Matthew 23:1-12 has been used to promote anti-Semitism for Jesus’ criticism of the Pharisaical rabbis. And yet Jesus clearly says, as he had in so many other places, that he does not come to destroy the Law. Of course you can water your livestock, or help a hurt child on the Sabbath. But the Temple religion had bred controlling powerful men as well as holy ones. The parade of prophets sent by God to kings and priests is testimony that having privilege is not a guarantee that it will be used for the needs of others. The author of Matthew is trying to legitimize those who followed Jesus within the orthodoxy of Judaism. Written about 85 CE, after the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE and the First Jewish Revolt, this Gospel speaks of a conflict with the Pharisee party, who had inherited the power of the priesthood.
Jesus had, without a doubt, changed the prism through which his disciples saw their relationship with God. But the Romans made a huge change for all Jews when they destroyed the Temple. Rabbis, not Temple priests, held the spiritual power. Matthew’s Jesus attacks them surgically. The phylacteries are a pair of small boxes containing Scriptural texts, on long leather cords. One is wrapped around one arm of the adult male, and the other around his forehead to sit above the nose. I have seen museum exhibits of very small ones, but most contemporary ones, and the ones referred to in this reading, are rather large cubic boxes. You can’t not see them. They are a kind of amulet, religious reminder, but also advertising. Here I am a pious Jewish man, and my amulet bespeaks my seniority in the community. The same holds for the tzitzit, or braided cords which hang down from the garment. Probably originally an artifact of weaving, they became invested with both religious and social value. The longer and more obvious, the higher the status, and presumably the greater the piety of the wearer.
These Parasitical rabbis are those who burden the poor with taxes and required sacrifices even after the Temple was destroyed which the poor can ill afford. This power and prestige gets them the best seats at events, at the high table for feasts with choicest of dishes, and the most prominent seats in the synagogue. The poor bow and scrape before them to curry favor. But Jesus teaches service, not oppression. “The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted (Matt 23:12-13).”
Jesus was never shy about reminding his own that humility was not an option. Jesus is not advocating self-depreciation, but self-awareness. The awareness of and respect for others. Could there have been a humble rabbi in this story. Surely there could have, one who went before God, knowing his own insignificance, and who used his knowledge and position to teach and lift up those whose lives were spent in working the fields, shepherding, raising children, and who could look towards him for comfort and instruction. But here we see the extremes, and, sadly, the more common.
Right now, in the United States we are wrestling with systemic inequality, focused on systemic racism of the Black people who were enslaved in the U.S., and whose descendants can’t hide or pass, as others have (Jews, Irish, Italian), because of their skin color. We are marching, writing, gathering in study groups, reading, and looking inward in new ways. We are hearing angry voices. Cries to deconstruct the historical artifacts which extolled those who perpetrated this enslavement. Those whose ancestors lost the Civil War are angry. And Black people, whose ancestors were survivors of that war, and who are still being subjugated by law and practice, are angry. And here we are.
As Christians, followers of Jesus Christ, listening to and obeying the Spirit which he gave us to follow and obey God our Father, we are working toward that recognition of the sanctification and justification of all those Black people who are still being oppressed. A level playing ground. Luke 3:5-6, quoting Isaiah 40:4, puts these words into John the Baptizer’s mouth, a promise of equality, mercy, and justification before God, “Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill made low. The crooked roads shall become straight, the rough ways smooth. And all people will see God’s salvation.” We are all on that plain. At the same time as we extol equality before God, we are not equal to God. And here we are on a narrow path. The fear of God is the beginning of wisdom. We are not God. We are working as his servants to do his will. And we are faced with decisions and choices without number, and the uncertainty of the wilderness, and yes, like the Jews of the Exodus, and Jesus in the desert, we are in a place of profound seeking and uncertainty.
Recent acts of unwarranted police brutality leading to the death of Mr. George Floyd, and many others. A new surge of COVID-19 cases and deaths. We have been locked in our homes for more than 100 days, and we are getting edgy, and a little crazy. We reach out to our family in Christ, but the taste of bread and wine is long forgotten. Some of us are engaging in parish or diocese run groups to self-examine where we, as a primarily white culture, have gone wrong. But the point is not self-castigation. Many of us are not guilty of egregious acts of discrimination, although our society is. What we are most guilty of are little acts, not only against Black neighbors, but against each other. The log in the eye of many in the pews might be against someone who is different, from another subculture in America, or with a Jewish background, or Asian, or Hispanic. Or is much poorer than others, or without family. And that leads to behavior, no matter how subtle or hidden behind smiles and nods, which is like that of the self-entitled Pharisees in today’s Gospel. Those forums and seminars won’t change anything if we can’t see the slights and biases in our very midst. And I will tell you a secret. Not one of us is without deep wounds of being slighted or demeaned, by family, in school, in the workplace. And not one of us has achieved the full use of God’s gift of talents, thwarted by institutions and systemic bias. And that includes the Church. Jesus teaches us not only humility before God, who is our Lord and Master, no matter how bitter those words may be to some. He teaches us to serve one another in love. Because in his eyes, we are all equal. Our worldly wealth and power mean nothing unless they are freely offered in gratitude to the service of God’s Kingdom in the world.
The roadmap through this time of plague and social change must be seen through the words of Paul in Romans 8:26-30, which begins, “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.” If we can do that, at least a little, we are fulfilling God’s purpose. I for one yearn to be a servant, enslaved to the Cross, serving the One who is both my Teacher and my loving Father. Can we find that level plain, on which we grow closer to each other and to our Lord and our God? It is more than worth a try. In Christ, it is not optional.
Dr. Dana Kramer-Rolls is at Church of Our Saviour, Mill Valley, CA. She earned her master’s degree in systematic theology from the Jesuit School of Theology/GTU and PhD in church history and spirituality from the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, California. She lives with her cats, books, and garden.