October 30, 2005 - Pentecost +24

Matthew 23:1-12

 1 Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples:

 2 "The teachers of the Law and the Pharisees sat on the seat of Moses. 3 So you shall do and observe all they say, but do not do as they do, 4 for they do not do what they say. They tie up heavy burdens and load them on the shoulders of the people, but they do not even raise a finger to move them. They do everything in order to be seen by people; so they wear very wide bands of the Law around their foreheads, and robes with large tassels. They enjoy the first place at feasts and reserved seats in the synagogues, 7 and being greeted in the marketplace and being called 'Master' by the people.

But you, do not let yourselves be called Master because you have only one Master, and all of you are brothers and sisters. Neither should you call anyone on earth Father, because you have only one Father, he who is in heaven. 10 Nor should you be called leader, because Christ is the only lead­er for you. 11 Let the greatest among you be the servant of all. 12 For whoever makes himself great shall be humbled, and whoever humbles himself shall be made great."

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Notes from [The Community Christian Bible

1 The fifth Discourse of Matthew's Gospel begins here. Only a few days separate us from Jesus' departure from this world and it is here that Matthew places the words and parables of Jesus that enlighten the disciples on the attitude to adopt in face of the times to come. Scarcely born, the Church will have to face the formidable opposition of Jewish power, especially that of the Pharisees. She will therefore follow her own way and separate herself from the Jewish communities. This is the main theme of chapter 23. Chapter 24 declares that God will confirm this separation through the ruin of the Jewish nation. The Church, then, should turn towards the future and await the return of Christ. Let her not waste time in waiting for the end of the world but be always ready in active vigilance: this is chapter 25.


Jesus was not from the tribe of Levi, to which the priests and those in charge of religious activities belonged. He did not, likewise, belong to any religious association, as the Pharisees did. He was on the side of the people and saw how the leaders of God's people and the organized religious elite acted.

Obviously Matthew wants the words of Jesus to fall on the ears of important personages in the communities. Jesus judges in advance the authorities of the Church and more especially any group that sees itself the better, the more aware and the more efficacious. The Pharisees pretended to be just that, and in a sense they were.

The teachers of the Law and the Pharisees sat on the seat of Moses. The Gospel says it with more precision: they have seated themselves in the chair of Moses. This rather ironic formula suggests that the ambitious appropriate to themselves the authority over the people of God and that to a certain point God tolerates it. Matthew, in recording these words of Jesus, wants to preserve in the Church fundamental equality. It is the whole Church that enjoys the Holy Spirit, and the heads or doctors will have no authority unless they are deeply rooted in the community's life.

Paul will speak of Christ and the Church using the comparison of the head and the body (Eph 5:25). Likewise in the Church the authority of the bishop goes hand in hand with fidelity to the Church that he governs. He has accepted the Church as it is and does not seek to impose his own projects.

Do all they say. The bad example of the authorities does not discredit the word of God. Nor does it lessen the principle of authority. Their bad attitude discredits only their pretense at being superior to others. They cannot renounce their authority on the pretext of humble service and then carry out what the majority has decided.

Jesus speaks of the form of authority. Do not be called master or father. Do not be called "master," the one "who knows" and before whom one is silent; neither must you be called "father," the one who is venerated and imitated, forgetting to look directly at the One who alone is good. No one in the Church should eclipse the only "Father."

Doubtless everyone will say that the word "Father" is simply the expression of respectful affection but Jesus affirms that the word has perverse effects.

The purity of faith, which submits to God alone, always suffers because of the cult of personality. The Church should be a community of free persons able to speak frankly.

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Comments by Wesley

1. The hypocrites of our day talk a good game, but fail to act in accord with a larger picture of the common good. This happens with church leaders so fixated on easy answers to complex issues of conception and sexual orientation. This happens with political leaders so fixated on easy answers to complex issues of terrorism and economic wealth.

There is an assumption that being "pro-life" answers all questions and forgets equally huge issues around the blessing of death. There is an assumption that being "patriotic" answers all questions and forgets equally huge issues around social sin. Presuming a single standard for sexual matters ignores the variability of what we are born with and what we experience through living life. Presuming "wealth for me begets wealth for others" ignores the reality of greed and need for social control of fraudulent lies.

2. We have gotten sophisticated in our spin so we won't have to bother with reality. If you have seen the Fantasticks you may remember the scene (Round & Round with El Gallo and Luisa) with the mask that hides the pain. So we get our politicians making easy promises, excusing our growing debt, trying to appear in charge of chaos. It is all illusion. We need a fierce light to again see clearly. And so we get our church leaders making easy declarations about who is not fit to be a receiver and giver of GOD's mercy and grace. It is all spin and lies. We need a healing light to again see clearly.

3. The claim is made that "Jesus, wants to preserve in the Church fundamental equality." What do you make of that fundamental, as distinguished from creedal fundamentals? Can we approach this from a behavioral perspective instead of a linguistic one?

The claim is made that "faith . . . always suffers because of the cult of personality." The spin that can go on here is equally strong whether talking about church or state personalities. Sometimes we get into a deep difficulty of trying to get personalities to duel instead of bringing their differences to bear on a difficult area that it might be resolved in a better fashion that either extreme can bring to bear. Where have you seen personalities taking precedence over the resolution of problems? If you have to think about this, it is time to add a comprehensive news source to your information base as the examples are omnipresent.

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