November 2, 2014
Grace and Peace to you this morning. Grace and Peace.
This morning, Jesus is offering a critique of us good religious folks, described here in Matthew as scribes and Pharisees. His examples might seem strange to us. Phylacteries and fringes are not common in Christian life or worship. Phylacteries are the small leather boxes holding verses of scripture which are tied to the forehead and the arm. They come from Deuteronomy:
“Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.” (Deuteronomy 6:4-9)
Similarly, fringes come from the Torah, as written in the book of Numbers:
“The Lord said to Moses: Speak to the Israelites, and tell them to make fringes on the corners of their garments throughout their generations and to put a blue cord on the fringe at each corner. You have the fringe so that, when you see it, you will remember all the commandments of the Lord and do them, and not follow the lust of your own heart and your own eyes. So you shall remember and do all my commandments, and you shall be holy to your God. I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, to be your God: I am the Lord your God.” (Numbers 15:37-41)
If we grew up in the church hearing the King James Version, we heard that the woman with the issue of blood snuck up and touched the “hem” of Jesus’ cloak, but the Christian church in King James’s day did not know much about Jewish practices or customs. The word translated there as hem is the same that Matthew uses here: the fringe of the garment, worn as a reminder of God’s law.
So these fringes and these phylacteries were meant to be tangible reminders, physical ways of focusing prayer upon God and remembrance on God’s covenant. But religious folks have this strange way of turning prayer tools into fashion statements.
“They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long.”
But they do more than wear their religion on their sleeve.
“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.”
What kind of burdens do religious folks lay on others?
There was a gentleman of this congregation, now deceased, who back in the 60s or 70s was told that if he could not afford a better suit, he ought not bother coming to church. Needless to say, he spent a decade or so going to another church here in town. I am grateful that he was able to practice forgiveness and come back to this church and that I was able to get to know him.
But how often is judgment the burden we lay on people? They do not dress appropriately. They do not speak correctly. They are not the right shade of skin. They do not do things the way we do. They do not vote like we do. They have too many tattoos. Or not enough. Or the wrong kind. They are attracted to the wrong gender. They are somehow other or different, and somehow we have gotten the idea that it is the responsibility of us good religious folks to name, blame and publically shame them into straightening up and flying right.
And while this is popular within the church, it is a distraction from the true work of the church. As Robert Capon puts it:
“…the minute [the church] even hints that morals, and not forgiveness, is the name of her game, [it] instantly corrupts the Gospel and runs headlong into blatant nonsense.
Christianity becomes the good guys in here versus the bad guys out there. Which, of course, is pure tripe. The church is nothing but the world under the sign of baptism.” (Hunting the Divine Fox, p.132-133)
Which brings us to the crux of our reading this morning.
“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.” (Matthew 23:8-10)
We all have one teacher; we are all students. Yes, the pastors too! We all have one instructor, Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith. And we all have one Father.
The word “Father” here does not simply mean the male parent. It had a broader meaning in Jesus’ day. It often meant the householder, the one who owned the land and made sure the family was fed and who had legal authority over the property and could enter into contracts.
Why should we not exalt one person over another, or bind terrible burdens of judgment upon others or ourselves? Why are we not to use our faith as a way of saying we are better than someone else or driving ourselves to despair with guilt? Because we do not have the right to treat that which belongs to someone else, that which is created in another’s image, as though it were our own. This is not our house. All of it belongs to God. All of us belong to God.
And as the old Sunday School sign says, “God don’t make no junk.”
And as Jesus said, “The greatest among you will be the one who serves others.”
Thanks be to God.