s064g^96 Somerton Park 3/11/96 Sunday 31 (with the annual commemoration of All Souls)
"the scribes and the Pharisees ... tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others ..." Matthew 23.2,4
Just before I went on holidays I attended the annual St Barnabas College council dinner with the students. At the Mass before the dinner the preacher spoke on the text for the gospel of the day "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like white washed tombs ..." from Matthew 23.27. I thought at the time: "I've never preached on that text ... I wonder why?" A little research showed me that other than these first 12 verses of chapter 23, the rest is not read as a Sunday gospel reading. And it it true. For the next three Sundays, the end of the Ordinary Sundays, we immediately skip to chapter 25, the three parables of the kingdom, the final public teaching of Jesus.
This is rather sad, because it does not focus the Church on the essence of Jesus' criticism of the religion of his day. Christianity itself has no lack of critics. Certainly there are critics in the society in which we live - who tell us that the Church fails to live up to her own message. But more worrying is the fact that there are people from within the Church, spurred on by the seeming decline in the numbers in congregations in the Church in modern times, pushing the Church this way and that in an effort to rekindle the influence the Church was perceived to have in times past.
Ruth Grey-Smith was the preacher and she told us that the Pharisees actually went about painting the tombs with whitewash. I was grateful to hear this - it is something I never realised before. The purpose of this exercise was not out of reverence for the departed, as we remember before God's Altar this morning the names of those who have been close to us in our lives and have entered into their rest. No, apparently they painted the tombs to ensure that travelling pilgrims didn't actually stumble over unmarked tombs and so incur ritual defilement and be unable, at the end of their long journey, to actually enter the Temple and make their sacrifice.
I suppose that this was motivated by kindness and generosity on the part of the scribes and the Pharisees, but in effect it betrayed that their basic concern which was to ensure that God's temple was not defiled in any way. Again we find a theme that the eternal tendency of religion is to keep ordinary people away from God, lest God be defiled, and to plant themselves between the mass of ordinary people and God - setting themselves up as arbiters of just who may or may not enter. Such attitudes are not of course confined to the scribes and Pharisees of Jesus' day. The disciples wanted to stop people bringing their children to him, the money changers and the pigeon sellers sat in the way of people entering the Temple.
Indeed some in the Church have used the words of Jesus "no one comes to the Father except through me" to suggest that Jesus himself does this! Stand between us and God as the heavenly bouncer, protecting God from the riff raff. Others use Jesus' words recorded by John: "Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above" (3.3) in the same way. This would indeed be a heavy burden for people to bear if that were in fact the case.
It is this universal tendency to keep people away from God lest God be defiled that forms the basis of all Jesus' criticisms. If there is to be any criticisms of the Church of today, we should be looking at how we ourselves fall into the same trap.
It is one of the joys of the Christian Church that we are not bound by strict codes. There has always been a very healthy tendency for Christians to look at the teaching of the Church, sacred scripture and the promptings of their own hearts and minds and to be quite vocal when something does not seem to be true. This is of course more particularly true when someone else seems not to be living up to our expectations.
If we are to criticise the Church, which we must always recall is Christ's body, we must confine our criticism to the insights Jesus had of religion of his day. It is a truism that you can't please everyone all the time, a truism for clergy and the Church in general. Just because clergy, parish or denomination does not live up to a particular person's expectations, does not mean that the individual, parish or denomination is the fair butt of criticism.
For the reality is that there is no church, sect or denomination which fully embodies and for all time the teaching of Jesus. Criticisms can be levelled at every church and indeed every Christian. Either we are not catholic enough, not evangelical enough, not charismatic enough, not vocal enough, not sufficiently meditative enough, or not the right balance of all these things! What a mess we can get ourselves in, if we really go down that track! In the end everyone else becomes wrong and only my own expression of the faith is correct!
So we too are not sure how others will measure up, unless of course they fall in behind us and our tradition. And in doing so we betray a remarkably similar attitude to the scribes and Pharisees of Jesus' day. Our concern is also to make sure that other people measure up to what we think God requires of people before they can approach his throne of grace.
So the proliferation of the various traditions, denominations and sects which comes as a result of our freedom to think for ourselves in the light of scripture and tradition, unfortunately ends up mirroring precisely the attitude which Jesus condemns. Our confessions of faith, our 39 articles of religion, even the creeds of the Church can be viewed as standards people have to measure up to. Instead of a standard of the absence of ritual defilement of the religious authorities of Jesus' day, we have standards that people must have faith, have the right faith, be able to vocalise their faith, or speak in tongues.
Jesus of course cuts through all this. He travels the land, sitting down and eating with saints and sinners alike.
In the reading for today we hear Jesus criticising not broad phylacteries and long fringes, but people placing themselves in positions of influence over other people. In verse 13 we read that Jesus quite specifically criticised the religious authorities because they "lock people out of the kingdom of heaven".
The theme of making sure people obey the minutiae of the law continues in verses 16 to 23 where they are criticised for making intricate legal pronouncements about what one should swear by, in verses 23 to 24 the intricacies of tithing even of garden herbs, and in verses 25 and 26 the cleaning of cups and plates. Making sure that God is not defiled by those who cannot live up to these expectations.
He ends his criticism with words, most naturally reflecting God's own views: "How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!" (37) God wishes people, all people to be included.
If our criticisms of the Church are made in an effort to rekindle the influence the Church was perceived to have in times past I wonder if we are really hearing the message of the gospel for today. For the influence of the Church can be used to exclude people from the Temple as well as to make the way easier for them to be included.
Jesus died for one and for all, that all might be included.
The question needs to be asked: "Are we then to dispense with the creeds of the Church?" The answer is given in Peter's first speech to the gentiles after his rather more detailed conversion experience than Paul's. In the house of Cornelius, the truth finally dawns on him, "God shows no partiality" (Acts 10.34) and goes on to recite what is essentially the basis of our creeds (verses 36-44). The reaction was the unmistakable outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the audience (verse 44) which confirmed the truth of Peter's conversion and that text: "God shows no partiality" even to the skeptical circumcised believers who, we are told, were "astounded" (verse 45).
The death and resurrection of Jesus (while we were yet sinners) which forms the central core of the creeds is the logical extension of the Jesus' incarnation - taking flesh. No longer can we portray God as standing aloof from his / her creation, avoiding defilement with ordinary flesh and blood, even unto death. God is here "boots and all" seeking out each and every person to be a part of the kingdom and vineyard, each making his or her own unique contribution as he or she is able.
As we (as the Church) be this sort of community - where one and all can find a place and a ministry recognised - then any other criticism is simply a waste of time and energy. So we need to read these words of Jesus - to see that direction he would have the Church take, and to protect the Church from being buffeted by every blast of vain doctrine and criticism, that humanity, both from within the Church and from without, would lay upon us.
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