Lectionary Reflection—05 November 2017
1-3Now Jesus turned to address his disciples, along with the crowd that had gathered with them. “The religion scholars and Pharisees are competent teachers in God’s Law. You won’t go wrong in following their teachings on Moses. But be careful about following them. They talk a good line, but they don’t live it. They don’t take it into their hearts and live it out in their behavior. It’s all spit-and-polish veneer.
4-7“Instead of giving you God’s Law as food and drink by which you can banquet on God, they package it in bundles of rules, loading you down like pack animals. They seem to take pleasure in watching you stagger under these loads, and wouldn’t think of lifting a finger to help. Their lives are perpetual fashion shows, embroidered prayer shawls one day and flowery prayers the next. They love to sit at the head table at church dinners, basking in the most prominent positions, preening in the radiance of public flattery, receiving honorary degrees, and getting called ‘Doctor’ and ‘Reverend.’
8-10“Don’t let people do that to you, put you on a pedestal like that. You all have a single Teacher, and you are all classmates. Don’t set people up as experts over your life, letting them tell you what to do. Save that authority for God; let God tell you what to do. No one else should carry the title of ‘Father’; you have only one Father, and he’s in heaven. And don’t let people maneuver you into taking charge of them. There is only one Life-Leader for you and them—Christ.
11-12“Do you want to stand out? Then step down. Be a servant. If you puff yourself up, you’ll get the wind knocked out of you. But if you’re content to simply be yourself, your life will count for plenty.”
There are two types of authority, what I call the “boss” and the “leader.” The boss is the one who says, “Do what I say. Don’t ask questions; just do what you’re told.” Sometimes this is a good approach. But more times than not it’s made by those who don’t live or work “in the trenches.” They make decisions that, for all theoretical purposes, seem like the correct decisions. We’re told to follow them without hesitation, without question. And if we question them or their rules, we’re labeled as troublemakers and ostracized or worse.
A lot of the time, though, the decisions only work in theory. When you’re “in the trenches” you see things a lot differently. You see how the decisions affect all kinds of things and not just the bottom line. For example, when lawmakers pass laws that are supposed to boost the economy by cutting spending on things they deem as wasteful often leave a lot of people without the necessary services to survive, let alone live.b
In a scene from the movie Wonder Woman, Capt. Trevor and Diana (aka, Wonder Woman) interrupt a meeting with some generals in British Intelligence and other leaders as they work on the latest version of the armistice that would end the first world war, the supposed “war to end all wars.” Captain Trevor says the Germans are preparing an attack that will kill everyone on both sides but he’s found a way to stop it. The generals tell him that they can’t lead an attack on the Germans while they’re in the middle of negotiations. Diana can’t believe what she’s hearing:
“You would willingly sacrifice all those lives as if they mean less than yours? As if they mean nothing? Where I come from generals don’t hide in their offices like cowards. They fight alongside their soldiers. They die with them on the battlefield. You should be ashamed. You all should be ashamed.”
As Diana noted, “leaders” are people who work side by side with others. They see how their policies affect others in the moment. They realize that by serving alongside others they see into the faces of real people who are affected by their decisions. Certainly, they may still make rules and laws that will affect the lives of the people they face but they won’t make those decisions lightly. Those choices will weigh on their conscience in a much deeper way.
I’m reminded of a scene in the movie Tombstone. The Earps and their families have moved into Tombstone and are starting a new chapter in their lives. They’ve gone into business and are making a lot of money. The mayor keeps asking the Earps for their help—to become local law enforcement—and they continually decline. But that decision is really starting to weigh down on Virgil, the eldest brother (portrayed by Sam Elliot). Finally, Virgil decides to become the town sheriff. When Wyatt finds out, he’s not too happy.
Wyatt Earp: Now you hold on a minute, Virg!
Virgil Earp: Hold on nothin’! I walk around this town and look these people in the eyes. It’s just like someone’s slappin’ me in the face! These people are afraid to walk down the street, and I’m tryin’ to make money off that like some g⁕⁕⁕⁕⁕n vulture! If we’re gonna have a future in this town, it’s gotta have some law and order!
Virgil realizes that their decision affects the lives of the people of Tombstone and he has to change course. That, dear reader, is what a leader does. True leadership takes into account those affected by their choices as the primary factor of those decisions often at the expense of their own wants and desires.
This morning’s Lectionary Gospel reading begins with a quick talk about leaders. It’s the beginning of the big climax between Jesus and the Religious Opposition which started back in chapter 21. And it’s one that doesn’t get a lot of the spotlight, in my opinion. Chapter 23 has been sometimes referred to as the “Eight Woes” because in the King James Version, each section starts off with, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites…” (23.13ff). If we think Jesus’ statements have been harsh before, well, “We haven’t seen anything yet!”
