Proper 26a, November 5 2017

November 6, 2017

The Genuine Article

Matthew 23:1-12


1 Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, 2 “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; 3 therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach. 4 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. 5 They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. 6 They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, 7 and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have people call them rabbi. 8 But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students. 9 And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father–the one in heaven. 10 Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah. 11 The greatest among you will be your servant. 12 All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.


There’s really nothing mysterious about this passage of scripture. While we don’t have an insider’s view of what the scribes and Pharisees were doing that upset Jesus, it’s not hard to understand the nature of the problem. You don’t have to know what the long fringe and the large phylacteries were all about in order to know that these people were full of themselves. It’s interesting to know about the fringes and phylacteries. It’s always good to understand the ways that previous generations of religious people turned sound teachings into foolish traditions, and this deal with the phylacteries and fringes was classic.


A phylactery is a small pouch that contains a small parchment with a few key verses from the Torah written upon it. Devout Jews then and now to some extent wear these pouches on their foreheads and on their wrists because there is this instruction in several places within the Torah to keep these key teachings as a mark on their hand and as a frontlet before their eyes. It’s not clear within the Old Testament verses whether or not this was to be taken literally or figuratively, but the Pharisees took it very literally and they wore extra-large versions. Their vision was sometimes impaired by the size of their phylacteries, which seems like perfect irony. Instead of practicing their faith in such a manner that their sense of understanding and vision expanded, they were actually blinded by their religiosity.


We would say that the Pharisees were familiar with the letter of the law but not the spirit. They were tragically misguided in the implementation of their faith. They were confused as to who the tradition was to glorify – which is a problem that seems to get recreated by each generation and religious tradition.


But before I smear the Pharisees too badly I want you to think about this: the Pharisaic movement developed within Judaism in much the same way the Methodist movement grew out of the Anglican Church. Some of the same sad dynamics existed within both of those religious environments that gave rise to these reform movements. Just as John Wesley was driven to confront the way in which Christianity had become an enclave for privileged members of 18th Century English society, the early leaders of the Pharisaic movement sought to turn Judaism in to a more vibrant exercise of faith for all the people of Israel instead of a dead set of practices that were carried out by the aristocratic priests.


The Pharisaic movement only came to life within Judaism about 150 years before Jesus was born, and it was very much a reformation movement. Around that time the faith of Israel was pretty much directed by elite members of Jewish society who were known as the Sadducees, and for the average person in Israel, proper observance of Judaism was reduced to showing up at the Temple for the major feasts of the year and making the proper sacrifices. Judaism was directed by the priests who were handed those privileged positions by the aristocratic leaders of the Sadducees. They only recognized the Torah, or the first five books of the Hebrew bible as being authoritative, and they didn’t recognize the value of any commentary on those books. Under those circumstances, the faith of Israel had become very static and removed from the hands of common people.


In a similar fashion, being a member of the Anglican Church in the early 1700s was largely an exercise in being a proper member of English society. There was very little effort to connect faith in God with life on earth. The role of the priest was to baptize and to bury those who were considered to be worthy of such attention. The church of England exhibited little interest in the physical or spiritual lives the impoverished members of society, and it offered little resistance to the social evils of the day – which were rampant.


It was in to a situation where faith in God had become largely divorced from any kind of outreach to the world that John Wesley came along and put the two back together. Consequently, he was largely shut out of the cathedrals of his day, but he created a huge movement among people who were hungry to hear the good news that Jesus Christ came for all people. Wesley was able to connect faith in God with a genuine form of piety. He was able to weave together worship and service in a way that was both inspirational and practical. John Wesley moved the church out in to the neighborhoods of the people who weren’t welcome in the cathedrals. He didn’t intend to start a new denomination within Christianity, but what he did was too large to be contained within the Anglican Church.


In a very similar way, the Pharisees had moved Judaism away from the Temple and in to the hands of the people. Some have described the Pharisaic movement was an exercise in democracy. It represented a movement away from a priestly led institution in to a movement among lay-people to study and to connect their faith with their daily lives. The Pharisees emphasized the importance of practices that anyone could do. Originally, the Pharisees were average members of society who sought to educate themselves on the Mosaic tradition, and they honored sacred writings other than the Torah. What the Pharisees taught was very appealing to the common people of Israel because it made the faith more accessible to anyone – at least at first. It clearly began as a reform movement, but by the time Jesus came along it had become a bit of a nightmare.


