to push your own preferences and demand your own way, you need to repent. It is sin. We are to humbly seek His way, not ours. We must decrease and He must increase.
If we are judging others based on externals we must repent. We must work to eliminate thoughts and actions that say, “I’m better (or worse) than you are. We must see the image of God in all around us.
We need to develop a servant heart. But we can’t do this without taking deliberate steps to do so. First, we must pray. We must ask the Lord to purify our hearts and to give us the heart of the servant. We need to ask the Lord to show us where our pride and self-centeredness is hindering our walk with Him. When God shows us the problems we must not excuse them, we must repent!
Second, we must practice servanthood. Let someone else talk. Make it a point to reach out to someone on the fringe of the social group. Ask someone to tell you about their life. Resist the urge to talk about the time you had an experience “just like that” (that was more difficult or significant). Listen.
Let someone else have the bigger piece of pie. Take out the garbage or do the dishes even if it isn’t “your turn”. Clean up a mess you didn’t make. Do a job that is “beneath you”. Let someone else have the closer parking spot. Give a compliment rather than fish for one. And . . . do all of this without expecting credit for doing so.
The second application is a message of encouragement. Many of us have been in this position of being at the bottom of the Pecking Order at one time or another. You may feel inadequate because you aren’t as attractive, coordinated, talented or have as big or nice a house as others. You may feel like a second-class person because you have a stained past or have made bad choices.
First, let me say, on behalf of the Lord Jesus Christ: please forgive us if we cause you to feel like a second-class person. We may act that way . . . Jesus does not. Forgive us for mis-representing our wonderful Savior. You have nothing to prove here. We are all people who are dependent on God’s forgiveness and grace. Second, let me assure you that the Lord Jesus Christ sees the real you. He understands you. He loves you. He sees the potential you may not even see in yourself. Please, look past us and see Him. Don’t dismiss Him because of your experience in the church. Come to Him. He cherishes you.
Jesus gave His life for the broken, the bruised and the rejected. He came for you. Many of the people who look like they have it “all together” are just as broken as you are. They hide behind their smiles. God loves you. There is a place for you in His kingdom. He wants to use you in significant and eternal ways.
Our goal as people and as a congregation should be: to stop pecking and to start embracing; to stop building walls and start building bridges; to stop fighting and start healing; to stop complaining about what others are doing and roll up our own sleeves and get to work. When all is said and done, this passage is less about titles than it is about the heart. Jesus calls us to see things differently than the rest of the world. He calls us to buck the trend of our push and shove world. He calls us to trust Him and to learn to see not with the blinders of labels, but with the clarity of grace.