Matthew 23:1–12 (NRSV)
Jesus Denounces Scribes and Pharisees
23 Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, 2 “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; 3 therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach. 4 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. 5 They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. 6 They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, 7 and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have people call them rabbi. 8 But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students. 9 And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father—the one in heaven. 10 Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah. 11 The greatest among you will be your servant. 12 All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.
Every year at the end of October the children across our land engage in a festive and fun filled evening of trick or treating. It is a day that has been surrounded with fun, legend, and myth. Called things from the devil’s birthday to a high church holiday for centuries because there is much history behind this holiday, Halloween. Many claim that it is a pagan holiday because it is connected to the Samhain (pronounced Sow-in), which is the holiday that the ancient Gaelic people celebrated which marked the end of harvest and the beginning of winter, which also corresponds to the darker half of the year. Of course this day is filled with spooky tales and mischief, mainly because as darkness falls our imagination can get the better of us. I also mentioned that this time of year is also a high church holiday. How can the church celebrate a pagan feast day one might ask, the answer is actually easier than you might think. November 1st marks the feast of All Saints or All Hallows, this is the day where the people of the church would remember those great and faithful people that moved the church through the dark days and into light. November 2nd, All souls day, which very similar to All saints except it focuses on remembering those people that may not have been well known throughout the church but have been of great importance to your own spiritual life. Why do I mention these holidays that we barely know of and as Quakers have never celebrated, because they are very important days.
Before the invention of calendars religious people of all faiths and traditions used the pathways of the sun and stars, and the cycles of the moon to mark time. They became very good at studying the paths and judging what the sun, moon, and stars would do in the future. Making the star gazers seem almost magical when in reality they were just really good at observation. So every religion from the Druids to the Hebrews to the Hindu in India all had their stargazers that would mark the time and would make observations and suggestions. Even scripture encouraged the Hebrew people to use the moon to mark the time for their various feasts. So every religion around the world has holy days that correspond with other religions. There are often similarities to the holy days as well, I am not saying that they are the same but similar because ancient religions would often use nature to illustrate their religious teachings. The transitioning days from October to November is important because that is the time-frame where the days become shorter and nights become longer. Imagine in a time before artificial lights how those days would make you feel. There are powerful teachings that can happen in the days of darkness.
Darkness has always represented fear and death, when the darkness overtakes the day the world itself seems to die just a bit. The days are colder, the plants wither, and the leaves fall to the ground. It is easy to become depressed and frightened, because nothing is growing and the weather becomes harsh, survival is a struggle. That is why All Saints day is on November 1, to remind us of all those that have gone before us that have faced dark days and have carried the light into that darkness. But October 31, All Hallows eve, or Halloween holds another important nugget of history. It was on October 31 in the year 1517 a man nailed a document to a door of a church that sparked a reformation throughout the western church. The document was nailed to the church door on the evening before All Saints day to tell the church that they had failed to live up to their calling and instead of bringing light into the darkness they are snuffing out the candles of those saints that were bearing the light.
I bring up this short little history lesson, because this is the very sort of thing that Jesus is doing in the passage that we read today. The Reformation was not intended on splitting the church apart but was to breathe new life into it. In today’s scripture Jesus is also saying that he was not intending on ripping the Jewish faith apart, but was encouraging all who listened to follow the teachings of the religious leaders. Why would Jesus, who spent so much time criticizing the teachings of the various religious leaders tell his own disciples to follow their teachings? Because they were not totally wrong. They taught from the scriptures, they knew the words to say that would lead to a life with God, but they did lack something. Jesus then said do not do what they do. Jesus was starting a reformation, he was encouraging people to return to the foundations of the faith instead of participating in a show.
Jesus looks out at the diverse multitude before him, there are common people and rabbis, there are lawyers and laborers, there are priest and peasants and He says listen to the words and live by them, but do not do what they do because they do not practice what they teach. He then proceeds to list off grievances that he has with the teachers of the crowd. He speaks about the burden the teachers place on the people, the fashion of the teachers, the titles and honors they give to one another. Which are wonderful if you are the teacher but they do very little to encourage those that are listening.
They make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. This statement may seem foreign to most of us because it is foreign. A phylactery is the box of scripture that the devout would wear on their foreheads or bound to their arms. They were worn to remind them of the law throughout the day, the image of a phylactery is what the Revelation to John refers to when speaking of the mark of the beast instead of the phylactery of God a phylactery of man being bound to the forehead or the hand. There is nothing wrong with this in and of itself it is just a simple reminder to follow God in every aspect of our lives, but it became a form of idolatry because they would make highly ornamental phylacteries that would detract attention from the reason behind the ornament and instead direct the attention to the one wearing it. A broad phylactery is a symbol of a very religious person just as a big, well-worn bible shows the world how religious we are today. The long fringes are the white and blue threads that hang off the edges of their prayer shawls and their undershirts, these fringes have a symbolic meaning behind them as a tangible reminder of how to stay connected with God. They are like the prongs of an extension cord connecting a lamp to the power source. Like the phylactery the fringe or tzitzit (pronounced SiSit) represents the commands of God that surround the person. The long fringes are to attract attention to the one wearing the garment instead of being a subtle reminder to the one being clothed to focus their attention to God.