What started out as an exercise in encouraging people to learn and to study turned in to an institution that over-emphasized the importance of purity and imposed endless demands upon people. Instead of just going to the Temple two or three times a year to give the priest their due, the Pharisees called people out for all sorts of technical violations. It was the Pharisees who condemned Jesus for not washing his hands properly, and doing things like gathering food and healing on the Sabbath. That reform movement was in need of reformation by the time Jesus came along, but it grew out of something that once had vitality.


There aren’t perfect parallels between the Pharisees of Jesus’ day and the United Methodists of our day. For one thing, I think it’s a lot easier to be a Methodist than it was to be a Pharisee, but I think it’s worth noting that both of these groups began as reform movements within institutions that needed reformation. I’m happier to call myself a Methodist than to wear the label of a Pharisee – I’m proud to say we’ve got them beat when it comes to being less religiously pretentious, but I don’t think it’s ever easy to see self-deception.


The way the gospels are written it’s easy for us to see the ways in which the Pharisees wore their religion a bit too proudly. Matthew clearly wanted us to see the ways in which the Pharisees over-emphasized the wrong things and were ignorant of essential things, but for the most part they were people who were wanting to wear their religion well. There may well have been some who were consciously hypocritical – those who were out to maintain their position as leaders of the religious community regardless of what they knew to be true, but I’m guessing there were many Pharisees who were genuinely distressed by Jesus – of the way he violated what they believed to be essential aspects of their faith.


And frankly speaking, this is something that scares me about being an Elder in an institution that began as a movement. And I think it should all of us.


I know Halloween is over. I know I shouldn’t be trying to scare you this morning, but this is a scary passage of scripture! Jesus was warning us religious people not to be like the religious people of his day – people who wore the costume of faith in God without having the inner understanding of the undertaking. Jesus wanted us to be the genuine articles of faith.


Today is the day we celebrate All Saints Day in the church. It’s traditionally the day we acknowledge our loved ones who have passed away, and that’s an important thing that we do. We don’t know all the ways in which other people enrich our lives, but we do know we are touched by the lives of other people. Communities of faith in particular are guided by those who have gone before us, and while we know those who came before us weren’t perfect, we can learn a lot from the ways that others have lived. I think the reason we have such a day in the church is to acknowledge our debt to those who have provided light for our paths.


We have all been touched by many people in very personal ways, but there are some individuals who have been very influential over many of us. I’m mindful today of the way our spiritual ancestor, John Wesley, helped steer the Anglican Church away from being such a deadly club-like institution in to a vibrant community that helped people develop actual faith in God. John Wesley is truly one of the saints of our tradition, and one of the best contributions that he made to Christian theology is his emphasis on our ability to grow in faith.


Wesley rejected the notion of Christianity as being a static rank you obtained when you made the right confession. Wesley believed faith in Christ was the pursuit of a lifetime. He believed we could grow in our knowledge and understanding of God and that there was always more to be learned and experienced.


Wesley was an advocate of practicing what he called the means of grace, which included things like attending worship, reading scripture, partaking of Holy Communion, fasting, praying, attending to the needs of others, engaging in spiritually edifying conversation, and doing good work in general. Wesley believed it would help our spiritual lives develop if we would engage in the right physical activities, and I believe this as well.


You might argue that doing these outward things are really no different from what the Pharisees were doing when they wore garments and accessories that were supposed to remind them of what they were all about, and there’s probably some truth to that, but I think it would take an incredibly hard-hearted person to tend to the sick, visit the imprisoned, and feed the hungry on a regular basis without becoming a more gracious person.


Of course, there are no guaranteed avenues to faith. Our religious costumes can look a lot like genuine articles, but the joy of following Christ is not in looking right but in being right. It’s not the outward appearance that will bring us peace but the inward desire to love God and to serve one another.


It’s a high bar that’s been set before us. You might say our goal is to be more righteous than the Pharisees and more compassionate than the Wesleyans. Our hope is not to become official saints, but to join that endless list of unofficial saints who weren’t guided by the desire to look right, but who truly yearned to get it right.


Thanks be to God for providing us with the opportunity to wear those genuine articles of faith.




One Response to “Proper 26a, November 5 2017”

  1. Earl Says:

    Thompson, Thankk you for your intellect and heart. Helen and I want you to be with us and our families are gathered at the end of life down here.

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