Scribes and Pharisees


IMG_4475Sermon 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.


The Wedding Banquet



Sermon based on – Philippians 4:1-9 and Matthew 22:1-14

So in our gospel reading Jesus using a parable to explain the Kingdom of God. Why might he do that?  Well really there are no adequate words to describe the Kingdom only parables can speak to us of such hidden treasures. The biggest mistake we make is to think of this as a literal event yet people do…..  Many people get really upset that the man with the wrong clothes got kicked out…some wonder at such harshness, maybe the man couldn’t  afford the right clothes, or if they had come in off the street may be they didn’t have the right clothes to change into.

I repeat, this has nothing to do with what people were wearing on their bodies…..In parables we have to look for the symbolism.

Firstly  The Wedding, whenever there is a wedding involved in such stories  it often symbolises the inner mystic state of  Christ drawing ever closer to the human soul towards union. The ultimate expression of this is a sense of oneness with God that we can experience for ourselves, and probably have fleetingly from time to time.

But Jesus lived in that blissful state…he tells us ‘I and the father are one’…and Jesus invites us to engage in that same oneness through Him. Without him it is not possible for us to draw close to God but in him that inner union is perfectly possible. The call to  grow in Christ means precisely this…To draw ever nearer to reconciliation with God

The wedding is being hosted by the King…Who is the King in this Story?….. God

and it is his Son’s wedding – Who is the Son?…. The Christ

Who is the bride of Christ?….The Church, i.e. the body of believers (that means us)

So, we are not only invited to the wedding but we are invited to be a part, in Christ, in what is sometimes referred to as the  Mystical union..  The direct experience of  oneness with God. And we are all invited to partake in this wedding.

So the servants come with  invitations for us to come and partake in the most profound, glorious, indescribably transforming change within our own soul, an invitation proffered in great humility and longing for us to just even register who it is who it is who calls us. But unfortunately we are too busy to accept…We have to attend to our church business, make sure our buildings are in order and the property schedules are done and that we have attended all the meetings we have to go to and then there’s the choir concert  we have to rehearse for and … so on and on.
And that is precisely what is happening in the parable..The People make light of the invitation from God because they are too busy going about their mundane business. Now of course we all know we have to go about our business but the point that the parable makes is that those that were invited, those God assumed would want to come we might say, were so busy with their mundanities that they failed to recognise the significance of the ceremony that God had planned.

So anyway, not to let the banquet go to waste the king says to the servants…go and invite people off the streets to come no matter who they are, good or bad let them come to this feast.  This is interesting because it’s is telling us that actually all people are invited to this wedding, all people can partake in this union!
And so the people come….bad and good and the wedding hall is full of guests.  Then the king comes to see his guests as we might suppose he would but there was a man not wearing the right clothes.. The king is horrified and wants to know why the man has turned up in the wrong clothes but the man is  speechless. But his lack of right clothes means that he is not able to stay at the wedding and he is banished. And immediately after this, we are told, in the last verse of the passage that ‘many are called but few are chosen’.  

So we might surmise that the reason few are chose is because few actually wear the right clothes! 

So the next question then is, supposing that we really want to go to this wedding…(because in truth the invitation is always on the table)…What are the right clothes to wear?

Well, if we turn to our reading from Philippians, which sits alongside the gospel reading i we will find the entire wardrobe of what we are supposed to wear if we want to partake in this ceremony.

So, here then is the required dress code;

  • Rejoice in the Lord
  • Let your gentleness be known to everyone
  • Do not worry about anything 
  • Pray with thanksgiving
  • Focus on what is just and right and pure and commendable and worthy of praise
  • These are the clothes you should wear.

You see God wouldn’t mind too much if you turned up to the wedding in cut off Jeans, bovver boots and a knotted hanky on your head.  Your outer clothes are of no concern. It is the state of your heart and mind that matters above all else. If you show up wearing

  • Arrogance
  • Pride
  • Lack of forgiveness
  • Lack of Kindness
  • Judging others

You will find that you have precluded yourself from the wedding. It is not so much that God will throw you are simply not in the right inner state to be able to make it into the state of inner alignment with God that moves us towards union.

But the really important question now is this. When you get up in the morning…who decides what you will wear?  The fact is, you do, and so it is with our inner lives, minute by minute we are responsible for deciding which attitudes we will wear when we encounter others.

Therefore if you really want to go to this ceremony then 1). Clear your diary because nothing in your mundane life is more important than this and 2). Observe the dress code in your dealings with others and before long you will realise that the invitation was there all along.