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. – Matthew 23:1–12 (NRSV)
There are times that scripture and the Christian life can seem a bit twisted. At times it almost seems as if they contradict. For example, loving your enemy seems pretty straight forward, but what about caring for your family? If your enemy is standing at the door, can we protect ourselves? We can come to our own conclusion pretty quickly, and likely we will have many scriptural references to back up our logic. Just as those that have opposing opinions will have scriptural support as well. Is it Christian to protect even if protection requires the use of force? We have seen these theological and ethical debates in our nation’s history. Probably the most tragic example would the debate that occurred over human slavery. Both sides of the debate included men and women of faith. Many if you were to look at other issues may have been quite similar in opinion yet this one issue you would find vastly different views. These singular views can rip communities of faith apart. Some wanting to stand by the ideas of tradition and others wanting to embrace a more progressive view.
Today we meet up with Jesus as he faces down a situation very similar to this. Most of us may not be able to see the social and cultural pressures that were facing the first century Abrahamic community. With the growing influence of the Roman Empire over the people of Israel there was significant outside pressures facing the community that they may not have been used to. But it was not something that was completely foreign. Looking at the history of Israel we know that on many occasions there were encroachments of foreign ideas. Many were introduced by the son of their beloved king David through the many wives of Solomon. Others were enacted upon them by the invading empires of Assyria, Babylon, Persia, and even the Hellenistic Greeks. Each of these foreign influences caused cultural pressures where the greatest thinkers of their day needed to speak the truth of God through the shifting sands of time.
The Jewish faith that we read about in the Gospels was similar but was not the same expression of faith that was practiced by those of the Old Testament. They had similar core beliefs but there were minor practices that changed. Prior to Moses, the faithful did not worship God in a sacred space separated from the rest of the world, but they built alters where they were and worshiped and sacrificed without any priest but the Patriarch of the household. This practice was the established norm of the faith until Moses lead the nation out of Egyptian captivity. During the Exodus we see the emergence of a different expression of faith, similar to that of the Patriarchs but different. They were tribes that were enslaved, the tribes were not as close to each other as they were before, because after four hundred years it is pretty difficult to get the entire family together. It is hard enough to get the fourth generation to one location for Thanksgiving. Time and population demanded that the faith change to accommodate the needs of the people. There was a need to have a centralized teaching and system to encourage faith because after years of slavery personal beliefs can be grossly skewed through experience. And worldly emotions of revenge could have dominated the ideas of God’s promise that these people were to become the light to the nations.
The tabernacle worked well for a nomadic people, but when they entered the land of promise they put down roots and were no longer a wondering nation. For years the Tent of Meeting remained as the central place of worship while the people built estates for themselves, until David said why am I living in a palace while God is in a tent? It is time to build God a house. Notice God did not demand a house but it was initiated by David, God did however make some demands in how this structure would be made. Consider that for a moment. Why would God make a demand on the gift? Just as he did with the tent of meeting he wanted to make sure the people realized that life with God comes at great personal sacrifice. God is a jealous God and does not want the leftovers of life but the first fruits. So, if a house will be built for God, it would speak of his greatness as well as provide a visual teaching through every surface to the revelation of who he is. The temple was architectural scripture.
Eventually after centuries of life, the people of God were faced with a different problem. The nation was conquered, the temple was laid in ruins, and the people were in exile. Was God still relevant? The religious leaders of the exiled community had to express their faith to the people without the temple. It was during this time of exile we first begin to see the roots of the first century faith. This period of exile is extremely important to our understanding of faith today.
Eventually under Persian rule there was a return to Jerusalem and the temple was rebuilt. With the return of the temple and worship there we had two systems working within the same community. While in exile there were religious leaders that emerged that encouraged faith without the physical temple. With the reemergence of the temple, there movement of people and religious leaders that longed for the worship of their ancestors. And we see the emergence of the orders of the Pharisee and the Sadducees.
Two perspectives of faith. One holding to the traditions of the past and another that looks to faith beyond a temple. With all the negativity that Jesus directs toward the Pharisees, Jesus is actually their closest ally. Jesus knows that the temple is something that is only temporary. All structures eventually fall. Jesus and the Pharisees both promoted a faith that did not require temple worship. The difference between the two is found in the question of why.
The Pharisees looked at the laws of Moses and the history of their nation and they promoted the idea that the patriarchs were the priest of the household so each person, specifically male needed to be as righteous as a priest. And if each male is a priest then they will be holy and righteous in the eyes of God. Of course, there is much more to it than that, but in general that was the belief. These leaders promoted that every man needed to live by codes of conduct that were previously only required by those that would be performing the ceremonial rites within the temple. These were not exactly bad things to do, these religious laws are actually promoted a very healthy physical and spiritual lifestyle. The problem with this lifestyle is that a priest would dedicate twenty-five years of their life solely to keeping ceremonially clean. Everything in their life revolved around religion and their livelihood during that time was provided for them through the religious system. So, the Pharisees would dedicate their entire life to religious piety, and anyone that could not was seen as less righteous. There are many aspects of life that would make one religiously unclean in this system, and most of them deal with relationships. How can we live a life of cleanliness and not come in contact with the people or places that would corrupt you? You cannot. A career would often put an individual in contact with dead animals. A marriage would place men and women together during ceremonially unclean periods of time. Even the death of a loved one would place an individual in a position between religious piety and relational encouragement.
