Daily Office Readings – Gospel ( Matthew 23:1-12 )
[Today’s entry is less of a full-fledged thought and more of a compilation of separate thoughts on different portions of the scripture, more in line with what I had originally expected from the Daily Office Reflections.]
Do As I Say
Once again, in today’s Gospel reading, Jesus is calling out the Pharisees for their hypocrisy. He tells the people to do as the Pharisees and teachers of the law teach, but not at all to do as they do.
That’s harsh criticism, and from what we’ve heard from Jesus and others, not unwarranted. The Pharisees and teachers of the law, after all, loved to make sure that others carried out the law to the letter, while they were able to justify their own actions to make their own lives easier.
We all like to justify our own actions (link to last week’s entry), and in this passage Jesus gives us another reason for why we do what we do. The Pharisees in today’s gospel used their religion as a stage performance. They wore the clothes that expressly elevated their virtue, and they sought out the places of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogue. They loved to be regarded as the wise ones, who could educate and guide others.
None of those motivations involved loving God.
Instead, every one of their motivations involved loving themselves, and what their perceived virtue brought them.
I remember hearing a story about Mahatma Gandhi when asked about the Christian faith. He responded that “I like your Christ, but not your Christianity.” When pressed, he extended his thoughts with: “I believe in the teachings of Christ, but you on the other side of the world do not, I read the Bible faithfully and see little in Christendom that those who profess faith pretend to see.”(1) In other words, Gandhi was essentially saying, “I’d be a Christian, if it weren’t for Christians.”
If Ghandi saw the same behaviors in people almost one hundred years ago that Jesus saw in those of his own age, then we can safely assume that the tendency to be seen and perceived as “good” remains firmly planted in our cultural consciousness even today.
So if we are subject to the same tendencies as the Pharisees, then one of the most important aspects of our faith needs to be our self reflection, or a desire to understand our motivations for believing – and more importantly living – according to what we believe. Because if our motivations are to be seen as good, without actually living out our own teachings, then we will be seen as the self-serving, self-absorbed individuals that Jesus called the Pharisees, and Gandhi called the Christians of the West.
Don’t Call Anyone Father
Having been a part of a denomination that ordains both priests and deacons, and gives the title of Father to a priest, I’ve encountered enough conversations with Christians of other denominations who bring up this passage to point out that liturgical churches are flawed, since they use the title Father.
But, this passage also talks about how we are not to call anyone a Rabbi, which is the Jewish word for teacher; and, interestingly enough, what the disciples called Jesus. Nor are we to presume to be an instructor. Regardless of the title, every pastor of any Christian denomination will be assumed to be a teacher, an instructor, or one to whom others look for leadership. And this passage tells us that we are not to assume any of those positions for ourselves. Instead, we are to seek humility, since every last one of us learns from God, the only true teacher of the heart.
In the sense that the word Father (or Mother, as the case may be) is used to address the pastor of a church, it is only that: a title. This passage is referring to the idea of presuming to elevate someone else to the level of God-hood on this earth. It’s combating the idea of giving someone such complete control over our lives as to make them out to be God. If you need an example, look no further than the various cults that have littered our country, and still do(2). In these situations, people have relinquished control of their lives to another human being, in effect making them the god of their life.