October 1, 2017

17th Sunday after Pentecost

Psalm 25:1-9

Philippians 2:1-13


Lenora Chu is an American who is raising her children within the Chinese school system in Shanghai. Born and raised in America, she was surprised by the different approaches between Western and Chinese education systems.

When one of his boys was only three years old, his teacher in the kindergarten, Teacher Chen, forced a fried egg into his mouth without his or her permission. When he spat the egg out, Teacher Chen simply did it again. In all, Teacher Chen made four attempts to force-feed him. He swallowed the egg in the last attempt.

When Lenora heard about the incident, she confronted the teacher, claiming that such thing would never be permitted in America. In her mind, such thing could even result in a lawsuit against the teacher or the school. But Teacher Chen responded by giving her a lecture instead. She said in Mandarin to her, “In front of the children, you should always say, ‘Teacher is right and Mum will do the same.’ Ok?”

Indeed, Chinese education system is built on the philosophy that the ‘teacher knows best’. This is in stark contrast to Western education system that values students’ freedom and individual choice and exploration.

But the philosophy has definitely served the Chinese well. Research has shown that six-year-old Chinese students out-perform their Western peers in early math skills. Teens from Shanghai have twice seized the top position in the world in the highly regarded OECD’s Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). Teacher is highly respected in China and half of the Chinese population would encourage their children to become teachers.[1]

In our reading today from Psalm 25, we are reminded of one image of God in the Bible that we often forget: God as a teacher. We often talk about God as our shepherd, our king, our father, our creator, our shield, our rock, our light, etc. But God as our teacher is a significant metaphor of God that we can’t ignore, as we hear it in our reading today from Psalm 25.

The author of the psalm asked God to teach him in the right way. He was struggling with the consequences of the bad decision that he made when he was young. We don’t know what was it that he did in the past or what kind of struggle that he was facing in the present time as a consequence. All that we know is that he was struggling with guilt for something that he did before or for the kind of life that he lived before.

But he didn’t see himself as a lost cause. He wanted to turn his life around. He asked God to give him instructions so that he could live a better life; a life worth living.

He approached God like a student approaching his teacher, hoping that God would teach him some valuable lessons to help him turn his life around. He acknowledged the sin that he had done in the past and opened his life to God.

Indeed, there was one element that made his teacher–student relationship with God work: trust. Just like good relationship between teachers, students, and their parents can’t be built without trust nowadays, God could not teach the psalmist without trust. For the psalmist, righteousness and goodness were God’s fundamental characters. As such, he trusted that God would not lead him astray. On the contrary, he trusted that God would lead him to the kind of life that he had been longing for.

Another element that must exist for God to be able to teach him was humility. The psalmist had to acknowledge that he was lost and needed God to show him the right way. A glass that is full cannot be filled anymore. As such, the psalmist must be humble and acknowledge that he could not help himself without God’s guidance and instruction.

Yes, we all are students in a school that we call life and it can give us plenty of lessons to learn. We may welcome some of the lessons with open hands, others we may loathe, just like that fried egg that was force-fed to Lenora Chu’s son in Shanghai. Even more: life can give cruel lessons.

But we have a teacher who can teach us and guide us in the right direction, even when life seems to be unbearable. God is our ultimate Teacher.

But God is not only a teacher who teaches us abstract thoughts or ideas; in Jesus Christ, God became a role model for us to follow. In Jesus Christ, God shows us how to truly live a life that will benefit not only ourselves, but the world we live in. Through Jesus’ humble death on the cross, God teaches us how to be the people that God intends us to be.

In Jesus, God shows us the way that the psalmist of Psalm 25 was desperately searching for. In Jesus, God teaches us that the highest calling of our humanity is to serve others, even to offer our lives for others.

This is the message that we hear today from our reading from Paul’s letter to the Philippians. In the letter, the Apostle Paul acted as a teacher to the people in the church in Philippi. Paul was like a modern teacher who teaches a group of students in a long-distance online course. But, instead of using video or telephone calls or emails, he used one of the oldest mode of long distance or tele communication: letters. Through his letter, Paul taught the Christians in the city of Philippi how to maintain harmony in their community by imitating Christ in their lives.

The city of Philippi was a Greek city under the rule of the Roman Empire. As such, Roman customs and ways of life were predominant in the city.

One such custom that was quite common, especially amongst Roman aristocrats, was the cursus honorum (the course of honour). This was the traditional Roman way of seeking-honour; a way of fulfilling one’s aspiration by climbing the social ladder upwards and becoming more prominent in the society.[2]

But Paul taught a different way. For Paul, honour was achieved not by gaining more status and amassing more power to oneself, usually at the expense of others. For Paul, honour was achieved by emptying oneself of one’s status and taking over the role of a servant for others.

But Paul was not only teaching abstract concept or idea to the Philippians. In his letter, he reminded them about Christ who emptied himself of his status as the Son of God and exchanged it with the lowest status in the Roman society: the status of a servant/a slave. This was unheard of: a well-respected man relinquishing his high status so that he could become a servant and serve others. No one had done this kind of thing before, at least voluntarily.

But Christ has shown us a different path from what the predominant custom then and now has taught us. The psalmist of Psalm 25 asked God to teach him the path that could restore the honour that he had lost because of his wrong doing in the past. We find what he looked for in the letter to the Philippians. Here we hear how honour can be achieved not by fulfilling ourselves with more and more of what we desire, but by emptying ourselves and serve others. And this is not only an abstract idea: Jesus Christ has shown to us how to live this kind of life.

Friends, we have a great Teacher in our life indeed. And this Teacher does not only give us instructions to follow; this Teacher shows us how to become our best possible selves. This Teacher became a real role model that we can always try to imitate and emulate as we continue our study as His life-long students in life. Amen.

Toby Keva

[1] Teacher Knows Best, by Lenora Chu in the Weekend Australian, September 23-24 2017, p. 17

[2] Troy Troftgruben, Commentary on Philippians 2:1-13, on www.workingpreacher.com (October 1, 2017)