Matthew 23 1 – 12
It’s really important that we don’t see the Pharisees as the ‘baddies’ of the New Testament. In this encounter, Jesus affirms their authority as teachers of the Law given by Moses, but says that they don’t always live out their own teaching. They wear phylacteries (small boxes containing Hebrew texts strapped to their foreheads as a reminder to keep the Jewish Law), but they seem to care more about what others think and looking good than living with integrity.
Jesus warns us not to imitate their actions, accusing the Pharisees of imposing rules on everyone which are supposed to help them to live in a right relationship with God, but then failing to help people to cope with the burden they have imposed.
Jesus points out five faults, which could apply to all religious people:
- they don’t practise what they preach;
- they’re unwilling to do what they demand of others;
- they love to show off;
- they revel in titles and recognition;
- they misunderstand what they are called to be.
Jesus calls his followers to be different. They are not to fall into the trap of saying one thing and doing another. He also gives a command: the greatest will be your servant. This isn’t something to aspire to in the future, but an instruction on how to live now. He reverses our expectations of greatness, saying that the humble will be exalted.
Jesus calls us to honest centre-stage living, that is, being honest about and with ourselves, and placing a Christ-like way of life centre stage.
No more ‘selective truths’ and ‘alternative facts’! We are called to live openly and honestly, not opting for an easy life by just ‘fitting in’ with the world.
We are called to live alongside people, sharing and helping them to carry the burden. Experiencing the pain of people’s situations from the inside, and speaking out from that experience. Speaking for those who have no voice, those whose voices cannot be heard, those who are forced into silence.
Being prepared to be different, shunned and unpopular are hallmarks associated with God’s prophets. Are we acting as prophets? As individuals? As a church?
I wonder, how can we make our church more of a place to seek and find understanding, to engage with difficult subjects and to make a difference?
Jesus’ warned people in 1st century Palestine against the mismatch between religious belief and daily life. His warning is just as relevant now, as we witness all too painfully in Gaza and Israel.
Jesus sets a mirror against the increasing number of stories about sexual harassment and toxicity in the workplace (worryingly within parliament) which raises the question about how people in responsible and powerful positions should behave towards others. Sexual harassment emerges from the inappropriate use of power in any workplace relationships.
Jesus criticised the religious leaders for their hypocrisy, because they did not practice what they preached. Their lives were incongruous and he set out his observations. The religious leaders pile burdens and expectations on others without offering any support. They like to be recognised for their own piety and good deeds, and promote their own status and prestige and don’t lift a finger to help.
This is a story about the imbalance of power, where (in this instance) power came from religious position and practice. Those who didn’t match up to the ‘required’ measure of law keeping and piety, were belittled and abused.
The sad reality is that religious people in almost every generation, in almost every church, have found ways of using their faith to boost their own egos. This isn’t about healthy religious disagreement and debate, but the use of religion to put others down – whoever the ‘others’ are.
When we’ve done this, we’ve been just as much the hypocrites that Jesus condemns, because that behaviour is not what our faith in God requires of us.
But of course, we don’t do that now, do we? We don’t belittle the stranger, the person who doesn’t quite know how to behave like us in church. Sadly, in most church communities, hypocrisy lurks! There are things that are just ‘part of the way we do things here’. People are supposed to somehow know and adhere to our unwritten rules (and written notices telling us what not to do).
Yes, we are flawed people perpetually in need of forgiveness, but Jesus expects us to be better than the lowest common denominator of behaviour, just as we expect those in positions of political and religious authority to have the highest standards of morality and the behaviour that flows from it.
When morality and behaviour are not integrated, it affects everyone and we must speak up for truth, integrity, love and compassion.
The question for us is, how can we help each other to carry the loads they bear, behave better, respect people, whoever they are and celebrate the fabulous diversity God created throughout humankind and all creation?
How can you and we be the people whose faith is fully integrated into the way we live our lives?