What Should I Do?

Sunday, November 5, 2017
Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost Year A
Thirty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time (Proper 26)
All Saints Sunday

Focus Theme:
What Should I Do?

Focus Prayer:
Your steadfast love endures from age to age, O living God, for in Christ you tenderly care for your people. Instruct us in your way of humble service, that we may imitate his saving deeds who humbled himself for our salvation and is now exalted with you in splendor for ever and ever. Amen.

Focus Reading:
Matthew 23:1-12

Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for 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. They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, and to be greeted with respect in the market-places, and to have people call them rabbi. But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students. And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father–the one in heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah. The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

All readings for this Sunday:
Joshua 3:7-17 with Psalm 107:1-7, 33-37 or
Micah 3:5-12 with Psalm 43
1 Thessalonians 2:9-13
Matthew 23:1-12

Focus Questions:

1. How would you have reacted to Jesus, if you were a Pharisee?

2. How do self-esteem and humility relate to each other?

3. What are burdens laid on the people today by religion?

4. What value do you see in the “trappings” of religion?

5. How do you react to “bumper-sticker” theology?

Reflection by Kate Matthews

Jesus has not been winning friends among his people’s religious leaders since he rode into Jerusalem, hailed by the crowds as a prophet. Right away, he set about cleaning up the temple of its moneychangers and dove-sellers. And now, with the way Jesus is teaching, it’s no longer business-as-usual for the Pharisees and scribes, and they don’t seem to know what to do about it.

They’re offended by Jesus’ parables that seem to be aimed right at them for their refusal to accept the reign of God as he experiences it. Expert in the law and all things righteous, they must find it galling to listen to this dusty prophet-healer from the hinterlands who marches (or rides) onto their turf and offers a scathing critique of them, in both parable and debate.

After enough of the unsettling stories and actions of this Jesus, they decide to test him with trick questions, hoping to trap him into heresy so they can have him arrested. Perhaps getting him out of sight will quiet down the situation and things can go back to normal, living out their lives under the heel of the Roman Empire.

Outrage at hypocrisy

As we know from last week’s text about the Great Commandment, Jesus handled all of their questions smoothly. Then he turned and challenged them with a question about the identity of the Messiah, a question no one was able to answer. Perhaps they would have fared better if he had asked about some obscure and ancient point of law instead of expecting them to see the big picture and what was before their eyes, right then and there. (Isn’t that true of all of us, especially in organized religion?)

Jesus turns to the crowds and to his disciples and starts talking about those scribes and Pharisees; this 23rd chapter of Matthew’s Gospel is a long and heated speech of Jesus, outraged by the hypocrisy of the very ones who should be leading the people by example toward lives of greater faithfulness to God.

Remembering who, and whose, we are

Jesus senses the urgency of the hour, and doesn’t hold back in this speech. When he talks to the crowds, he observes that the religious leaders, the ones with so much book-learning about God, are so full of themselves and their position that they miss the main point of it all. Jesus uses this teaching moment to instruct his followers about the way they are to live, as humble servant-leaders and servant-teachers.

They must not imitate the example they see before them in the Pharisees and scribes, he says. In fact, the rest of this chapter is a long list of “woes” upon those “blind guides” as Jesus recites their offenses and then ends with a deep lament over the failure of Jerusalem to recognize and accept what God was doing in its midst.

Harsh words from Jesus

With this setting in mind, we understand a little better Jesus’ harsh words about such respected figures of the community. Indeed, these teachers, these core members and leaders, are responsible for holding the people and their traditions together even as they suffer under one empire after another. They are charged with helping the people to remember who they are, whose they are, and how to live lives faithful to God–in a sense, theirs can be seen as pastoral roles, or as the roles shared by pastor-teachers in the church today.

That’s why Jesus starts out by affirming their authority, or at least the authority of their learning. In those days, learning was a thing of great value, a rare thing when few people could read and even fewer had access to the sacred written texts. It occurs to me that our problem today may be “too many texts”–that is, too much information and too little critical thinking to interpret and evaluate it. Today we are in as much need of learned and wise teachers as we ever were.

Forgetting the heart of God

Unfortunately, the actions of the Pharisees and scribes speak louder than words. “If you want to know what a person believes, watch his feet, not his mouth”: Richard Swanson uses these words from an old friend to illustrate what Jesus is talking about here. Perhaps it’s another way to speak of “walking the talk,” of being true to who we claim to be. The Pharisees and scribes, Jesus seems to say, are fake religious leaders.

