One of the scariest passages in the Bible for me is Matthew 23. Jesus is seriously upset and it letting one group of people know that he is upset. He calls them hypocrites, blind guides, whitewashed tombs, snakes and vipers. He accuses them of serious offences, like keeping people from God and making things so hard that people don’t have time or energy to connect with God. The harshness of the language is uncharacteristic for Jesus in the Gospels and resembles that of some of the later Old Testament prophets more than it resembles much of Jesus’ other teaching, say the Sermon on the Mount.
I am afraid of this passage because of the group of people it is directed at. Jesus is speaking to and about the religious leaders of his day. Did I mention that I am a pastor, a modern day version of the group that Jesus is speaking to and about here? While I would like to ignore the passage or found a movement to have it removed from the Scriptures, my faith requires that I deal with the passage.
Jesus is upset and even angry with this group because in the end, they had a job to do and didn’t do it. They had been called and ordained by God to be his representatives on earth, the ones who helped people find peace with God. While their primary task appeared to be offering sacrifices, interpreting the Law and maintaining the rituals of the faith, their real task was to do all they could to enable people to re-connect with God.
According to the charges leveled in Matthew 23, the leadership was failing miserably at that task. People were not discovering God through their work; they were not being enabled to re-connect with God through their efforts; their lives were not fuller because of their efforts. In fact, it appears that the end result of the religious leaders’ activity was a more stressed, more insecure, less faithful people who knew God only as a feared, disapproving being who was always ready to get them for any infraction, no matter how small.
Sometimes, when I look at the Church, especially the more conservative part of the Church of which I am a part, I think we have all become more like these religious leaders than we want to admit. In some of the blogs and websites I look at now and then, there is always some terrible sin that needs to be dealt with, generally in a way that alienates a whole group of people from God. There is a black joke that used to be told in my part of the Church–“If it looks like fun, it is sin so don’t do it.”
Sometimes, it seems to me that what we present to the world is the message that if people can somehow divest themselves of their sins (which we are quite happy to define for them), then they can be considered for an opportunity to connect with God, as long as they are willing to follow the path that we have laid out for them.
And, when I look at this objectively, it doesn’t seem all that much different from what the religious leaders of Jesus’ day were doing. Rather than being a guide to help people find their way back to God, we have become security agents, seeking to ensure that only the “right” people make it into the presence of God.
So, I am scared of Matthew 23–and that fear has helped shape my approach to people. I don’t always get it right and many times I don’t even think enough about what I am doing but in the end, I am trying to avoid the issues pointed out in Matthew 23 and display more of the characteristics Jesus shows in other places in the Gospels. Matthew 23 is a very powerful passage of Scripture because it serves as the warning page in the instruction book, telling us the things that we shouldn’t do.
Unfortunately, I at least am more at home doing the Mathew 23 stuff that I am doing the other stuff Jesus shows. I might be a pastor and therefore a religious leader but I still have a long way to go. Fortunately, there is grace and forgiveness, even for off track religious leaders like me, if we are willing to accept it. The positive thing is that the more I accept the grace and forgiveness for myself, the easier it is to offer it to others.
May the peace of God be with you