At this point in our march through the lectionary for Year A, which obviously features the Gospel according to Matthew, it seems that Jesus has nothing better to do than to argue with and criticize the Pharisees.
In fact, this game of one-upmanship that Jesus always wins, gets even nastier. Soon we will hear Jesus say, Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!
So maybe it’s time to step back a bit and look at the larger picture. Maybe it is time to look at all of the agendas coming together in these stories.
There’s the agenda of the Pharisees, for sure, and it is to discredit Jesus. Then there’s Jesus’ agenda, which is to reform Judaism—often by turning upside down the most cherished tenets of the orthodox faith.
But then there’s the agenda of the Gospel writers, in this case Matthew. That’s the agenda we have the hardest time focusing on—and for good reason. We believe God inspired the Gospel writers. We believe what they wrote contains everything necessary to our own salvation.
And since our eternal lives depend on Holy Scripture, we sometimes have trouble scrutinizing it and considering the social and political contexts in which it was written. We especially have trouble when it seems to mesh so nicely with our own human contexts, our own cultural and political perspectives and, yes, prejudices.
But every so often we need to step back and look at the larger picture, not only of the agendas coming together in Biblical stories, but how those agendas intersect with our own.
Let’s begin with Jesus. He was not a Christian. He was a Jew and a devout adherent to the Jewish faith. When he answered his Father’s call to begin his ministry, he went to a synagogue. Throughout his life he preached and taught in synagogues.
Yes, Jesus was very critical of the religious leadership of his day. He was critical of the Sadduccees, who were the temple priests. He was critical of the scribes and Pharisees, who were learned and devout lay people who studied the Hebrew Scriptures and practiced the Hebrew laws contained therein. The Pharisees especially were known for their strict and diligent observance of Torah, which they understood to be God’s law.
But Jesus’ critique of Judaism and its leadership should first of all be understood as internal criticism, not criticism from without. He never left the Jewish faith. He was crucified as a Jew by the Roman state, with the consent and encouragement of the most powerful religious leaders of his day.
Moreover, Jesus’ criticism was part of a long tradition of internal criticism practiced by Judaism. That’s why so many saw him as the latest in a long string of prophets who had called the Israelites back to the faith over the centuries.
Little wonder then that the Pharisees mistrusted and questioned Jesus! They were the defenders of the traditional faith. He was the radical seeking to reform the faith.
Our Holy Gospels were written some 50 to 70 years later. That is, 50 to 70 years after Jesus spoke out against the hypocrisy and arrogance of some of the leaders of his faith.
And why then, you might ask? Because that is when the followers of Jesus were busy separating themselves from Judaism and forming a new religion, namely Christianity.
Little wonder then that the Gospel writers, carrying out the crucial work of creating a new faith identity and a new religious structure, tend to cast the Pharisees in a negative light and to show Jesus handily defeating them at every turn. And because the Gospel writers disliked the Pharisees, we think we should too.
But external criticism is very different from internal criticism, and we know that Christian dislike for Jews has produced centuries of anti-Semitic prejudice and even violence. The words of Jesus, criticizing some of the religious leaders of his time, have been put to a use Jesus himself abhorred.
And that brings us full circle. In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus teaches not only that hypocrisy and self-righteousness are wrong, but that we need look no further than within our own ranks for examples (Matthew 23:1-12, NRSV).
I am reminded once again of contemporary politics, and specifically of recent episodes of hate-filled behavior at political rallies and forums. Things like shouts of “Let him die” when discussion turned to the problem of people who need major medical care but have no insurance.
Things like booing a gay soldier serving in Iraq when he asked a question about his own government’s policy toward him. Things like cheering at a prideful claim by a candidate that he has presided over more than 200 executions.
Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of these incidents is that the candidates, many of whom openly stand on their Christian credentials as a campaign strategy, did not speak out against or even seek to distance themselves from the hate-filled outbursts.
Love God, and your neighbor as yourself, Jesus said, just last Sunday.
|Jesus Washing the Feet of His Disciples, by Michal Splho|
But of course, we needn’t leave our own homes and communities to find examples of the problem Jesus addresses in today’s lesson. Most of us at least some of the time fall for the illusion of self-reliance and indulge in feelings of moral superiority.
We have been at least somewhat successful in making the social and economic system work for us. We go to church on Sunday, put our offering in the plate and thank God for our many blessings, even though we are quite sure we earned that new car or lovely home or promotion or rise in stock prices or… whatever.
And that becomes a burden we tie up and lay on the shoulders of others, sure that if we did it, they can too. We don’t have to leave our own churches to find contempt for the poor, even though Jesus calls us to love and serve them as we would Jesus himself.
Humble yourself, Jesus says. The greatest among you will be your servant. He will soon demonstrate the point by getting down on his own knees and washing the feet of his disciples as they share their last meal together. And finally, he will go to the cross, in humility and for love of us, his neighbor.