Remember the priests were only required to serve for twenty-five years, this was never intended to be a lifelong dedication. And the only ones that would serve beyond were the high priests, and that position demanded even greater dedication. Even during that twenty-five-year period the priests would only fully dedicated their lives to these rites when their lot was called to serve at the temple or tent of meeting. The rest of the time they lived like everyone else. Working their land and raising a family. Yet the Pharisees were promoting that this lifestyle should be something that every man pursue their entire life.
Jesus says, “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.” The burdens Jesus speaks of are the religious laws that were once only necessary for the priests. The only way to fully live this out are if others take on daily tasks for you so that you can focus on the religious observation. The implication to this is that the only way for anyone to be able to do this is if you are wealthy enough to afford servants, and by definition each of these servants would be less righteous than their master. So, the Pharisees lived their righteous lives in front of everyone getting all the honor and praise, while they profited off the work of others. And those that they profited from were often regarded with righteous disdain.
Jesus did not say that their teachings were wrong, in fact, he said listen to their teachings. We are to be a holy people. A people sanctified for the use of God, but Jesus said do not do what they do. The Pharisees did all of these things at the expense of others, not out of service to others. The priests of old were not to profit from their acts of service, they were only to be given their living. And there were teams of priest to assist in service. When one was unclean others would take their place. The sick would go to the priests for assistance and they would help. Even the sickest, the ones that were excluded from general society, were to be examined by the priests, so that they could be reintegrated when the time was right. It was service and ministry to others not self-promotion, and the laws given to the priest were there to make sure that the service to others did not cause harm to the general public.
Follow their teachings, Jesus says, but do not do as they do. The greatest among you will be your servant. Yes, we are to be a holy people, a people dedicated to service and promotion of God. Each one using the gifts that God has given us for the mutual benefit of the community. This means that all are equal, no one is greater than another only that they have different gifts. And that each of us when we are living our life in the giftedness we have been given are equally righteous.
The difference between the disciples of Jesus and that of the Pharisees is not in the teaching, but why they teach what they teach and the resulting implications. It is not wrong to dedicated one’s life to full time religious service, nor is it unrighteous to pursue a life in business. Each individual has a sacred place within the community. And each can encourage others along their journey with God. Both Jesus and the Pharisee were looking at how to life a life of faith within a changing cultural environment. And even today the disciples of both traditions are allies in many ways, because from these two groups emerge the contemporary Jewish and Christian faiths. We do not have a contemporary Sadducee expression of faith because their existence was bound to the temple.
What then does this tell us about faith and changing culture? For thousands of years faith has remained even when circumstances change. For thousands of years through cultural shifts and technological advancements, faith still remains. It remains because people remain. Jesus, God incarnate, come to live among us to take on a full human existence to connect humanity and all of creation back to God. He lived and he taught, showing us what life with God could be, and through his death and resurrection he provided the way to have that life with God. He took on to himself our sin and shame so that we can life free. Free to focus on serving others and showing them what life with God can be in our culture today. The Pharisee does not live in that freedom. They instead remain in their sin and shame because they strive to be holy in themselves. There is nothing wrong with that but there is not freedom. They are bound to law, where those in Christ are free to live. Does this mean we can do whatever we want? No, because if we are in Christ we are not our own. We are bought by Christ and we no longer live but Christ lives in us. Our lives are dedicated not to our own ambitions but each of us are gifted to be servants of all for the glory of Christ and his church. The questions a disciple of Christ or a Pharisee ask are different, one asks am I righteous and the other asks does this glorify God and serve his people. It is difficult to distinguish the difference at times, because righteousness often does glorify God and serve his people. But what happens when the culture seems to shift around us? Do we hold on to traditions of the past and rules devised by human understanding or do we live in grace?
Life with God is not easy and at times I have to admit I am more of a Pharisee than a disciple of Jesus. Recently I was asked what lead me to the life I live now? My response even surprised me. I said I did not want to be a pastor, even though looking back I know I was called from a very early age. I told this person that I did not want to be a pastor because I wanted to be smart. My understanding at the time was that you had to choose one or the other. Life of faith or learning. Even then I could see that there was a shift in the culture and my understanding of faith was more from a Pharisee point of view, and to be right religiously would mean that I would have to throw out everything else. Something changed, I learned to love. I learned that love could be something that was greater than personal benefit. I became a father. And in that moment, I knew that faith was something more. Once God opened my eyes in that way, suddenly all the learning I had just intensified the glory of God in my life. And I could be smart and faithful because it is not about proving or disproving God it is about life and encouraging life with others. So how will we face the emerging culture surrounding us? We face it clothed in the lifestyle of Christ. A lifestyle of worship, prayer, and service to others. Because in worship we recognize that there is more to life than us, in prayer we tune our lives to the greater life around us, and in service to others we promote and recognize that life in those around us. That life is God.
Times and situations often change around us, but life remains. As long as life remains there will always be a place for faith. Will that expression appear the same? No, but it will always be true to the author and perfector of faith. As we enter a time of open worship and communion with God in the manner of Friends, let us consider the changing culture that was affecting the faithful of Jesus’ era. What is similar and what is different? And as we consider that, let us focus on what remains throughout all the change. How will we encourage what remains to live?
Sermon by Jared Warner
Presented at Willow Creek Friends Church, Kansas City MO on November 5, 2017.