I think it would be far easier if we simply ignored what Jesus said and then we can get back to normal church life.
For example, Matthew’s gospel (chapter 23) contains a savage appraisal of contemporary religious life. Jesus simply roasts the religious bigwigs of his day. Very uncomfortable.
But first he makes an important point. Sometimes we leap into attack-mode, marking everything down as trash to be thrown out and miss this first vital point.
Here it is:
“The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must be careful to do everything they tell you.”
Do you see it? He honors what they stand for; he notes the importance of their position and he recommends close attention and obedience to what they say.
Sounds fair enough.
“But” he continues. “Do not do what they do, for they do not practise what they preach.” As Eugene Peterson put it:. “You won’t go wrong in following their teachings on Moses. But be careful about following them. They talk a good line, but they don’t live it. They don’t take it into their hearts and live it out in their behavior. It’s all spit-and-polish veneer.”
They talk a good line but they don’t live it out!
And every time some TV preacher runs off with the offering, or with the treasurer’s wife; every time some new blast of scandal rocks the church (every twenty minutes or so, right?) then the cry of hypocrisy goes up. And rightly so. In the recent sad revelations from the Catholic church, it was the cover-up that offended, as much as the crimes themselves.
And Jesus was very clear that things that were presently hidden –all those skeletons in the closet pushing at the door- would soon see the light of day.
I preached on this line once and a lady came up afterwards. “Pastor” she said, “You know that ‘everything that is hidden will be exposed’ thing?” “Yes.” “Well, is it metaphorical or actual?”
I thought for a moment and replied, “As far as you’re concerned, love, it’s actual.” She looked horror-struck.
But we are all in the same boat, I continued, and we are not going to make it to heaven based on how perfect we are, but on whether or not we have received the free gift of God’s grace.
And that was the basic problem with the religious leaders of Jesus’ day. It wasn’t God or God’s grace on offer at all. It was just some kind of weird power-play, dumping guilt on the people beneath you on the spiritual food-chain: “They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.”
Hypocrisy just means saying one thing and doing another. We are all two-faced at times, aren’t we? We all employ double standards.
It just sticks in your throat a little more when it’s someone in some authority. Like a bent policeman, a drunk judge condemning drink-drivers, or a pastor thundering at you from his pulpit and then beating his wife.
Jesus speaks quite cuttingly about these religious phonies. It almost reads like a comedy routine. I could imagine George Carlin saying it. (Well, perhaps not, but almost!).
Here he goes: “‘Everything they do is done for people to see: they make their phylacterieswide and the tassels on their garments long;they love the place of honour at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; they love to be greeted with respect in the market-places and to be called “Rabbi” by others.”
Phylacteries? Tassels? What? Here’s Peterson’s take: “Their lives are perpetual fashion shows, embroidered prayer shawls one day and flowery prayers the next. They love to sit at the head table at church dinners, basking in the most prominent positions, preening in the radiance of public flattery, receiving honorary degrees, and getting called ‘Doctor’ and ‘Reverend.’”
Well, speaking as both a “Doctor” and a “Reverend” all I can say is Ouch. Come on now, it’s nice to be honoured by people. Once I was asked for my autograph, believe it or not. In retrospect, they may have been waiting for the guy emerging from the stage door behind me….
Anyway, it is pleasant to be approved of, isn’t it?
But Jesus hasn’t finished: “You are not to be called “Rabbi”, for you have one Teacher, and you are all brothers. And do not call anyone on earth “father”, for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one Instructor, the Messiah. The greatest among you will be your servant. For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
You have one teacher and you are all classmates.
It’s as if these verses don’t exist isn’t it?
I get called “pastor” every day, “father” sometimes (by accident) and I have been introduced as “Bishop” at conferences (admittedly by people who don’t know me). I have Facebook friends who write in capital letters and coyly title themselves “Apostle, Chief Apostle” and –unbelievably- “Archangel” (I need to check the address on that one). Are we all mad or in determined avoidance of Jesus’ clear words?
And of course, it’s not all to do with how we preen ourselves. It’s how we set other people up to preen themselves. I once did a spot of fencing for a Lord of the Manor fella near Lincoln, UK. The creosoting kind of fencing, I mean, rather than the Olympic sport sort. I was ushered into the Great Man’s presence by the Farm Manager who stood solemnly on one leg, and literally cap in hand, eyes to the Axminster, forelocking tugging. I’d never seen that kind of behaviour before. The manager was in awe of this human being and looked aghast when I made a joke. The Lord himself enjoyed the joke, grinned at me, and then we became normal human beings again.
Jesus was saying: “Be real.” Be real with yourself. Value your own worth. Value other people. But real love doesn’t sit well with pomposity on the one side and fawning on the other. No pedestals please.
Because as soon as you build your pedestal for someone, you discover their clay feet. Don’t let anyone put you on a pedestal, either. Save the authority for God.
And don’t let people maneuver you into taking charge of them. There is only one Life-Leader for you and them—Christ.
Do you want to stand out? Then step down. Be a servant. If you puff yourself up, you’ll get the wind knocked out of you. But if you’re content to simply be yourself, your life will count for plenty.
It’d be great to have a conference with no titles anywhere. In fact, I’ll organise one. That’s me, organising, from the top table.
- You’re Welcome (johncalvinpress.wordpress.com)
- A Different Christ (annawood.wordpress.com)
- The Mission: To Reveal Jesus Lifted Up (justifiedandsinner.com)
- Differences Between a Group of Christians and the Local Church (joequatronejr.wordpress.com)