I wrote this while reflecting on Matthew 23:1-12, the reading for March 10th. Then COVID-19 put it out of my mind for awhile. But it still applies, and I thought it best to publish before Lent ends.
At times, I’ve wondered why Jesus has to much to say about the Pharisees. He was pretty harsh to them. And really, 2000 years later, aren’t they a bit of an anacronism? Then, I stop and look around and continue to wonder. To be honest, it’s quite likely that we often turn into the very Pharisees that he warned us about.
Perhaps that was why he spent so much time talking about them. He knew that becoming a “Pharisee” is an easy trap to fall into.
“‘The scribes and Pharisees have taken their seat on the chair of Moses. Therefore, do and observe all things whatsoever they tell you, but do not follow their example. For they preach but they do not practice. They tie up heavy burdens [hard to carry] and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they will not lift a finger to move them.'”
He then goes on to address the greivances he has against the Pharisees, getting specific:
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites. You lock the kingdom of heaven before human beings. You do not enter yourselves, not do you allow entrance to those trying to enter.
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites. You traverse sea and land to make one convert, and when that happens you make him a child of Gehenna twice as much as yourselves . . .
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites. You cleanse the outside of cup and dish, but inside they are full of plunder and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee, cleanse first the inside of the cup, so that they outside may also be clean.
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites. You build the tombs of the prophets and adorn the memorials of the righteous, and you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have joined them in shedding the prophets’ blood.’ . . . Therefore I send to you prophets and wise men and scribes; some of them you will kill and crucify, some of them you will scourge in your synagogues and pursue from town to town, so that there may come upon you all the righteous blood shed upon earth.”
When Jesus gets worked up, he doesn’t mince words.
Now, I could have merely glanced over these readings, assuming that they really didn’t apply to me, except that today’s Old Testament readings gave me pause:
“Trample my courts no more!
To bring offerings is useless; incense is an abomination to me . . . your New Moons and festivals I detest; they weigh me down, I tire of the load. When you spread out your hands, I will close my eyes to you; though you pray the more, I will not listen.
Your hands are full of blood!
Wash yourselves clean! Put away misdeeds before my eyes; cease doing evil; Learn to do good.
Make justice your aim; redress the wronged, hear the orphan’s plea, defend the widow.
As an individual, I feel that this doesn’t apply to me. I think I lead a pretty decent life. To the best of my knowledge, I don’t exploit anyone. I try to do good.
But I am a citizen of the USA.
We separate families seeking asylum at our borders. We separate parents from their children. Our lax gun laws permit guns to be sold to narcos who then go on to terrorize Latin America. (The narcos have a much bigger budget than most Central American nations, therefore the narcos are much better armed than Honduras’s military). These people are fleeing for their lives, and we refuse to let them in. They cross the border, and we separate families and hold them in detention camps for undefined amounts of time. (Because as non-citizens, we can ignore due process.)
We have a limitless budget for our military, but we can’t afford to hire judges for immigration courts, so that cases can be processed in a timely manner? I think we have our priorities out of whack.
We say, “never again” when we think about the Holocaust, but as a nation, we refuse to let Syrian refugees into our country.
We incarcerate a signifiant percentage of our population. We have been fighting a “War on Drugs” that has done nothing to stop our use of drugs. It only sends a lot of people to prision. Now, if those people are an honest threat to society, that incarceration is justified. But all too often the punishments we dole out are way out of proportion to the crimes committed.
Have we examined these laws to see what could be changed? After more than 40 years, we are clearly losing the “War on Drugs” and it is long pasat time to change tactics. What we’re doing isn’t working. But do we have any intention to change things?
Half the people filing for bankrupcy in this country are filing because they can’t pay their medical bills–procedures and medicine they need to simply stay alive. Working families are homeless because we have a shortage of affordable housing.
We have blood on our hands.
Sure, I didn’t write these laws. I might try to call myself innocent.
But what have I done to try to change them?
Do I vote?
Have I written my congresspeople?
Have I run for office, suggesting viable alternatives?
Are We the Pharisees?
We might say, those are government policies, not Christian ones. That is too true. However, all too often, our government claims that we’re a “Christian nation”. It’s a source of identity. Christianity permeates our culture.
But is this “Christian culture” really Christianity?
Mainstream Christian culture is seen to be big on morality. It’s prolific enough that the rest of the world sees us as moralists. Now, being moral isn’t a bad thing–it’s a very good thing. But is that really the message we’re spreading? Is that really the message we want to spread?
Others see us as “anti-gay”, “anti-immigrant”, “anti-Muslim”, “pro-military”, and the term “pro-life” has turned into a synonym for someone who hates anyone who might even consider an abortion. (At least, that’s the view in popular culture.)
I know I’m not alone in this, but that isn’t the message I signed on to share.
For a message that should be about love, how did we get to this place?
Morality Is Not the Point
Much like the Pharisees of Jesus’s day, have we become so wrapped up in defining and defending our culture that we lost sight of the whole point?
Jesus’s message wasn’t about culture.
Unless we’re talking about a culture of love.
The questions we answer in shouldn’t be, “What does God want me to do?” Unfortunately, this question may sometimes lead us to a moralistic, inflexible high ground, reflecting the values of a judgemental God, like that of the Pharisees. Is there such a thing as “Old Testament Christians”?
Instead we should ask ourselves, “How am I loving others?” or “What is the loving response to this?”
In answering our questions in terms of love, only then will we be reflecting the values of Jesus. If we let our actions be guided by love, we will do God’s will.
I don’t know that I’m interested in taking back “Christian culture”.
But I am interested in seeing justice be done.
I am interested in seeing that the homeless have homes.
I am interested in welcoming the refugees and asylum seekers.
I am interested in setting the prisioners free.
Jesus’s whole mission on earth was to set us free.
Are we free?
Are we free to love others?
And, by loving others, are we setting them free?
Handcuffed photo by niu niu on Unsplash.
Woman on the Seashore by Fuu J on Unsplash.