Sermon based on – Joshua 3: 7-17 and Matthew 23: 1 – 13a
To understand today’s gospel reading we need to go back to the Israelites being freed from Egypt where they had been enslaved in really harsh circumstances for several hundred years.
Now to be set free from long term captivity under conditions of control and abuse is not as easy as walking out of the door, the aftermath is a nightmare. So much brainwashing is involved in getting people to accept and comply with living in abusive circumstances so that when they are released almost a reprogramming needs to happen so that they can learn to make decisions, take responsibility and access their own thoughts and feelings – reestablishing their own identity.
And so the Israelites are led out of Egypt and into the wilderness where they spend some 40 years establishing a mindset that is able to cope with freedom. They are taught, with Moses as mediator between themselves and God, to rely on the One God for everything – even their water and food and as this period unfolds the structures emerge on which to rebuild their lives their culture, and found a new religion. But this is going to require a fairly rigid Law be in place to keep them looking ahead towards the new vision and to prevent them from settling back into the enslaved patterns of thought and behaviour as this had been so ingrained within them down the generations.
It was a massive cultural, psychological and social transformation that they were going through. And the law in all its minute detail was designed to enable this rebuilding so that they could move on to a new vision.
So what do you think God’s motivation was in this?.
Well it was a pure longing for his people, their enslavement was heartbreaking to God…he wanted them back, it was motivated by Love…but it had to be a tough love given what we have said so far.
So Moses, humble stuttering Moses who was in complete awe at being called to this task, somewhat reluctantly agrees to lead God’s people out of Egypt towards the promised vision (though he himself did not make it there) – of a land flowing with milk and honey. A geographical place, the land of Canaan, that would become their home.
But as with all such stories there is also a much deeper layer of meaning underneath the literal layer. Because Moses was mirroring a much greater vision for God’s people than merely leading them towards the geographical promised land. You see Moses was also modelling, the intimate, direct relationship with God which he himself had. For Moses there was no mediator between him and God…yet Moses was fully human as we are. And whilst the Israelites in the wilderness were a long way from that level of intimate consciousness, as they grappled to break free from Israel, Moses was undoubtedly signposting a time to come in the unfolding story between God and his people, many generations down the line when that intimate direct relationship, once known by us in Eden would be restored for us, in Christ.. So behind the law was something much deeper than merely establishing a new religion and culture. It was pure unbounded love of God for his people, that would in time draw us into intimacy, restoring us all to the promised land (to use this as metaphysical term).
So you see the two layers to this story the literal and the mystic.
In the literal sense then the law in those days was a means to an end. The problem was that, the people came to view the Law as the main thing and forgot what lay behind the law….
It’s a bit like us churches when we make our buildings and hierarchical structures the main thing…so that our mission to grow in and share God’s Love becomes sidelined. In truth our buildings and structures and hierarchies are a means to an end not the end in itself. But so often churches struggle to see that.
To be clear then…. the Law was there to enable the vision but it was not in itself the vision. This is why Jesus says I have not come to abolish the Law of Moses but to fulfil it. He is the vision made manifest the one that leads us all to the ultimate promised land.
But as I said, the Law takes on a far greater significance for the people as the Jewish religion develops so that in time down though the history from the Exodus, Scribes (who are legal experts} come to be very powerful as do the Pharisees, (a sect who devote themselves to ensuring people stick rigidly to the law). And without any recourse whatsoever to the vision behind the Law these people impose a cruel and harsh regimen, not out Holiness, but out of the egotistical desire for power and control.
So there is the background to our readings for today….
Now, here in our gospel reading, in verses 1 and 2 we find Jesus right up against these scribes and pharisees. There are crowds and the disciples observing whilst Jesus publicly exposes the corrupt actions of these two groups.
V3 – 8 He acknowledges that whist they teach the Law of Moses they are doing it from a proud egotistical, superior position, wanting to be called Rabbi’s to further their own ends and so falsely placing themselves as mediators between God and the people.
This isn’t what God called people out of Egypt for….to be held in captivity all over again. But Jesus sets the record straight.
V9 ‘And call no one your Father on earth, for you have one father, the one in heaven,
V 10 Nor are you to be called instructors for you have one instructor, the Messiah. (or Christ which has exactly the same meaning)
What is unfolding here is the ultimate vision that….’In Christ we come to know the Father in heaven.. No purely human mediator is required as in the time of Moses. In our inner most being Christ leads us to where the Father was waiting all along.
Indeed we will never know God through a purely human mediator (though they can point us to Christ) and we will never know God in our own strength…… but in Christ we are joined in such a way that the setting free, the mystical union, the ultimate promised land, the kingdom of heaven is accessible for each soul and that is why Jesus says I came to fulfil the Law
Now Jesus turns his attention to the clothes that theses Scribes and Pharisees are wearing.
Not literally of course…. if your remember my sermon here I talked about the man who was thrown out of the wedding banquet for wearing the wrong clothes and we established that this was about the wrong attitude….you will never know the Kingdom of God from a proud, arrogant self important position….but in today’s reading these are exactly the clothes that the scribes and the Pharisees are wearing.
V6 ‘They love to have the place of honour at the banquets and the best seats in the synagogues and to be treated with respect in the market places.’
But in verse 12 we hear ‘All who exalt themselves will be humbled and all who humble themselves will be exalted.’
You see how this reflects entirely my sermon on the wedding banquet and the importance of wearing the clothes of humility if you want to draw close to God (to be exalted) and if you want to preclude yourself from the banquet then wear your pride!!.
So where are the Scribes and the Pharisees today in 21st century society? Well, trust me they are about…People who burden others with the law, judging them unworthy sinners, under the misconception that they are in a position to judge. But of course, none of us are.
But more importantly than looking outside of ourselves for the Scribes and the Pharisees we first should look to see what clothes we are wearing because in truth there is a pharisee in every one of us. Hands up anyone here who has not judged another person unworthy. Hands up anyone who has not thought of another person as unacceptable merely because they are different from us. Thomas Merton the Trappist Monk said;
“Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy. That is not our business and, in fact, it is nobody’s business. What we are asked to do is to love, and this love itself will render both ourselves and our neighbors worthy.”
Thomas Merton was someone who knew precisely what clothes to wear, a man who constantly wore the garments of humility and through this gracious love for God’s people brought many to faith.
The message for us today then is about getting our own house in order. Christ is our mediator no one else. Anyone (whether that is you or someone else) who tries to burden someone with with rules about how they ought or should or must live their life in order to be acceptable to God is falsely and arrogantly claiming a power they don’t have and as Jesus puts it in v13 ‘Woe to you Scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites for you lock people out of the Kingdom of heaven’.
Your own spiritual discipline produces fruit when you wear the clothes of humility and know that this is the inner work that Christ calls us each to that the vision of the Kingdom or the promised land which ever metaphor you prefer will be realised by your own soul.
I am going to leave us with the words of Micah who sums it up like this.
And what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness and to walk Humbly with God.