23rd Sunday After Pentecost
TEXT: Matthew 23:1-12
“They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long.”
That, of course, is part of Jesus’ tirade against the Pharisees in chapter 23 of Matthew’s gospel.
“Phylacteries and fringes.” Do you know what that’s about? If not, don’t feel stupid. I would wager that very few of us modern Christians have any idea about “phylacteries” or “fringes.”
So here’s a brief explanation. The Pharisees, you may remember, were the good religious people of their place and time. Jesus and the Pharisees actually had a great deal in common—which may explain why they were so frequently the target of his criticism; he figured they were capable of better things.
Anyway, the Pharisees took two articles of dress which were worn by many other Jews, and they emphasized them. One of these was the phylactery. It was a tiny box—usually made of leather or metal or wood—which was fastened to the forehead (or sometimes to the hand) by leather straps. This little box contained scraps of parchment inscribed with Bible passages referring to the Passover, and to the redemption of the first-born.
Why would they do that? Well, because of their zeal to obey the Torah. In chapter 13 of Exodus, Moses is trying to impress upon the Hebrew people how important it is for them to remember their history—especially the story of their liberation from slavery in Egypt.
This history, Moses tells them, should always be uppermost in their minds—just as if they inscribed the story on their hands, or carried it upon their foreheads.
Now, you and I might think Moses was using a figure of speech here—but the Pharisees took his words quite literally.
The other special feature of the Pharisaic dress code had to do with blue fringes—or tassels—placed at the corners of their garments. If you’ve ever seen an authentic prayer shawl, you’ll know what this is about. This custom, also, comes from the Torah. In chapter 15 of the Book of Numbers, we read: “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” (Num. 15:37-38).
Well … okay … So the Pharisees took the Scriptures very seriously. So what? What’s wrong with that?
In and of itself, there’s nothing wrong with that. Trouble is … according to Jesus … too many of them were practicing their religion for the wrong reasons. Listen again to what he says: “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 honour at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have people call them rabbi” (Matt. 23:5-7).
Even worse is this criticism: “The scribes and Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; therefore do whatever they teach you, but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach” (Matt. 23:2-3).
Ouch! This is not the first time Jesus has called out the scribes and the Pharisees for hypocrisy. Indeed, these good religious people must have felt—often—that this Galilean rabbi was picking on them. But why? Certainly not because they were inherently evil, or because Jewish law no longer mattered. No. In fact, Jesus constantly reminded his followers about the importance of the law.
Here’s what I think: I think Jesus singled out the scribes and Pharisees because they thought too highly of themselves … and because—in all their humanness—they fell so very short of the ideals which they espoused.
I wonder what Jesus might say about us. The truth is, it’s extremely difficult to live up to our ideals. Well, isn’t it? It’s awfully hard to really practice what we preach.
And perhaps, in our day, professional clergy (or “accountable ministers” like me) are among the worst offenders when it comes to not living out the humility we recommend to others. It’s amazing how much time and energy my own denomination has spent—and continues to spend—on questions relating to titles and privileges and showing due respect to the grand high exalted ones who stand behind a pulpit on Sunday mornings.
Should I “gown up” or not? (I do have a gown, by the way—along with a whole bunch of other regalia; but I don’t enjoy wearing it. I’ve never learned how to sit properly while wearing a dress.)
Here’s another question: who has the right to wear a clerical collar? And who does not? And why?
Should you call me “Reverend” or “Pastor” or “Mister” or just … “Gary”? (I’m OK with any title except that first one.)
Is an ordained minister inherently holier than an “ordinary” Christian? And why do we ordain anybody? Whatever happened to “the priesthood of all believers”?
Maybe we’re not so different from the scribes and the Pharisees.
Of course, the problem actually goes much deeper than what we wear or how we are addressed. Phylacteries and fringes, vestments and titles—all of these have their place, I suppose, when kept in perspective. Jesus’ concern, however, remains the same: when those things get out of perspective; when our motivations for doing them get distorted; when they become an end in themselves; then we have a problem. Because these superficial things can too easily become substitutes for what we really should be about: glorifying God and living as disciples of Jesus.
