Homily on Matt 23
All Saints Sunday
If you ask a non-Christian why they do not believe, more often than not they will tell you that Christians are a bunch of hypocrites and the Church is phony. They may very well have a colorful story to illustrate their point, highlighting the terrible behavior of one Christian or another- or perhaps a whole group of Christians. There was a philosopher named Nietzsche who famously said that he would begin to believe in our redeemer if Christians began to look redeemed. And one no less virtuous than Ghandi said that though he drew heavily on the teaching of Jesus he found Christians to behave so badly that could never believe in Jesus.
This country knows the anger and shame that comes from the Church’s broken and despicable history- from missionaries that create violent factions among the people they work with to crusades and even horrible genocide among Christians themselves! Hypocrisy is a worm that eats to fruit of the Gospel from the inside out until it is rotten and inedible. How is the world to Taste and See that the Lord is good?
Today’s Scripture from Matthew 23 speaks to this issue- Jesus does not have much patience for the people of God being hypocrites.
So what is going on in this text? Where are we and who is Jesus talking to?
This passage follows the one we heard preached by Samuel last week and the Gospel from two weeks ago. We are at the very end of Jesus’ ministry and find Jesus in the temple cornered by at least three groups of people- the Sadducees, the Pharisees and the Herodians. Ever since he entered a few chapters back Jesus has been on the defensive- assailed with questions aimed to make him look bad. But when we get to chapter 23 Jesus has had enough and turns the tables on them- going on the offensive with all these groups at once- he wants to let them know what he thinks of the holiness they have been parading around.
Some historical background proves helpful for understanding what Jesus says in this passage.
The Jewish people were very different from other people in the Roman Empire because of the strange manner of their lives. They wore odd clothing- refused to eat all kinds of animals (like pigs). Now this was not just for fun- they did these things as physical signs of the covenant they made with God. Observing the covenant functioned like a wedding ring for Israel- the ring is a physical sign that reminds a husband or wife- along with anyone who sees them- of the special relationship they have to God and the form of life that it requires.
Well these two groups, the Pharisees and the Sadducees were very serious about making sure the laws were followed and because of this they created all of these extra rules to make absolutely certain to follow the commands. And they taught these extra rules to the people. So for instance- Jesus mentions that they are wearing big phylacteries. Those are leather boxes where you put pieces of scripture and bind them to your arm. It’s a way of following the commandment from Duet 11 to bind the law to your heart and to your hands. The tassels Jesus mentions here are a reference to these pieces of cloth they wore under their shirts in obedience to Numbers 15, which tells them to remember that they are to be holy as the Lord their God is holy.
So these are physical reminders to be faithful to God- which is a Good thing! So what is going wrong?
So what does Jesus say? He says that the people should do what they say because they have spiritual authority- but not as they do. The Pharisees are not breaking their own rules- so what Jesus means is that for all of these reminders- all these signs to help them be conscious of the Lord and the demands of being the Lord’s people- they still forget.
And what is worse they have turned what should have been signs that help to shape them into people of humility and submission to the Lord into means of glorifying themselves. They wear these huge boxes on their arms and make sure that the tassels are so long that everyone can see them. When they go to feasts they take the best and most prominent seats. When they pray in the Temple they do so loudly so that all can know how holy they are. They are like someone who wears a wedding ring that they show off to everyone- all the while being unfaithful to their spouse.
Jesus in Matthew teaches his disciples to pray behind closed doors, to take the lowest seats at a banquet and to seek the core of the Law. This core we recite every Sunday- To love the Lord and to Love Neighbor- on these says Jesus, hangs all the Law and the Prophets. And this is where Jesus finds these religious leaders most offensively wanting. They follow the small commandments- binding a box to their hand but do not have this core of the law written on their hearts. Later Jesus calls them whitewashed tombs- decorated and beautiful on the outside but full of dead and rotting flesh on the inside. Yikes! They lay these heavy burdens on people- making them obey all these extra rules but do not love the people as the Law commands! They do nothing to ease their burden- which is why Jesus says “come to me all who are weary and heavy laden and I will give you rest!”