Swanson also recalls the words of Molly Ivins, who described “people who want to be Texans but aren’t”: they’re “all hat and no cattle.” The Pharisees and scribes, Jesus says, are “all hat and no cattle,” or all robes and titles, fringes and phylacteries, and seemingly having forgotten the heart of the Law, the heart of God.

Time for a course correction

We might spend a little time here, since Matthew does the same, pondering the hypocrisy and pride of the religious leaders of Jesus’ time. We care, of course, about our own reputations and our place in society, and “saving face” is especially important to us today. But in Jesus’ culture, in the Mediterranean world of the first century, honor was a thing of huge importance. However, honor can transmogrify into pride in unseemly and unhealthy ways.

When even religious leaders who are sincerely trying to do the right thing succumb to this temptation, along comes a prophet, sooner or later, to put them back on track, and the critique/correction is rarely welcome (religious leaders are only human, after all). Thomas Long considers this argument to be more like a family feud, an internal affair: “When Jesus excoriates the Jewish leaders, he does so as a Jew, as a prophet like Isaiah or Jeremiah, whose strong words denouncing Israel are spoken from within.”

Laying burdens on the people

Long goes on to explain the problem that provoked Jesus’ anger, the burdens that the Pharisees imposed on the people, “a myriad of rules, standards, and directives, and the whole process easily degenerated into moral bean counting”–so many, and so difficult to observe, even for these very same religious authorities! John Pilch describes it succinctly: “Sadly, Scripture is not the script by which they live.” In fact, Pilch says, the Greek word we read as “hypocrites” is actually translated literally as “actors.” What an image for hypocrisy: acting!

After affirming the authority of the Pharisees (“do whatever they teach you”) because they “sit on Moses’ seat,” and then criticizing their lack of compassion for the people by their laying heavy burdens on them (because they apparently miss the heart of what they are teaching), Jesus also launches into a scathing critique of their motivation.

They’re all about pride and place and honor, he says, and even their observance of the tradition is one way to show off: the phylacteries they wear, black leather boxes on their upper left arm that contain parchment Scriptures, should remind them of the law instead of reminding others of the Pharisees’ own importance. Dale Allison observes that it’s not the law that Jesus critiques but “its observance for self-glorification.” In fact, Jesus himself “lived according to the law and so wore fringes,” too. He followed traditions faithfully, but he did so for the right reasons. We might say that he did all things with the right spirit.

What if this is about us, today?

The lesson here does not appear difficult to grasp. What is difficult, however, is to resist the temptation to read the story as a criticism of the ancient Jewish leaders instead of seeing ourselves in them, like religious people in every age and place. We know that the early Christians of Matthew’s community could have easily succumbed to the same temptations of pride and place. They struggled, too, with which rules they were to observe if they wanted to live lives faithful to Jesus’ own example.

We read this Gospel text, then, or “overhear” it, as Matthew’s little community heard it, as we share those same struggles, questions and temptations. We struggle with how to be leaders that live up to the things we say and the things we expect from others. We struggle not to be simply “actors,” but real Christians, real followers of Jesus.

Lessons and failings in every setting and age

It’s important to remember, as Thomas Long notes, that the text is as much about the early Christians and their “styles of leadership and interaction” as it is about the Jewish authorities who preceded them. It’s not titles or objects that matter, Long writes, but the attitude in our hearts: “The true purpose of these phylacteries and fringes was to keep the faithful ever mindful of the laws of God, to assist the worshiper in prayer, but, according to Jesus, the scribes and Pharisees had turned them into fashion statements.”

Long compares these ancient religious types with modern-day Christians who like to display religious symbols like “a two-pound cross” or “a bumper sticker on the car reading ‘My God Is Alive, Sorry About Yours'”; he wonders if such ostentatious religion is “faith or flash, praise or pomp.” Suddenly this reading steps forward in time, into our own setting, and challenges contemporary Christians to examine our own consciences. If we don’t wince when we read it, we may be missing something crucial.

What gives a teacher authority in the eyes of those who seek?

It’s most discomforting to read about the disaffection today of young adults with churches and religion in general (see the thought-provoking article at http://publicreligion.org/2011/10/millennials-leave-their-churches-over-science-lesbian-gay-issues/). Recently, I was on a panel discussion at a local medical school about LGBT people and institutional religion. It was deeply moving to listen to the Rabbi on the panel, a brilliant religious leader, full of compassion and justice, speak passionately about God’s inclusive love; as pastors, we also shared stories of God’s children who had felt rejected and profoundly hurt by teachings that told them they were less-than-loved, disordered, unworthy, and sick.

