This sermon was preached at Knox Presbyterian Church on Nov. 5, 2017. The text for the day was Matthew 23:1-12.
Halloween was last Tuesday. I like Halloween. It can be such a neighborly holiday. We live on a cul-de-sac, and ever since we all had to evacuate in the middle of the night together, all the neighbors have been talking to each other more. We went out trick-or-treating with two other families from our street and it was fun to let the kids (safely) run a little wild now that we live in place where we know a lot of people.
Anybody here go to any Halloween parties? Give out candy? Who here still likes to get dressed up for Halloween?
My least favorite thing about Halloween is the gory decorations, like the severed limbs hanging from trees. Bleh. I’m not into horror and gore, but it’s hard not to notice that zombies are everywhere these days. They’re very popular - all that rotting flesh.
Zombies - and all the other costumes - got me to thinking...wouldn’t it be handy if people’s outsides matched their insides? Like, if somebody was all rotten inside, they’d be all rotten outside, too, kind of like a zombie. Or, if they are sweet on the inside, they’d be all fluffy pink and sparkly or something on the outside. That way you’d know, right away, whether somebody was a good guy or a bad guy. Save us all a lot of time.
It’s not so simple to decipher who a person is on the inside based on looking at their outsides. The clothes you wear don’t really determine all that much about your authentic, inner self; and it’s this disconnection between outer appearance and inner life that Jesus is talking about in the Scripture from Matthew we read for today.
Ok, let’s get oriented to where we are in the Bible: we’re in the gospel of Matthew. In this gospel, Jesus has been preaching and teaching in a way that is an outright challenge to the religious and political leaders of his time.
In Matthew 23 for today, he is speaking in the Temple in Jerusalem to crowd, including his disciples. Remember, that right now, during the time that Matthew is talking about all the people that Jesus is talking to are Jewish, as is Jesus. We’ve talked before about all the different religious fights that go on in the Bible.
Particularly in Matthew, there were a lot of disagreements between different branches of Judaism, and the gospel of Matthew gives us a glimpse into that time. (Sort of like last week, when we talked about the Reformation, Martin Luther started out as a Catholic, and was trying to call out leaders of the church in their hypocrisy. Actually, it’s exactly like that…if you were here for that sermon, listen for what Martin Luther was doing with the church, and the door, and the theses, and what Jesus was doing in the temple...)
Jesus points out that some of the religious leaders like dressing the part on the outside - they like long, showy fringes on their prayer shawls, for example, and they wore little boxes with religious scriptures in them on their foreheads and arms (those are the phylacteries) - but they aren’t actually acting the part on the inside. They aren’t practicing what they preach, and what they’re wearing on the outside doesn’t match their inner way of life.
So, imagine Jesus is in the temple speaking in front of a crowd and he’s calling out the scribes and the Pharisees.
Who are these guys?
The Pharisees were a group of leaders that knew the most about living according to religious law. They were supposedly the most devoted and the most righteous of all the people. The scribes were the people who knew how to read and write, so they were the ones who copied out the Torah (first 5 books of the Bible), so that it could be handed down. Both of these groups enjoyed a sense of high status and respect coming from their leadership and their knowledge.
Jesus definitely has respect for their position as religious leaders. That’s what he means when he says “they sit on Moses’ seat”; Moses is the guy who originally received the law from God, up on the mountain, the 10 commandments. The Pharisees and the scribes, they’re in charge of passing down God’s law, just as Moses did. Jesus respects that; these guys know the law and Jesus wants people to follow the law.
He respects what they’re teaching, when they teach the Jewish law. That’s why he says to the crowd, “Do whatever they teach you and follow it.” Jesus isn’t trying to get the people to revolt and abandon their religion. He wants them to follow the religious teachings.
Jesus doesn’t have a problem with religious leaders in general or with the religious teachings of the Jewish laws, in particular.
So, what exactly is Jesus’ problem?
