26th Sunday after Pentecost November 2, 2005

by Vitor Westhelle
Professor of Systematic Theology

We pray with the Psalmist: "O send out your light and your truth; let them lead us."

Reading the gospel lesson for this week, I think we could use the words of Jesus in and engrave them in LSTC's mission statement: "Do what we teach, don't mind what we do." If I get the doctrine of the Trinity right, if I can make sense of Chalcedon, if my Greek or Hebrew translation is fine, if the liturgy instructions are well delineated, if the lessons on the Augsburg Confession are in order, if the pastoral counseling techniques are to the point, why should you be concerned if my cooking is inept, if my Saturday house cleaning is sloppy, if my tennis game is awful, if I jaywalk on the street, or if I put too much sugar in my coffee? Never mind what I do; it is not your business. Just do what I say.

This is what we are about as an educational institution: telling folks what to do. I am pretty content with that, although I still wish someone by the name of Moses would endow a chair in systematic theology for me to seat in while lecturing. But nothing is perfect and, while I wait for my chair, I don't mind standing up while lecturing. Meanwhile I may order me some new business cards with the new inscription (in golden letters, preferably): Vítor Westhelle, The Moses Professor or Systematic Theology.

But friends, I have a problem with the lectionary. Normally I complain about passages of the scriptures left out. But this time it seems we have too much. The words of Jesus should stop at the middle of verse 3; "Do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do." But, alas, it goes on: "… they do not practice what they teach. 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." And so it goes on. The point is that their teaching is their very doing. This seems a strange saying, for Jesus is charging those teachers for not doing what they were actually doing. They were teaching and that was their doing. So what were they not doing? This seems to me the very point of Jesus' admonition: they do not learn what they teach.

The Book of Concord has a name for that: antinomianism. Antinomians are not what we normally take them to be: libertines, someone living a dissolute life. Antinomians are those that apply to others laws, rules, lessons and burdens that they do not apply to themselves. Why not? Because they regard themselves above the law? No! They regard themselves as having already fulfilled all the law. They are teachers who think they don't have to learn anymore. Antinomians live unexamined lives. For them it is always the other to whom the teaching addresses. It is always the other to whom the law pertains, and not to oneself.

Are we not all so often like that, ready to point out the failures in others before examining our own? I know I am. If I call the other irresponsible, I might have exactly failed to respond, to be responsible to her need that was crying out in the very behavior I decry. If I think the other should be disciplined, I myself might have failed to be a disciple. When the other alone needs to the taught, I already stopped learning. When terror does not first strike my own conscience, to use the words of Melanchthon in defining repentance, then I point to the other and call him terrorist. When I call another ignorant, I am the one who is ignoring her. When I call the other irrational, I am depriving my reason of a greater wisdom.

These words of Jesus in the gospel lesson for this week painfully remind me of a quote from Bernard Shaw that my adolescent son while preparing to become an aerospace engineer had the perverse habit of throwing at me: "Dad, as Bernard Shaw says: 'The one who can does; the one who cannot teaches.'" (I must tell you that I had a retort to my adolescent son and quoted to him Mark Twain: "When I was 14, my father was the dumbest person in the world; when I was 21, I was amazed to see how much my father had learned and how wise he had become in just the last seven years." It might have worked, because for the last five years, since my son turned 21, he had not run the Shaw quote by me again.)

But the difference between Bernard Shaw's line and Jesus words in this gospel lesson is a rhetorical one. Jesus' remarks are not sarcastic. He just names what all of us who want to teach—parents, peers, professors and adolescents alike—always fail to do while we are in a teaching mood: we fail to learn. And learning, being a student, always starts with repentance, with knowing that we begin by having missed the mark.

No matter what you or I might think of his theology, the old Schleiermacher while being acclaimed as the most influential living theologian would sign his name not as Doctor or Professor which he was with all rights, but as any of his student was expected to do: Friedrich Schleiermacher, student of theology. He might have learned this from the Roman philosopher Seneca in his famous dictum: Docendo discimus, in teaching we learn. But I would like to believe that he learned it from a contemporary of Seneca, a much more radical teacher, the one instructor of whom we are all students, Christ, the Messiah.

He actually had it the other way around. Instead of saying "In teaching we learn," Jesus was saying: "In learning we teach." He is God's pedagogue, because he is first a learner. He is God, the teacher, in revealing God-self to us. And what made him such an exemplary teacher? We know that he taught by learning. His encounter with the Syro-Phoenician woman is the most dramatic account, bordering on the scandal of the Messiah being instructed by that humble woman. But we don't need to go there. What are his parables if not stories collected from everyday life experience that Jesus learned in order to teach what the Kingdom of God is like, like a thief in the night, like a son who takes his inheritance and goes away in defiance only to be received back home with a feast, like a lost sheep that is found, like a worker hired in the last hour but gets the full day pay?

We miss the whole point of the gospel if we think that Jesus had all these stories stored in his brain at the moment of conception. We miss the point if we think that Jesus could say that "the greatest among you shall be your servant, if God has not emptied God-self in him to become a servant. We miss the point if we do not realize that this teacher, the very Messiah only started his public teaching after going through a baptism of repentance and forgiveness in the river Jordan. He, not even he, began teaching without dying to his own old self.

Karl Barth once remarked approvingly that, for Luther, God's revelation is not only given in the form of a creature, instead of the creator Herself, but also under the condition of utmost sinfulness. The apostle Paul was trying to express this when he said that the Holy of holies who knows no sin became sin for our sake (2 Cor 5:21). And we miss the point if we do not learn that the greatest wisdom ever conveyed was a lecture delivered by a tortured condemned criminal being executed who from that unlikely lectern said only four words in a distant language: Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani. In being abandoned he was God with us; in being made sin, he offered reconciliation; in being tortured, he forgave; in the learning of repentance, he began teaching; in utmost foolishness he was utter wisdom.

And we, friends, because of him in learning we teach. May God bless the teaching we do—all of us—in our learning.


Micah 3:5-12; Ps 43; I Thess 2:9-13; Matthew 23:1-12

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