The audience was filled with people who had left their own churches to find new spiritual homes (mostly in the Unitarian churches as it turned out that night), and they wanted to share their gratitude for having found welcoming places on their spiritual journeys. Perhaps we should engage in heartfelt self-examination as communities of faith, to see ourselves as young people see us, and to consider that many people of all ages see us that same way, not just the young. How do you think young adults would hear this passage from the Gospel of Matthew?

Learning to listen

I once posted an article from NPR (http://www.npr.org/blogs/13.7/2014/10/21/357770909/does-being-spiritual-but-not-religious-really-mean-anything?) on my son’s Facebook page because I appreciate his posts about religion and philosophy. I was delighted (as was he) by the comments that followed, actually from my own friends who also engage Beau, this person they’ve never met, in such deep conversation. And what I learned by “overhearing” this conversation as well was how important it is to stay open and humble before those who seek with open hearts and open minds.

What an amazing experience (and what a hard discipline) it was to listen to them, overhearing their conversation in a sense, instead of talking at them or fretting that they weren’t believing exactly what they had been taught to believe, or by how much they’re drawn to religious settings without high-and-mighty authority. I confess, however, that it took me a long time to get to where I am today about this, and I still struggle with how best to respond. Don’t we need learned and wise teachers to help us think critically, evaluate information and experience, value the best of tradition?

A cautionary note about pride from feminist theologians

Just as money is a difficult thing to talk about in church, so is pride. We live in a culture that prizes self-esteem, and many of God’s children rightfully claim their place after being kept down, as individuals or communities. For example, feminist theology offers insights into the experience of women, after centuries of being excluded and minimized (especially in communities of faith), recovering their own sense of self, their own dignity.

But that’s not what Jesus is criticizing in this story. In fact, we might read this text as a kind of release from our own culture, where we may feel pressured to find higher and higher positions and more and more recognition, M. Eugene Boring writes: “Matthew proposes an alternative world…seen from the perspective of the kingdom of God, an alternative family where the approval of God removes the heavy yoke of self-justification. There is more here,” he writes, “than cheap shots at religious phonies in their long robes.”

We all need love and dignity

Carter Heyward provided a beautiful reflection on humility in the October 21, 2008 issue of The Christian Century. Like many of these scholars, she acknowledges the deeply personal experience we all share in our “need for love, justice, compassion, health and dignity.” Political leaders, church leaders, family members all may be tempted to speak glowingly of the sacrifices they’ve made for others, and might expect in turn to be honored for those sacrifices.

But, Heyward says, “Genuine humility is a gift from God which has nothing to do with downcast eyes, a misty voice and noble stories of sacrifice. Humility is, rather, living courageously in a spirit of radical connectedness with others, which enables us to see ourselves as God sees us: sisters and brothers, each as deeply valued and worthy of respect as every other.”

A place in the larger scheme of things

According to Heyward, Jesus was able to see each person as deeply valued and worthy of respect, because he “had a strong sense of his place in the larger scheme of things in God’s world”; he keenly knew who, and whose, he was. He knew that all of us belong to God, and as his followers, “we know ourselves as spiritual kin to everyone” (Christian Century 10-21-08). Radical connectedness…genuine humility…deep compassion…this is the vision Jesus has shared throughout the Gospel of Matthew, and as he nears his death on a cross, he remains true to this vision, even in the face of power that has lost its way. That is “living courageously.”

Eugene Peterson’s version of the text in The Message, as usual, brings this together simply and clearly: “Do you want to stand out? Then step down. Be a servant…if you’re content to simply be yourself, your life will count for plenty.”

A preaching commentary on this text (with book titles) and an additional reflection are at http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel.

The Rev. Kathryn Matthews (matthewsk@ucc.org) retired last year after serving as the dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio (https://www.facebook.com/AmistadChapel).

You’re invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.

For further reflection:

Leo Tolstoy, 19th century
“Hypocrisy in anything whatever may deceive the cleverest and most penetrating man, but the least wide-awake of children recognizes it, and is revolted by it, however ingeniously it may be disguised.”

Charles de Montesquieu, 18th century
“To become truly great, one has to stand with people, not above them.”

Ambrose Bierce, 20th century
“Hypocrisy: prejudice with a halo.”

Edwin Hubbel Chapin, 19th century clergyman
“Ostentation is the signal flag of hypocrisy.”

Friedrich Nietzsche, 19th century
“It is easier to cope with a bad conscience than with a bad reputation.”

Albert Einstein, 20th century
“Whoever undertakes to set himself up as a judge of Truth and Knowledge is shipwrecked by the laughter of the gods.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson, 19th century
“A great man is always willing to be little.”

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