These sorts of things are the very sort of things that sparked the reformation the church as well. The church leadership became focused on themselves instead of on God. They built massive cathedrals to house their bishops to show the rest of the world their own greatness, they used terms and titles that detracted from God and focused the attention of the people to what the man before them could do by giving or withhold grace. Traveling priests would use a day like today, All Souls day, to raise money for themselves or their projects by guaranteeing the faithful that their ancestors would get out of purgatory if only they would give all their money to the priest.
Heavy burdens, flashy attire, fancy titles are things that Jesus would not stand for. Simplicity of faith is what he demanded. You have one instructor, one father, one rabbi, and no matter how long the fringes are on your clothes you have only one way to God. The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.
The teachings of the early Friends looked at this passage very closely and made it foundational in their faith and practice. They removed all symbolism from their worship, all hierarchy from their governance so that all members were equal and focused on a singular idea. Every person is a minister of God, and lead by the Spirit of God. I liken this reformation to the process of distilling. When one is to distill something like water, you bring it to a boil to create steam, the steam then is funneled through cooling coils where it condenses back to a liquid form free from all impurities, simple pure water. Simple pure faith free from additives and impurities, a faith that is focused on loving God, embracing the Holy Spirit, and living the love of Christ with others. Each of the reformation periods of history has done some form of this distilling process, maybe not to the same degree as Friends, but they have removed aspects of religion that detract from God so that God can be praised unhindered by the vanity of man. But as time moves forward often the fire lessens and the impurities again make their way into the faith.
That very thing is what we are seeing all around us. We are seeing the beginning of a new era in church history, an era where there is less focus on the little nuances of the established religious expression and more focus on the reality of the mission. Even in a simple church like the Society of Friends, traditions can cloud the purity of the faithful and the fires need to be stoked to bring us to a boil. But the question is why? Jesus did not condemn religion, he condemned the vanity of the religious.
The first thing that Jesus mentioned was the heavy burden placed on people. These burdens are the very thing that keep people from engaging in a relationship with God. It is the burdens that religious people place on the outsiders that binds them to their sin instead of releasing them to experience the freedom of Christ. They bind the people in their judgment but do not lift a finger to help. Think about that for a moment. As we consider the words and our actions are we adding weight to people’s shoulders or are we helping them along the way.
Jesus says that if we are to be his disciples we must take up the cross and follow him. I have often struggled with this statement, I have walked in faith not knowing what that cross really is. I have often heard people make comments about some struggle in their lives as being the cross that they have to bear, and usually I wanted to laugh at the statement because their cross never seemed as serious as the cross of Christ. But even as I scoff I am pained because I am not really helping them. This week though that statement became clear to me. The cross we bear is one of faith. One hand is stretching out to God as we struggle and strive to live our lives for him, and the other is reached out to those around us in ministry. God and man are pulling our bodies in different directions stretching us as we try to encourage all that we meet to reach out to God as they see us live among them. That is the cross we bear. It is the cross of becoming a servant, the cross of humility where we do not look at ourselves. Bearing that cross we lift the burden of others off of their shoulders and carry it for them so that they are free to reach across our bodies and grab hold of the hand of God.
That is the cross that Jesus bore for each of us, he gave his life so that we could become friends of God. He took on our sin and our shame so that we could freely reach out to the hand that God himself has stretched out to us. And as we take on Christ in our own lives we are there with him on that cross stretching out over the void between life and death, between hope and hopelessness, and on the border between light and dark. Are we willing to become that type of person? Are we willing to follow our God into that type of life? Or will we instead sit back with our big well-worn bibles and fancy clothes patting ourselves on our back that we are so much better than those people? Jesus is calling us to something more, something pure, something better and more satisfying, but the only way to get there is for us to humble ourselves and reach out our arms to those bound by heavy burdens, and to become the light bearers in the dark days of their souls.
As we enter into our time of open worship and holy expectancy, let us remember all those people in our lives that have taken up that cross for us and lifted the burden we had carried so that we could see Christ. Let us praise and thank God for those souls that offered themselves to be used by you so that we could be freed. And let us be willing to stretch out our own arms to become the reflection of Christ, and a bearer of light in these dark days of uncertainty and change.