A congregation of the United Church of Canada
Yr A ~ Pentecost 22 ~ Matthew 23:1-12
Jesus must never have read the book ‘How to Win Friends and Influence People’ because he seemed to go out of his way to tick off every influential person he ever met. Here he is in the temple, having just finished castigating the Jewish leadership to their faces, when he turns to the people and starts up again.
He says: “Ok, they sit there in the seats of power and we really should listen to them, but don’t do what they do. First, they don’t practice what they’re preaching, second, they put too many rules and burdens on you that they don’t follow, and third, they only seem to do stuff to get recognition for it.”
Verse 5 is really nasty. “They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long.”
Ouch! Let me unpack that.
A phylactery is a small, square leather case which holds 4 strips of parchment upon which significant Hebrew scripture verses were written.
A pious, observant Jew was expected to wear a phylactery on their forehead in a case that was fastened by straps and sat just between the eyes.
The ‘long fringes’ dig refers to the prayer shawls worn by Jews which had tassels or fringe at the corners. The idea was that as you looked at the fringe you would remember and obey the Lord’s commandments.
But eventually having long tassels came to be associated with being exceptionally pious.
So you can imagine that “making their phylacteries broad and their fringes long” refers to the enlarging of the case and the tassels so as to make them very conspicuous – like dangling a massive cross around your neck as jewelry. “Look at how religious I am!”
But reminders are good, right? I mean, I carry a prayer stone in my pocket as a reminder. Is that bad?
Or, if I wear a cross around my neck how big is ok?
Is 5 cm good but 8 cm is ostentatious?
Jesus turns all that stuff upside down.
It’s not about wearing religious stuff, or how big your religious stuff might be – or having the best seats, or being honoured for your position: it’s about service and humility. It’s giving of yourself in response to God’s gifts to you.
We know this.
Wanna be great? – Serve! – Do something! – Give of yourself – not because you want to look good, but because of God’s love you feel good.
And so, you’re all inspired, and you’re out there, and you’re doing all sorts of good – and you’re rocking it.
And you start thinking to yourself, “Hey! I’m doing just what Jesus said! And I’m doing it for all the right reasons. How cool is that!”
And then you feel yourself puff up a bit, and because you’ve worked so hard you kinda want to brag about it.
But then you remember that you’re supposed to be all humble.
We can’t catch a break here!
Be great, but be a servant.
Love out loud, but love quietly.
Live holy, but don’t make a show of it.
Tell the world, but don’t be too loud.
This game’s confusin’ man!
Look, the Pharisees weren’t bad people. In fact, they were in many ways wonderful religious leaders.
Jesus wasn’t challenging them because of their passion and conviction for righteousness – he was calling them out for running the wrong race.
The wrong race is one where you think God is a holy score-keeper and you’re trying to rack up enough points to reach the bonus round.
The wrong race is one where you think your outward appearance is supposed to be a flashing neon sign for your inward sense of faithfulness.
The wrong race is one where you seek extrinsic rewards for your intrinsic spirituality.
Our problem isn’t that we have a bad understanding of what our religious faith or what Jesus is all about. We’ve got those pretty solid.
Our problem is that we are running so many races at the same time that it’s easy to get their purposes confused and start to blur the lines.
So what is the right race?
“The greatest among you will be your servant.” – Yes, excellent Jesus, I’m with you!
“All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Yes, absolutely Jesus – except that doesn’t feel true in the world we see.
Humility is tough in our culture. We celebrate celebrity. We joyfully, endlessly debate about who is the GOAT in sports or entertainment (GOAT = greatest of all time). It seems that only the rich and powerful, or super-gifted and beautiful people seem to be exalted – not the humble. The humble seem to get forgotten, or stomped on. The ‘winners’ seem to keep winning all the races – and yet, clearly, humility is what we are called to.
Maybe the problem is that we have too many examples of the wrong race and not enough examples of the right race – the humility race!
I’ve always wondered why there aren’t any ‘good news’ news shows on TV.
Why are the news networks and shows always about death, and destruction, and people falling short?
Why is the old newspaper adage ‘if it bleeds it leads’ true?
It gets so discouraging.
I want to keep up on world events so I can appreciate and understand my own context for living, but I don’t get why seeing mangled lives and hyper-partisan political bickering every night is necessary?
I tune in and in no time I’m angry, and frustrated, and disheartened, and feel ill.