The clash with the Religious Opposition has been going on in the Temple (Matthew 21.23; Matthew 24.1). Temporarily, Jesus turns from the Religious Opposition and addresses his disciples and the rest of the crowd. However, there’s a contradiction here, a paradox for sure. He tells the crowds that they won’t go wrong following the teaching of their religious leaders concerning the Law of Moses (verse 2) but at the same time, he tells the people that instead of giving them God’s word as “food and drink” by which they might feast upon God, their religious leaders “package it in bundles of rules, loading [them] down like pack animals.” And to make it worse, their supposed leaders “seem to take pleasure in watching [them] stagger under these loads, and wouldn’t think of lifting a finger to help” (vv. 4-5).
In other words, the religious leaders were being “bosses” and not “leaders.”
This is still true today. I’m sure I’m not the only one who has felt this or know others who’ve been in the same situation. And let me tell you a secret (that’s probably not a secret at all)—it’s all about power. If our spiritual leaders can keep us bound up with rules and “church covenants” and the like, we’ll never live the free life that Christ paid for with his own flesh and blood.
Let me repeat that.
If we’re “living” under a load of religious laws—don’t do this, don’t do that, don’t question this or that (especially the clergy), you can’t go there, you can’t listen to this or watch that, ad nauseum—then we’re not living the life God wants us to live. The life that Christ died for us to have.
A lot of us get caught up with the idea that those who are “over” us know what’s best because God’s called them to “fulltime ministry.” Jesus has words concerning this too. He said—
“Their lives are perpetual fashion shows, embroidered prayer shawls one day and flowery prayers the next. They love to sit at the head table at church dinners, basking in the most prominent positions, preening in the radiance of public flattery, receiving honorary degrees, and getting called ‘Doctor’ and ‘Reverend.’…Don’t set people up as experts over your life, letting them tell you what to do. Save that authority for God; let God tell you what to do.”
He goes on to say that his followers are not to allow that to happen to them, either. They’re to see themselves as equals, “classmates,” with God alone as their teacher.
So what’s Jesus saying here? Is he saying that we should never learn from others? That we should only rely on God to teach us what we need to know?
I don’t think so. I think what he means is that the final decisions about what we should do and believe should come down to us and what we feel God is leading us to do and believe. Certainly, we should weigh all the evidence, if you will, taking into account Scripture, Reason, and Tradition but, sometimes, all of those things will not quite line-up with what we feel the Holy Spirit is leading us into.
And I can hear some people losing it right here.
I’ve got friends in all branches of Christian tradition and all of them will pretty much tell me that it’s not a small thing to go against the teachings and traditions of the church. And I agree in part. But, if we would only stop for a moment and really think about it we would see that there wouldn’t even be a church if that line of thinking was taken to the extreme. Heck, there wouldn’t be different “branches of Christian tradition” at all. There wouldn’t be an Orthodox Church. There wouldn’t be a Catholic Church. There wouldn’t be a Protestant Church. There wouldn’t be different Protestant denominations. There wouldn’t even be a first or second century church! Throughout church history—for good or ill—people have “bucked the system.” And because of it—for good or ill—the church has grown.
I think, then, what Jesus is meaning is that, yes, like he stated even about the religious leaders of his own time, we can learn from those God has placed in authority over us. Go to all the seminars. Read all the books. Study all the documents. Pray about the things you’re learning. Wrestle with the direction you’re being led. Seek the counsel of wise companions and soul-friends. Yes and amen! Do all of this.
At the same time we mustn’t blindly follow those over us, either. Especially if they are not “in the trenches” with the rest of us. If they’re never in the “real world” with all the struggles that go along with that, we’re charged to question their decisions at every turn. If they’re living lives of luxury and their followers are suffering, something’s wrong. Perhaps wickedly so.
Instead, Jesus says there’s a different way. He tells the people (and us) if we want to be a true leader, “The greatest among you must be a servant. But those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” (vv.11-12; NLT).c
Instead of giving money to those types of people, give to the poor and outcast. Spend your time and talent on the “least of these,” our sisters and brothers. And then, our lives “will count for plenty.”
In the Love of the Three in One,
Br. Jack+, LC
- Scripture quotations marked (MSG) taken from The Message. Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002. Used by permission of NavPress Publishing Group.
- That’s what happens when one runs a government like a business. The leader looks at things that don’t add income and cuts unwanted spending. At first, the populous is okay with this because the cuts don’t affect them or anyone they love. But as soon as the new laws affect them or those they love, they want things the way they were. In my opinion, governments, while they are about authority, they’re actually supposed to be set up to serve the people. In The Lindisfarne Community, as part of our Friday morning office, we pray that those in authority may understand “servanthood as true power.”
- Scripture quotations marked (NLT) are taken from the Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright ©1996, 2004, 2007, 2013, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.