October 31, 1999
Reformation Sunday

Matthew 23:1-12

Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples: "The Pharisees and the teachers of the Law are experts in the Law of Moses. So obey everything they teach you, but don't do as they do. After all, they say one thing and do something else.

"They pile heavy burdens on people's shoulders and won't lift a finger to help. Everything they do is just to show off in front of others. They even make a big show of wearing Scripture verses on their foreheads and arms, and they wear big tassels for everyone to see. They love the best seats at banquets and the front seats in the meeting places. And when they are in the market, they like to have people greet them as their teachers.

"But none of you should be called a teacher. You have only one teacher, and all of you are like brothers and sisters. Don't call anyone on earth your father. All of you have the same Father in heaven. None of you should be called the leader. The Messiah is your only leader. Whoever is the greatest should be the servant of the others. If you put yourself above others, you will be put down. But if you humble yourself, you will be honored." [CEV]


1. I presume that this characterization of the Pharisees is not one that they would affirm. The common human reaction is to see a thread of consistency between one's words and deeds. Matthew's report of Jesus here is one that needs to be revisited by every institution, even the Christian Church. How is the connection going between the ideals expressed and the lives lived by followers of Jesus today. As this disconnect brought forth Jesus' attempted reformation of the Pharisees, just so the disconnect between the words and deeds of Christians bring forth reformations within the church such as the classic one by Martin Luther and the still unformed ones that go by such names as New Age.

2. Sometimes we get caught up in literalisms. In this case it would be easy to get caught up in the language of "father" and "Father." This is a good example of needing to dust off our metaphor-meter and catch the meanings beyond the surface. Jesus can be seen revisiting the old first commandment here of not having any "god" before the most important commandment from last week that we are to love GOD with all our heart, soul, and mind ("passion and prayer and intelligence," per Eugene Peterson's translation, The Message). And it doesn't really make any difference if other titles are substituted here, such as Pastor, Friend, Sister, Mentor, Shepherd, Servant, etc.

3. One model Jesus may have had here is the line from Jeremiah 31:33, "I will write my laws on their hearts and minds. I will be their God, and they will be my people." We all connect, in our variety of gifts, with the heart-writer. In this case the implication is that the diverse ways of holding words and deeds together will work to build a new community. This is a revolutionary, reformational, perspective. Unfortunately it seems to work itself out so far in anti-ecumenical posturings about who is "right" and ever-increasing reformations of division instead of reformations of larger wholes.
     What would it mean for you to have the greatest commandment "to love God," and its corollary, "to love your neighbor as you love your self" written on your heart and presumed by you to be written on the hearts of others? Is this absence keep us from humbling ourselves and living Jesus' vision? It is not too late to change.

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