Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, ‘The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practise what they teach. 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. 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 market-places, and to have people call them rabbi. 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. The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.
Just For Show: Micah 3:5-23, Matthew 23:1-12
I occasionally read an advice column called Dear Prudence, written by a wise and funny author named Mallory Oortberg. She had received a letter recently that reminded me of today’s reading from Matthew. A woman had written and asked for help dealing with an issue with her sister. She and her sister had chosen to go into very different professions. She had gone into for-profit business and her younger sister has been working at various non-profit organizations. The elder sister is proud of the hard, and underpaid, work that her younger sister does. She even helps her financially, often buying plane tickets home to visit their family. However, tension has developed in their relationship.
The younger sister often can only speak of the hard and dispiriting work that she is doing. When the elder sister is able to be most gracious, she recognizes that it probably means the younger sister is working too hard and doesn’t have anyone to talk to about it. The elder sister would be happy to continue to be an ear for her younger sister if this seemed to be the only issue. But, it seems like something more is going on. Whenever the elder sister talks about the regular stuff of her life (renovations, office politics, a vacation they have been on), the younger sister cuts her off. She always brings the conversation back to her advocacy work. The elder sister even tried to talk about something as innocuous as shows she watches on Netflix, and the sister said she doesn’t have time to watch Netflix because she’s too busy getting funding to house orphans.
Now, being passionate about hard work isn’t a problem. And, somebody should be helping orphans without homes find somewhere to live. And, someone should be willing to process the difficult and frustrating work that the younger sister is doing with her. Oortberg, the columnist, picked up on something else that might be happening. Oortberg wondered if the younger sister might actually be getting something out of dominating their conversations by describing the immense challenges in the lives of the people she serves. Oortberg said to the elder sister:
"It’s not that (your sister) ‘doesn’t have time’ to watch Netflix because she is simply incapable of enjoying her own life while somebody else suffers. She chooses not to make time for relaxation and entertainment so that she can play the martyr around anyone who does. That’s her Netflix."
Oof. That was a hard thing to read. Oortberg realized that it would probably be a hard thing for the younger sister to hear, too. But she thinks it’s worth pointing out to the younger sister. If the younger sister has come to rely on feeling “holier-than-thou” either to survive the difficulty of her work or to help her feel more important around her wealthier sister, it’s not very healthy. The younger sister won’t be able to do her work well or be able to maintain a good relationship with her family. Advocacy and service are necessary in order for the world to survive. But, you shouldn’t do them to make yourself look better. You do them to serve others.
This tension between living a public life of virtue and receiving positive attention for your supposed virtuousness is at the center of Jesus’ critique of his community’s religious leaders. This portion of Matthew starts out with a statement of affirmation that some might find surprising. Jesus says straight away that he believes the Pharisees and the scribes can actually offer a sound interpretation of their religious tradition. He said that they “sit in Moses’ seat.” They are bringing a word to the people from God. Listen to those words. As I said in my sermon last week, Jesus didn’t always offer interpretations of scripture that were all that different from other Jewish teachers of his era. Jesus said that their teaching wasn’t necessarily a problem. He said the problem was with how they were living out that teaching.
He said, as he has said before, that they are too rigid in their applications of religious law, making it hard for ordinary people to ever truly follow all the rules. This created a great burden on people, a burden that could have been lifted with some grace from their leaders. He said they also wore fancy versions of certain symbols of their faith, namely their phylacteries and prayer shawls, in order to make sure to make sure people thought they were very devout. He was critical of people who accepted the places of honor that came with being seen as leader without actually doing the work of making people’s lives easier. Jesus understood leadership to be directly tied to service and service to be directly tied to easing the greatest burdens on the lives of everyday people. He had no patience for leaders who wanted the acclaim but did not actually serve their neighbors. Advocacy and service were foundational to their common faith. But, you don’t wear the symbols of your faith to simply to show off how devout you are. You wear them to remind yourself of your commitment love God and love your neighbors.
One year, when I was in high school, my youth group shared a skit with our church. I don’t remember all the details but I think we were performing the skit on youth Sunday. The premise, as I remember it, centered on a student having a conversation with some of her classmates at a public high school. All of these students were Christians. Several of them had participated in an event called “See You At the Pole,” a real life event organized by Christians where students are encouraged to gather around the flagpole at school to pray on one particular morning. At least part of the goal is to be a visible sign of a particular kind of Christianity, staking a claim to a public space in distinct opposition to what they saw as an over-reach of the separation of church and state. At least at my high school, anyone who wanted to be seen as a “true Christian” was encouraged to attend. No other religious traditions had similar gatherings.
In the skit, the student who was supposed to represent what our youth group members would do was trying to explain to her friends why she did not attend the event that morning. The main point that I remember from her statements was that she didn’t believe you had to participate in this kind of public display of a certain kind of Christianity to prove that you were a good Christian. She said that she a clear sense of what Jesus demanded and praying around a flag pole to prove a point wasn’t really part of it. So, while she thought it was fine that other people did it, she didn’t feel like she had anything to prove to other people about how Christian she was. She knew the relationship she was trying to cultivate with God. She knew that she was trying to follow Jesus. A public stance for publicity’s sake was not important to her. At least, I think this is what she said. I don’t remember all the details. But that’s what stuck with me.
I remember reading that the Catholic Church once declared the capybara to be a fish. A capybara is not actually a fish. It’s a dog-sized rodent that lives in South America. It does, however, spend most of its life in the water, and is an important food source for many people. As many of you know, Catholics often have days when their religious practice asks them to fast from eating meat from warm-blooded animals on specific holidays. At one point in history, there were alot of days when they couldn’t eat that kind of meat, many more than the current practice of not eating meat on Fridays during Lent. Apparently a South American bishop wrote a pope (I couldn’t find which bishop or which pope) and said that it was a terrible burden for his people, people who already had trouble finding enough food to eat, to have to avoid the meat of a capybara on all of these religious holidays. The pope looked at the life of the capybara, which was mostly aquatic, and looked at the lives of the people who were struggling, and saw that their livelihood was the most important than strict religious rules. The pope decided a capybara was close enough to fish to be declared a fish. The people could manage to live in accordance with their religious practice while also having enough to eat.
I doubt that any of us will be in a position to decide for an entire religious community whether or not an aquatic animal is really a fish. But, I bet many of us will face a decision like the high schooler in the play about what it means to live out our faith in public ways. Whether or not we are official “leaders” in our community, we will have to decide how to balance rigorous adherence to our faith with a gracious interpretation of said faith. In a country where there is still a privilege in being known as a Christian, how will we use that privilege to serve our neighbors and not just serve ourselves? Let’s make sure that our faith is really for God and for our neighbors and not just for show.
Pastor Chrissy consulted the following sources while writing her sermon:
Susan Hylen: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3454
Sharon Ringe: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=998
Jeannine K. Brown: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=200
Karoline Lewis: http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=4992
Margaret Odell: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3455
Dear Prudence, written by Mallory Oortberg... the sister question is in this article: http://www.slate.com/articles/life/dear_prudence/2017/10/dear_prudence_my_husband_loses_temper_with_strangers_am_i_married_to_a_jerk.html
Catholic church and some interesting "fish": https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/thoughtful-animal/once-upon-a-time-the-catholic-church-decided-that-beavers-were-fish/
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.