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For Jesus – at least Matthew’s version of Jesus – the Pharisees represent that haunting parental phrase…you know, the one you heard from your own parents that you suddenly, to your horror, hear slipping from your own mouth? Do as I say, not as I do. For while he recognized their position as teachers, he even praises what they teach, he did not affirm what they did. Maybe that means that it was a matter of interpretation. For the Pharisees read the same scriptures as Jesus, the same Torah…but their actions Jesus did not recognize as a way to help anyone get closer to God. In fact, he saw it as false, even evil. So he spoke out against it, in no uncertain terms, chastising them for overlooking the weightier demands of the law, like justice and mercy, and using their plastic holiness to shut the door to the kin-dom in people’s faces. It was no small matter to Jesus, after all, not just a misunderstanding in how they applied a rule or parsed a verb…for Jesus, they were denying people access to God…the very people who were supposed to bring people to God. And Jesus met that hypocrisy with righteous indignation.
This part of Matthew begins a long section, the entire 23rd chapter, that operates rhetorically almost like a reverse Sermon on the Mount. Where the Beatitudes say, “Blessed are you…”, this counter is full of admonishments, warnings even – “Woe to you”, Jesus says over and over, his words directed specifically at the scribes and the Pharisees. We think of the Pharisees as almost iconic, a caricature, but for Matthew’s readers they were a very real and important part of the religious and social fabric…and they most likely represented the majority of Jewish opinion at the time…like Southern Baptists in Oklahoma.
Woe to you, hypocrites, Jesus cries. Woe to you, you blind guides. Your deeds must match up a little better to your words! How about instead of tithing to build better buildings you give of yourself in the name of justice? How about worrying less about the conversion of others and try converting yourselves? Jesus gets much nastier, calling them snakes and vipers and finally stating that they are whitewashed tombs – which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth. Dang, Jesus. That’s pretty harsh. But I like it!
I read this chapter of Matthew and I want to say – let me at ’em! I’ve got some Pharisees right in my line of sight! I’m ready to go all Jesus-y on a state legislature that claims my faith while they deny funds to nursing home and schools. I’m ready to unleash some righteous indignation myself…on an immigration system that places 10 year olds in custody while they wait for surgery, or a media that gives blanket coverage to any acts of terrorism involving Muslims, but won’t even use the same term for mass killings from white men. I’m all set to deliver my own “woe to yous” for those who still deny climate change, for the manufacturers of guns and the NRA, for all of the hypocrisy around sexual assault and harassment being revealed by the courage of the #MeToo efforts…for the corruption we see in politics and the injustice that saturates a so-called justice system. I’m ready!
We read this passage just after All Saints Day in the church, which was the day after Halloween. On All Saints’ Day we celebrate the communion of the saints, the “company of heaven” who are often acknowledged in our hymns or prayers as we gather around the Table for Communion. So alongside the “snakes and vipers”, we have the saints. And the lines that distinguish them are sometimes hard to see. Remember that our tradition says that St. Paul was once Saul, chief among the persecutors of the Jesus movement. Remember that St. Joan of Arc was burned at the stake for heresy. I want to be clear. Jesus doesn’t call for an end to the Pharisees. He doesn’t seek to destroy them or even to replace them with something else. Jesus starts this “counter Beatitude” section by saying that the Pharisees have the seat of Moses, they are the teachers and what they are teaching is right. It’s what they are doing that Jesus has some issues with. What he calls for is integrity, not destruction.
The Pharisees, after all, had very good intentions. They wanted to be good and faithful people, and they followed a tradition, they felt they were holding something up, that they were being true to their ancestors. But, Jesus points out, your ancestors practiced the same misguided ways and the tombs of the prophets before Jesus were made by such work. It is like claiming to love the United States while shouting, “Blood and Soil”, or proudly flying your Confederate flag while asserting your patriotism. You can’t do both. Your allegiances testify against you, as Jesus would say.
Matthew lifts up the Pharisees as a warning, a cautionary tale. They started out with good intentions, but it is where they end up that matters. They teach the law as a way to holiness, but then they start getting caught up in the sanctimoniously satisfying task of enforcing the rules. They start getting caught up in their own power, and begin being motivated by holding on to it, instead of giving it away. They start out trying to bring people into the kin-dom, but end up just excluding. They start out trying to serve the people, but end up only running for the next office, dedicated more to a political ideology or an economic theory than they are to the people they are supposed to serve, suffering and dying right in front of them.
The oft-maligned theologian St. Augustine once established a criterion for faithful interpretation: Scripture’s purpose, he wrote, is that we should love God and love our neighbor. Period. It’s a good criterion, and one that does not easily fall into the trap of rules, where we have to establish a set policy or procedure for every conceivable situation. Each time we have to figure out what this “rule” of love looks like in a new situation, we grow that love. End of rule. I note as I seek to emulate Jesus’ righteous indignation that his assertion – the exalted will be humbled and the humble exalted – is given to his own disciples, not to the Pharisees. As always, Jesus knows that when he points his finger at someone, 3 fingers are pointing back at him. Judgment like this can never be one-way, for we do not see well enough to bring down such evaluations…otherwise we might be asking someone else to do as we say, not as we do. Because, as Jesus points out to the Pharisees indirectly – it is about our starting points. If we start from love, then the rules must be shaped by that love. However, if we start with the rules, if we start with one’s absolute adherence to the code, if we start with God known to us only in our purity…well, you can see what Jesus thinks of that plan. He thinks it’s not only wrong, it’s unholy.
Today we gather at the table, in communion with the saints, whose distinction is not that they had lots of money or were super popular or the number of “likes” they got on social media…the distinction of the saints was that they were who they said they were. Period. At work, at school, at home, at church…they knew they were children of God and they did the best they could to act like it. Their distinction came in their efforts to begin with love, and then letting that live shape the road ahead, even if it means working on the sabbath or touching the unclean, or fraternizing with the enemy. That’s who (and what) we share this meal with today…literally…for this room is full of saints…and people trying to be saints…and love…and people trying to be loving…and our memories, all of us of saints and sinners. And, of course, our hopes…for a world shaped more by love today than it was yesterday.
So come to the table. Everyone is welcome.