If their flawed human nature made it hard for the scribes and Pharisees to keep their motives pure, to practice what they preached, we in the 21st-century church may be even more profoundly challenged. Why? Because we still have the same human nature, and—on top of that—we live in a culture that values appearances, status, position, achievement, and material wealth.
That is pretty challenging, isn’t it? And coupled with the fact that the influence of religion in Canadian society is rapidly diminishing, it’s no wonder that so many of us are tempted to do things to make ourselves stand out. Like marching at the front of the Pride Parade. Or heckling the Pride Parade while waving signs objecting to it. Or angrily demonstrating outside an elementary school. Or calling for the defunding of the police. Or—perhaps especially in the so-called “mainline” churches—boldly stating how very little we actually believe … as if that’s a good thing!
Unfortunately—even when it’s undertaken with the best of intentions—this kind of behaviour too easily degenerates into bombastic self-promotion; and that leads us far, far away from the kind of discipleship to which Jesus calls us.
Christian discipleship has nothing to do with standing out or putting ourselves first. To the contrary, we—all of us—are called not to seek glory for ourselves, but to serve others. Jesus consistently reminded his followers that “the greatest among you will be your servant” (Matt. 23:11).
“All who exalt themselves will be humbled,” Jesus said, “and all who humble themselves will be exalted” (Matt. 23:12).
So we’re caught between what the gospel calls us to, and what our culture promotes. No wonder we so often find ourselves in the same bind as the scribes and the Pharisees. We believe one thing—in fact, we hold it in our hearts—and yet, our behaviour … Well, our behaviour contradicts our beliefs.
In the gospel lesson for today, Jesus paints a lurid picture of a barren religious life—one which features all the outward signs of righteousness but none of the inward reality. The scribes and the Pharisees looked good. And they were always ready to lay down the Law, to inform people about the rules and regulations. But the power of God’s love was absent from their pronouncements. They did not practice what they preached.
What if we were forced to be accountable in matters of faith? What if we were made to preach what we practice, not the other way around? What if we had to confess—in front of God and everyone else—what we actually do practice?
Would you or I be prepared to do that? I would guess … probably … not.
Jesus tells us that there must be a connection between our professions of faith and the quality of our lives. A code of ethics—however noble—is hollow without something to back it up.
Today’s gospel exposes the tragedy of being religious without being real—of emphasizing outward conduct rather than inward character. The scribes and the Pharisees did not recognize their own desperate need for change, for transformation. Too many of us, I fear, are just like them; we may “talk the talk,” but we do not “walk the walk.”
We may think we possess a high-octane faith, but—when forced to rely upon our spiritual resources, we discover that our tank is empty. We are all fumes, and no fuel.
I know this stuff isn’t easy. None of us is a hypocrite on purpose. It’s just that it’s hard for us to connect Jesus saying “Love your neighbour” with the guy next door who plays his music too loud or lets his dogs bark late into the evening. Or with the young woman selling her body on the street in order to satisfy her addiction.
It’s hard to reconcile Jesus’ command to “turn the other cheek” with the necessity of increased defense spending and reports of violence at home and abroad.
It’s hard to heed Jesus’ injunction not to “worry about what you shall eat or what you shall drink or what you shall wear” (Matt. 6:31) when your unemployment benefits are about to expire, or when your investments tank, or when your landlord tells you to clear out by the end of the month.
It’s hard to live up to our ideals. Sometimes we can’t even figure out how to practice what we preach.
There’s only one answer to this dilemma. There’s only one cure for what ails us. And that answer is God’s grace.
Yes. God’s grace. The grace of God. No matter how many times we stumble—no matter how often or how badly we fail as disciples of Jesus—God will give us yet one more opportunity for faithful living. One more kick at the can. No matter how often we behave selfishly, we will be given yet more chances to put others first. No matter how badly we fail to practice what we preach, God’s love and God’s grace are still there for us.
God’s love and God’s grace continue to hold us, and comfort us, and sustain us. We will always have yet one more chance. One more chance to get it right. One more chance to answer Jesus’ call to humble service; to love our neighbours as we love ourselves.
That’s what Jesus teaches, my friends. And it is very good news for imperfect people—people like me … and maybe even … people like you. Thanks be to God.