Jesus has a problem with religious hypocrites. The dictionary definition of hypocrite is “a person who puts on a false appearance of virtue or religion”. It seems that Jesus doesn’t like big fakers. Especially, big fakers who use their high up position in a way that hurts the people who trust them.
What Jesus doesn’t like is that the scribes and the Pharisees tell people what to do and how to live, and enjoy the social status they get from that - nice seats at banquets, showy clothes, people stopping them out in the markets to tell them how great they are - but they aren’t following the law in their own lives.
“Basically, some Pharisees were rigid in requiring that all the people should pay the taxes, give of their property, comply with every part of the law with the utmost rigor, yet they indulged themselves, and bore as little of the expense and trouble as possible; so that, where they could avoid it, they would not lend the least aid to the people in the toils and expense of their religious rites.”* (Again, not so different from what Martin Luther was mad at the Catholic Church about. People are people...throughout history.)
Jesus goes to the temple and says to his disciples, in other words (my interpretation), “These people are not practicing what they preach. Don’t be like them. Listen to them. Do what they tell you to do, but don’t be like them. You are to worship God (who Jesus called his Father in heaven) and you have only one teacher, the Messiah (Jesus himself, who did practice what he preached).”
Jesus would of course be put to the ultimate test, and not back down from his word that the ultimate authority was God, and not the religious and political leaders of the day, which is what ended up getting him crucified.
Sometimes, we think of Jesus as warm and cuddly and safe, but he was not afraid to speak out when it was necessary. Jesus very vocal perspective on the religious leadership is important because it is part of what prompts those same leaders to turn him over for execution.
So, we’ve got a lot happening here. Jesus is telling the crowds in the temple that their religious leaders are big fakers, and that they should listen to what they teach, but not live like them. I think you can see how that might get Jesus in trouble, yes?
Jesus was talking about this stuff almost 2000 years ago.
What does it mean for us today?
Well, that’s the question isn’t it. That’s the struggle with the scripture.
The easy answer is, and the lesson in my first sermon draft was,“Don’t be a religious hypocrite.”
But, in writing that first sermon draft, I realized it’s, like, literally impossible to not be a hypocrite.
It’s impossible because if we could do it...1) I think we would have figured out how to do it by now and 2) if we could do it, that would mean we’re perfect, and that would mean we think we’re as good as God...and that means we’re...hypocrites…
So, you see the problem with the lesson being “Don’t be a religious hypocrite.” Even Martin Luther was a hypocrite. He married a former nun 16 years younger than him, drank too much, and was very vicious to anyone who disagreed with him.
This is what I think the takeaway for today is: Don’t wear your religion like a costume. Don’t put it on for show and take it off when it’s convenient. And, don’t give the people who do wear the costumes all the responsibility for your faith.
This isn’t easy to do because it requires more of each of us. It requires a lifelong commitment to learning, and growing as a person of faith. It seems like this is what Jesus (and Martin Luther) wanted people to do: to get to know God, to understand their faith in a way that was personal, inside them, and not far off.
Honestly, to get a little personal for a minute, this is how I ended up in ministry. I always had a faith struggle, and it was better to leave the church in the hands of the people who really “got it”. But the more I learned about Jesus and our faith tradition, the more I realized that having perfect faith what we’re called to do. We’re called to stay in the relationship with God, even even we struggle.
The good news is that even when we are faking it sometimes…’cause let’s be honest, who isn’t....in Jesus Christ, we’re already forgiven for our hypocrisy; from the cross, Jesus forgave the religious leaders who led him to his crucifixion, and in him, we’re forgiven, too.
The good news is that we’re not required to be perfect at living like people of faith. All we can do is...do the best we can in each moment.
I believe the more we try to be honest and truthful about who we really are inside, even the parts that are more like gory zombies and less like pretty pink fluffy stuff, the more authentic of a life we live; the closer we get to who God designed us to be: living in peace with ourselves and one another as spiritually whole human beings. May it be so. Amen