Where are the good news stories?
Oh sure, they do one nice human interest story with a cute puppy or something every now and then but it’s not news – it’s fluff tacked onto the end.
Or, how about this?!
Why isn’t there an equivalent to 9-1-1 for good news?
If you’re walking down the aisle in the grocery store and somebody helps a stranger; call it in. “Uh, yeah, I’m just here in Loblaws and some guy reached a can from a high shelf for a shorter person and made them smile.”
If you’re feeling down and a friend from church stops by and has a cup of coffee with you while you vent (at a safe social distance); call it in.
If you see someone deliver a bag of groceries to your neighbour, or fetches their garbage can that blew down the street; call it in.
If you receive too much change at a store and give it back; they should call it in.
What might it do for the world to have these simple examples of loving service lifted up and heralded on the news every night?
It’s gotta be at least as relevant as the *stuff* that usually gets shoveled at us.
How wonderful would it be to have glowing, staggeringly ordinary yet inherently beautiful example after example of people running the right race, instead of always being flooded by the selfishness and mayhem of the wrong race.
In India long ago an event was born called ‘The Slow Cycling Race’. When the gun sounded, instead of the usual flourish of activity at the start of a big event, there was calm. The contestants did not burst out of the gate, pedaling furiously, but moved as slowly as possible along a rather short track, only a few yards long. The most skilled ‘racers’ sat immobile, balancing for long periods of time. It turns out that the goal of this race was to come in last. Now, if you didn’t know those rules, you’d go to the starting line and take off fast as soon as you heard the gun. You’d leave everyone else in the dust and break the tape at the finish, with your arms raised in triumphant victory, with no one else in sight. But you wouldn’t hear any applause. There’d be no winner’s podium or champagne for you!
You’d have come in dead last.
You’d have lost the race.
You’d have won the wrong race.
But the thing Jesus was accusing these particular Pharisees at the Temple of was telling everyone to run ‘the right race’ while they themselves were running ‘the wrong race’.
That is the simple definition of hypocrisy.
And the reason it’s so bad is because it means you know better, but you don’t do better.
You see, they weren’t just running the wrong race – they were playing to the wrong audience.
While people may be impressed by the size of your phylactery or the length of your fringe, do you really think such things matter to God?
And if you’re doing good in the world for the purpose of impressing God, well, you’re still running the wrong race and playing to the wrong audience.
Remember, God doesn’t keep score, so why would anyone waste their time trying to be what they think is the religious GOAT?
So where does that leave us?
What should we do and why should we do it?
We should serve – humbly – because our hearts have been warmed and that’s how warm hearts respond.
Yes, it’s that simple.
I don’t know why we try to make religion so hard.
The Holy Spirit is moving in you – changing you – empowering you – inspiring you!
So go, and do good, and don’t be shy about telling them who sent you, and why you’re doing it – because maybe that might inspire them to wonder about the source of your warmth and maybe get warmer themselves!
How can this be a bad thing?
It’s only bad if you start worrying about who looks better doing the good – but there’s no score keeping in service.
“If I help this person everyone will know I’m a good guy” – that’s not humility.
“Thanks for your help” – “Oh, it was nothing, really” – that’s not humility either – it’s false humility – you’re trying to look good by denying that you really looked good.
Just accept the thanks.
Let it build you up.
Then remember who sent you, who warmed your heart – and thank the source of your transformed life.
This is the right race – and how you win.
Who is the GOAT – the greatest of all time? Well, I guess we’d have to say Jesus is.
Because – “The greatest among you will be your servant.”
Jesus modelled the right race – we get to follow.
Jesus calls us to live out our faith – to give of ourselves – to serve one another and all those we meet by using the resources we’ve been entrusted with – our time, our skills, our talents, our money, or all of them.
And we give not to impress our neighbours or to score points with God – we give because we have received – because our hearts have been warmed and that’s how warm hearts respond.
This is what it means that true greatness comes through serving – and serving simply means putting your faith into action.
It’s more than just the trappings of religion – more than just Sunday morning – it permeates every aspect of your life.
You don’t need a huge cross around your neck to show everyone you’re a Christian – your life already speaks it – and your words should too.
So go on, embrace the paradox – serve humbly and proudly in the name of Jesus – practice what you preach – and don’t forget to tell them who sent you – and be grateful in the doing.
Do that and you’ll leave ‘the wrong race’ in your dust.