Sometimes I wish there was only one gospel. Then there would only be a definitive answer to the question, “Who was Jesus?” When you have four gospels, that question becomes complicated. Most folks prefer the Jesus found in the John’s Gospel. John portrays Jesus as very mystical, always sitting on the edge of culture but never in danger of being contaminated by it. This Jesus rambles on about the theological significance of light and darkness. He doesn’t mingle with the crowds but prefers one on one conversations with folks like Nicodemus, the woman at the well, or Pilate. In the Gospel of John, Jesus calmly controls the conversation and the situation.
This is not the Jesus we find in the Book of Matthew. Matthew’s Jesus is born into a political drama where Herod kills a thousand infants because of rumors that one child might be the successor to his throne. Matthew’s Jesus begins his ministry by hanging out with John the Baptist, a radical prophet who is eventually beheaded for his politically charged accusations. This Jesus constantly challenged the authority of the religious and political leaders by saying stuff that still makes us uncomfortable. Most folks prefer John’s calm and collective Jesus. But this morning, like it or not, we get a full dose of the feisty Son of Man.
After repeated quarrels with the Scribes and Pharisees, Jesus finally had enough. Our reading this morning is only a taste of what was to come. If you continue into the rest of chapter 23, Matthew records a barrage of denunciations as Jesus labels the leading religious folks as hypocrites, blind guides and killers of the true prophets. By the end of chapter 23 the leaders of Jerusalem want Jesus dead.
Isn’t there a part of us that loves Jesus taking on the elite? This is the underdog standing up for justice, liberty, motherhood, and apple pie. The problem is we forget vanity, hypocrisy, and arrogance are universal human characteristics. If you don’t believe this just listen to all the political ads. Everyone is spending a whole lot of money trying to convince us how corrupt their opponent is. Why have they adopted this strategy? Haven’t we always gossiped about and badmouthed folks we didn’t much care for? Growing up in the south the mantra was, “Well we might be poor but at least we are not black.” Today, we wrap ourselves in the flag and brag, “Well things might be bad but at least we aren’t Mexican, or Korean or Muslim or worst of all, an Islamic Mexican who lives in Pyongyang.”
Jesus ranted against the Pharisees because they were always putting everyone else down. They questioned the authority of Jesus because he had not gone to the right schools. They condemned the morals of Jesus because he hung out with the wrong people. They loved to brag, “Look at us. We faithfully go to the Synagogue every Sabbath and give thanks that, unlike you, we were created in the spitting image of God.” How ironic that they would say this to Jesus. But then how often we do we make disparaging remarks against our enemies, forgetting he or she is also a child of God?
The Pharisees suffered from two common ailments. They confused their interest with God’s purpose. Second, they suffered from a universal human trait; their talk was a whole lot more impressive than their walk. Aren’t most of us just a little more pharisaic than we would like to admit? The hard truth is, Jesus didn’t have a problem with the Pharisees because they were religious. Jesus railed against the Pharisees because they didn’t practice what they preached.
Jesus told the Pharisees, “You place a heavy burden on the shoulders of everyone you meet but never lift a finger to remove that burden. You pray long lengthy prayers in public but never have a word for those who are wounded. You find it so easy to condemn and so difficult to become a servant.”
I suspect the hardest words Jesus ever spoke were, “The first shall be last and the last shall be first.” How fair is that? We worked hard to get where we are. You would think God would appreciate our efforts.
I am ashamed to admit no one is guiltier of that thought than preachers. I grew up with a young man who loved the spotlight and always wanted to be figure of authority. He started out as a teacher and then decided to enter seminary. At the end of his first year he started wearing a religious collar. I think it made him feel more powerful. When he became ordained he traveled from church to church, ruining each congregation he encountered. He once told me his congregations could not see the truth he was bringing to them. I suspect the only truth those churches witnessed was his immense ego. Isn’t it a shame when a preacher or anyone else allows a thirst for recognition and power to separate them from the folks they came to serve?
Of course this text did not make it to Matthew’s gospel just so I could point my finger at a member of my peer group. It was written to make us all take a good long look in a mirror. What marks us as a citizen of God’s kingdom? How do we bring about unity in God’s kingdom? What kind of personal integrity does God demand? How will others identify us as a Child of God?
The Pharisees bragged about their knowledge of the Torah. I would be the last person to suggest studying the Bible is a bad thing. The Pharisees prayed until they were blue in the face. I wish we would all pray a little bit more. The problem was the Pharisees never seemed to understand what the Bible was saying and they prayed all the time but never listened for God’s answer. They were so religious yet failed to understand those who follow God strive to love their enemies, be merciful, practice forgiveness, and engage in mutual service for the good of all humanity.
Of course in today’s world the stuff Jesus holds up to be important not only receives ridicule, but is even considered to be dangerous. Who in their right mind tries to love someone you were taught to hate? Who shows mercy toward someone society has marked as unredeemable? Who wants to work beside someone with lesser skills and forgive them when they make a mistake? If we dare to do that then we might as well admit that we are all equal. We know how hard that can be.
So Jesus tries to makes it easy for us. He said to his disciples, “Just remember two things. First, there is only one God and it is not you. Second, there is only one body, and we are all part of it.” You might remember how Paul expanded on that thought. “We are no longer American or Korean, straight or gay, owner or factory worker, but one in Christ.” No wonder the Pharisees wanted to kill Jesus.
It is so hard to forsake our narrow-mindedness and live up to the demands of Jesus. Perhaps a starting point is remembering that grace is the antidote for hypocrisy. Grace gives us the courage to honestly stare at ourselves in a mirror. Then grace welcomes us to the table of our Lord.
To God be the glory. Amen.