These leaders are so close to being faithful disciples- and yet they have drifted so far in their hearts from what is most required of them- to love Justice, seek mercy and walk humbly with God. Instead they used these things to elevate themselves high above others and to show off. They use titles that designate them as important people- Rabbi and Father- all the while abusing them. Jesus- the true Messiah- tells them to stop doing these things- to stop twisting their actions and titles to abuse people.
And what does Jesus teach us? That all these physical signs are worthless? Not at all! We are given this table of bread and wine to be the very heart of our communion with Christ and we are brought into the household of God through physical water. So Jesus does not mean physical signs are bad. Even the names he says not to use are an exaggeration- later in the Gospel he sends the disciples out as to be teachers of his commands and in this very passage Jesus tells the people to obey the commands of the Pharisees- though the far more important part of the law was one that found its way into your heart and not onto your outfit. The final line from our reading today is one that cuts right to my bones- whoever exalts themselves will be humbled and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.
Jesus teaches us that our actions should match the condition of our heart- that our lives must match the faith we profess- with humility.
Jesus words strike particularly close to home for me because I am a religious leader- not only that but I wear a collar that sets me apart from other people. This is an occasion for pride perhaps. In the USA most people just give me strange looks, but here in Rwanda I find that I am respected more when people see it. In England they call these dog collars- like something you put around the neck of a dog to keep them on a leash. I really like that image- this collar is not something that glorifies me- it’s something that keeps me on God’s leash. I know that when I wear this I am under especially strong scrutiny from the world. Every move I make is watched and I am pulled into obedience like a dog on a lead. It is important that pastors remember this! It is a physical sign that should remind us of humility and service- and whatever respect and influence it brings should be used to help those we serve. For example helping when our flock is in trouble with authorities or need attention at a hospital.
And though most of us do not wear collars like this one- I can guarantee that people watch your life and know that you are a Christian. In fact, there may even be some level of respectability for being Anglican. After all, we have a number of high profile persons among us and we may take some pride in being one. Know that people are watching how you live your life and let me tell you I think that the world desperately wants us to be good Christians. Even while they try to entice us into lifestyles and decisions that are not fitting for Christian life they desperately want to see a better way to live. That is why they hate us for our hypocrisy so much- because many deep down are longing to find Goodness- Truth – and beauty and we like the Pharisees are supposed to show it to them- and when we don’t they feel their despair and fear even stronger.
The single worst thing a non-believer can see is a Christian who live an arrogant- self-righteous life void of love or humility. It turns people away from the Church in droves. However, the single greatest thing they can see is a Christian who lives with love, integrity and humility- quick to admit when they are wrong and to forgive. Christians living lives of joy, peace and patience win the hearts of those who long so deeply for those things.
Please hear me clearly! We are sinners- we are not going to be perfect anytime soon but we can grow in the core of the Gospel- led by the Christ who gave himself in love to us- in the humble form of a poor man who dies and rises again in Glory. We too can learn to be people of Love because of his love- we too can learn to be people of humility because of his humility. So that even when we fail we turn with repentance. Such is the witness of disciples who show with their lives the disposition of their hearts.
Today is also All Saints Sunday- a day of the year when we remember people who are the very opposite of hypocrites- Saints. The lives of Saints show us what it looks like to live with our redeemed hearts and actions in harmony. They lived lives that show us the beauty of the greatest commandments. Have you ever seen or heard about a person’s life and become inspired or made more courageous because of it? I certainly have! Today we are reminded that we are not alone- we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses that goes before us and even now prays for us! Sometimes in the midst of the darkest times the brightest lights are set ablaze.
One of my favorite saints is an African who lived 1700 years ago. He grew up with a Christian mother but spent his youth behaving very badly- and after searching after all sorts of false religions and philosophies. He became an extremely powerful speaker and thinker and eventually had a dramatic conversion. Afterward he devoted his life to the church- becoming a bishop and defender of the faith. His name is St. Augustine. He was not perfect- in fact he lived a terrible life- but then because of the Gospel his whole life was transformed to match the work God had done to his heart.
May we too have hearts and lives transformed by God’s grace, so that we that those who do not know the Lord may taste and see that he is Good.