If you don’t have time, please allow me to offer these brief summaries:
- Matthew 23: Jesus is speaking to the Pharisees and Sadducees and offers extremely harsh words about their hypocritical behaviors. While demanding respect and attention through their showy clothing and actions, they create unbearable burdens for ordinary people which prevent them from coming close to God. It is people like the Pharisees and Sadducees who, in the ancient days, took up stones and slaughtered the prophets and messengers of God.
- Matthew 5:1-12: Jesus is speaking to the very people whom the Pharisees and Sadducees have prevented from coming to God. To these people he offers kind, gentle words of hope and promise. He sees their suffering and he offers them a vision of God’s justice in which they will inherit the earth and be joyous.
It is not lost on me that I, as an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church, am probably more like the Pharisees and Sadducees than I care to admit.
Like them, I have spent a lifetime in scholarly endeavor. I have sat in the presences of highly educated professors, learning and absorbing their acquired wisdom. I have strained my eyes reading theology books, philosophy books, books on pastoral performance, church building, and growth. I’ve taken long weekends to sit in monasteries or spiritual retreat centers, exploring some new form of prayer I’ve read about in an ancient book.
Every Sunday I don a white robe and appropriately colored stole and take my position at the front of a church, expecting people to listen to me and to respect that long history of spiritual discipline and study I’ve accumulated.
It’s why it’s so important for me to read myself into the story when I read about Jesus’ harsh words to the religious leaders of his day.
Likewise, I would encourage all “good church people” to do the same. The next time you pick up a Bible and read a passage about the Pharisees and Sadducees, substitute your own name in their place.
It is a profoundly humbling action.
The Pharisees were not necessarily bad people. They were respected and honored in their society. They were sages and their advice was well sought. Deep in their hearts, they desired righteousness. But, somewhere along the way, they became so entangled in the trappings of religion that they lost sight of what they desired most. Maintaining power and the status-quo became more important than turning the world upside down and revealing God’s Kingdom. Proper observance of rituals and laws became more important than living into God’s Spirit.
God had given the religious order to the Israelites so that they might have spiritual guidance. The rituals and the laws were gifts from God so that the people would know how to worship God and how to live in community with each other. While they were blessings from God, they were never meant to be barriers that would allow some to come close while keeping others outside the gates.
If we fail to hear the words of warning, our churches may become (and may already have become) just as much an obstacle to people today. The last thing we want is to be the church that prevents people from coming to God.
Jesus warned the Pharisees and Sadducees what would happen if they continued building barriers rather than bridges:
“Look, your house is left to you deserted.”
Who are the prophets and messengers we may have rejected? Who are we preventing from coming into the presence of God? How many empty seats are there in your church on any given Sunday? Who is not there? Who could fill those seats? Why are they not there?